I am not usually given to artist-groupie activities. I spent a year in Paris and felt no need to seek out Baudelaire’s grave; I took the tour of Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst and found it nearly as boring as church. But when I went to Vienna some years ago, I did visit the Bräunerhof cafe frequented by Thomas Bernhard, and I did sit there for an hour with a coffee and Linzer torte, thinking about him, and about the European culture that made him possible and disgusted him for having done so. There was a time when I would have called him my favorite writer.
I read The Loser once before, a long time ago, but all the recent news from Europe made me curious to look back into him, or through him. I can’t quite say why. He functioned for me, in my yoot, as an emblem of of a type of European-ness, unfathomably cultured and decadently cynical, or the other way around, which I both envied and deplored. (Like almost all young people, I was ignorant of history and scattershot in my education; only years later would I discover Robert Musil, and realize that Bernhard hadn’t come from nowhere, as I’d imagined.) Since I last read The Loser, the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Eurozone came into being, and a Moroccan-born Muslim was appointed mayor of Rotterdam. My imaginary Europe has changed. The experiment was to re-read The Loser while thinking about Syria.
It was either a useless experiment or one whose value has yet to reveal itself. Bernhard’s masochistic attack on mediocrity (his own, and everyone else’s) is even more relentless and tuneless than I remembered. I once found the relentlessness exciting and the tunelessness edifying; this month the book’s seemed to me absurd and dull. I can feel that it’s too soon to be writing this note, that my thoughts haven’t jelled, but I’m doing it anyway, because I want to be done with it.
Zweig was an immensely successful novelist, playwright, and librettist in early 20th century Europe. Though Austrian by nationality and Jewish by heritage, he considered himself first and foremost an European, and no one was more delighted than he by the vigorous bounty of European culture at the turn of the last century. To be a talented aspiring writer, nineteen years old, in Vienna, in 1900 — what a joy! Modernity must have looked like a blossoming Eden. And then, of course, came the snakes. By 1942, Zweig was in Brazil, a refugee with no citizenship and no possessions, and he with his wife saw no future. They took an enormous amount of barbiturates and lay down to die. “I send greetings to all of my friends,” he wrote. “May they live to see the dawn after this long night. I, who am most impatient, go before them.”
Zweig’s memoir, completed not long before his death, is both a lively read, full of insights, and also an indispensable and unique document. The early sections describing fin de siècle Vienna are like reports from another world; the central chapters give a visceral and detailed account of what it was like to suspect but not know that the world had begun to crumble; the closing movements bring together extraordinarily shrewd analyses of historical forces and heartbreaking anecdotes from Zweig’s personal journey to exile. I can’t think of another book which so successfully blends personal memoir and cultural analysis.
I’m making it sound a little too sad and dry, perhaps. It’s neither. The book is rife with humor and fantastic details, none of which I’ll list here because I intend to use them for my own purposes in the future.
I found Musil first, then Roth; now I add Zweig to my personal pantheon of Austrians who were not only able to understand their historical moment, but were able to write about it so that we could understand it too, later on.
Who’s doing that for this historical moment of ours?