Tag Archives: Zweig

Review: Montaigne by Stefan Zweig

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Pushkin Press through Edelweiss.  Montaigne was originally written in German in 1941 and this English translation is done by Will Stone. This is my second contribution to German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.  Please visit their blogs for more great German Literature in translation and to see the full list of blogs that are participating.

My Review:
MontaigneStefan Zweig was forced to flee his home in Austria as the Nazis were taking control of his motherland.  For years he wandered around Europe as a nomad with no real place to call home.  As Europe is ravaged by war, he finds his way to the German community of Petropolis in Brazil and in 1941 he decides to write this brief biography of Michel de Montaigne with whose life he identifies on many levels.

Montaigne comes from a long line of hardworking ancestors.   His father’s family were fishermen and made their fortune by eventually owning their own fleet of ships.  His mother’s family were Jewish bankers from Spain who fled that county to avoid the Inquisition.  Montaigne’s grandfather buys a chateau and a vast estate in Bordeaux and intends to further the family’s aristocratic status through his purchase of land and a title.

Montaigne is brought up in the lap of luxury and it was very important to his father that his eldest son receive the best education possible.  As a result it was mandatory that Montaigne be fluent in Latin, for which purpose his father hired a German tutor when Montaigne was only four years old.  Montaigne was only allowed to speak in Latin and even the rest of the family and the household servants were required to learn some basic Latin phrases in order to communicate with the young boy.  As a result of this immersion in the language Montaigne is said to have been more comfortable speaking and writing in Latin than in his native French.  As a classicist I couldn’t help but simile at and appreciate this part of Montaigne’s story.  If only it were possible to educate all of my students in this way!

When Montaigne’s father dies he takes over as the head of household..  This foists a large responsibility on a man who sees his familial and civic responsibilities as mundane and tiresome occupations.  Zweig highlights Montaigne’s detachment from his family whom he even seems to view at times as a burden.  He never has fond words for his wife or the institution of marriage and at one point Zweig says that Montaigne is not even really sure how many children he has that are still alive.  Montaigne’s isolation from his family is further deepended when, at the age of thirty-eight, he decides that he wants to retire from his life, lock himself in the study in his tower, and read the precious books with which he has surrounded himself.

Montaigne’s view of books and reading is also noteworthy in Zweig’s account of his life.  Montaigne wants to absorb as much information and knowledge as possible and he scribbles notes in his books as various thoughts occur to him.  Montaigne states about his collection: “Books are my kingdom.  And here I seek to reign as absolute lord.”  It is during this time of self-imposed retreat and isolation that Montaigne tries to attain individual freedom and seeks to know himself as a man and as a human being on a deeper level.  His intentions, like other philosophers, is not to give his readers a specific ideology to follow.  Instead his thoughts and writings are introspective and intensely personal.

Ten years later, at the age of forty-eight, Zweig decides that he has had enough of his retirement and so decides to travel across Europe.  This journey becomes very painful for him since he suffers debilitating pain from kidney stones.  While he is away on his journey, the citizens of Bordeaux elect him in absentia as their mayor so at this point he decides to go back and serve his people.  Zweig reminds us, though, that Montaigne is no hero and his selfish habits come to the forefront once again when the plague breaks out in Bordeaux and he abandons his people to find for themselves.

Whether or not one is familiar with Montaigne, Zweig’s account of him is definitely worth a read.  Zweig was at a critical point in his life where he saw the world erupt in violence because of fascism and communism.  He commiserated with Montaigne who also saw his world torn apart by religious wars and fanaticism.  Zweig commits suicide in 1942 and this was one of the last things that he wrote.  Many believe that Zweig took Montaigne’s advice as far as death is concerned and decided to die on his own terms instead of living through a miserable exile imposed on him by outside forces.

About The Author:
Stefan Zweig was one of the world’s most famous writers during the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the U.S., South America and Europe. He produced novels, plays, biographies and journalist pieces. Among his most famous works are Beware of Pity, Letter from and Unknown Woman and Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. He and his second wife committed suicide in 1942.

Zweig studied in Austria, France, and Germany before settling in Salzburg in 1913. In 1934, driven into exile by the Nazis, he emigrated to England and then, in 1940, to Brazil by way of New York. Finding only growing loneliness and disillusionment in their new surroundings, he and his second wife committed suicide.

Zweig’s interest in psychology and the teachings of Sigmund Freud led to his most characteristic work, the subtle portrayal of character. Zweig’s essays include studies of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Drei Meister, 1920; Three Masters) and of Friedrich Hlderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, and Friedrich Nietzsche (Der Kampf mit dem Dmon, 1925; Master Builders). He achieved popularity with Sternstunden der Menschheit (1928; The Tide of Fortune), five historical portraits in miniature. He wrote full-scale, intuitive rather than objective, biographies of the French statesman Joseph Fouché (1929), Mary Stuart (1935), and others. His stories include those in Verwirrung der Gefhle (1925; Conflicts). He also wrote a psychological novel, Ungeduld des Herzens (1938; Beware of Pity), and translated works of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and mile Verhaeren.

Most recently, his works provided inspiration for the 2014 film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’.

German Lit Month

9 Comments

Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction

Review: Confusion by Stefan Zweig

I have not been very active on the blog this week, but I have a great excuse.  Classes have started again so that means I am back in the classroom.  I have a record number of students who have signed up for Latin this year.  So when someone makes the comment that Latin is a “dead language” I reference my robust numbers of enthusiastic students.  Confusion is the perfect book to review for back-to-school since it highlights a rather unusual relationship between a student and teacher.  This book was originally published in the German in 1929 and this English translation is done by Anthea Bell.

My Review:
ConfusionWhen the novella opens, Roland is celebrating his sixtieth birthday and his thirtieth anniversary of teaching in the Department of Languages and Literature.  His colleagues and students have presented him with a book that is a complete biography of his academic career.  The only thing missing is an account of how he was inspired to begin his career in academics.  The rest of the story is an account of Roland’s youth and his experience with the teacher that inspired his career.

Roland first attends university in Berlin where he is bored and uninspired and as a result he does not take his studies seriously.  He spends months lounging around in coffee-houses and sleeping with many women and not tending to his studies at all.  One day his father shows up unannounced and this incident makes for a very funny and awkward scene in the book.  Roland is so embarrassed by his behavior that he agrees to leave Berlin and attend university in a small provincial town in central Germany.  This is where he encounters the teacher that will change his life and infuse in him a lifelong passion for literature.

When he first arrives at his new university, Roland stumbles into a lecture on Shakespeare which is being given by a passionate and well-spoken professor.  All of the students listening are captivated by this teacher and Roland is instantly inspired as well.  He finds the professor and enlists his help in mapping out a plan for his academic future.  Roland lives in the same building as the teacher and his wife so he quickly becomes very close with the couple.  Roland eats meals with the couple, spends evenings in the teacher’s study, and even goes on various social outings separately with the wife.

From the beginning it becomes clear that the teacher and his wife have a very strange marriage.  They never display an affection for each other and seem to be more roommates than husband and wife.  As Roland spends time with the wife, she drops hints here and there that they are not happily married and that the teacher is rather a difficult person to live with.  But the true details about the non-traditional relationship between husband and wife are not revealed until the very end of the book.

Throughout his time with the teacher, Roland is plagued by the constant mood swings of his mentor.  Sometimes his teacher is encouraging and kind and then all of a sudden he is insulting, distant and cold.  Roland works hard at his studies to impress his teacher, even to the detriment of his mental and physical health.  Roland feels like he is walking on eggshells because he never knows if his teacher will be kind or cruel.  The teacher’s feelings and reasons for his changeable behavior are not revealed until the end of the book.

As a teacher this book was interesting to read because it reminded me that we oftentimes never know what kind of an impact we can have on students’ lives and careers.  Roland has this one man to thank for his long and successful career but he never gets to tell the teacher about his inspiration.  It is significant that the teacher is never given a name; he remains a nameless entity even though he has such an amazing impact on Roland’s fate.   Furthermore, there could not be a more apt title for this book than the word “confusion.”  Roland is confused about his relationship to his teacher, and he is also confused about the relationship between the teacher and his wife.  And until the very end, the reader is confused about what, exactly, is going on with the teacher.

This is a touching, powerful and short read that I highly recommend.  I look forward to reading more of Zweig’s works.  Thanks to the New York Review of Books for reviving another fantastic classic work in translation.

About The Author:
Stefan Zweig was one of the world’s most famous writers during the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the U.S., South America and Europe. He produced novels, plays, biographies and journalist pieces. Among his most famous works are Beware of Pity, Letter from and Unknown Woman and Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. He and his second wife committed suicide in 1942.

Zweig studied in Austria, France, and Germany before settling in Salzburg in 1913. In 1934, driven into exile by the Nazis, he emigrated to England and then, in 1940, to Brazil by way of New York. Finding only growing loneliness and disillusionment in their new surroundings, he and his second wife committed suicide.

Zweig’s interest in psychology and the teachings of Sigmund Freud led to his most characteristic work, the subtle portrayal of character. Zweig’s essays include studies of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Drei Meister, 1920; Three Masters) and of Friedrich Hlderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, and Friedrich Nietzsche (Der Kampf mit dem Dmon, 1925; Master Builders). He achieved popularity with Sternstunden der Menschheit (1928; The Tide of Fortune), five historical portraits in miniature. He wrote full-scale, intuitive rather than objective, biographies of the French statesman Joseph Fouché (1929), Mary Stuart (1935), and others. His stories include those in Verwirrung der Gefhle (1925; Conflicts). He also wrote a psychological novel, Ungeduld des Herzens (1938; Beware of Pity), and translated works of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and mile Verhaeren.

Most recently, his works provided inspiration for the 2014 film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

11 Comments

Filed under Classics, German Literature, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Novella