Mr. Zweig Goes to Hollywood
How Wes Anderson Resurrected the Saddest, Sweetest Novelist You've Never Read
Stefan Zweig, an Austrian novelist and contemporary of E.M. Forster from the early half of the 20th century, is currently enjoying an unlikely bout of pop-culture fame. The vehicle that led to the Zweig resurrection is Wes Anderson's new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which includes a title card identifying Zweig's works as its inspiration, and which is told by a revered Zweig-like writer played by Tom Wilkinson, who is identified only as The Author. Zweig only published one novel while he was alive, but in the time since his death, his works have increased in popularity, leading to his current bout of Hollywood stardom. And his books are happily more accessible in English than ever: Over the last decade, New York Review Books has revived and repackaged a shelf's worth of them, in the form of five attractive paperbacks.
Those expecting to find a novelization of Grand Budapest Hotel in Zweig's fiction will be disappointed. (In fact, Hotel shares more surface similarities—character types, geography, philosophy—with I Served the King of England, Bohumil Hrabal's comic masterpiece, than with anything Zweig has written.) But tonally and structurally, it's easy to see how Anderson was inspired by Zweig: Hotel shares Zweig's propensity for telling stories about people telling stories to other people, often in multiple layers that create dense webs of meaning and resonance. The characters in Zweig's work and in Hotel are damaged in similar ways, but they share a cheerful willingness to ignore the hurt and carry on with life as best they can.
Widely considered to be Zweig's masterpiece, Beware of Pity (NYRB Classics, $16.95) feels as though it bridges the gap between the formality of Tolstoy and the psychological focus of what we now consider to be the modern literary novel. In the days just before World War I, an Austro-Hungarian officer dutifully asks a young woman to dance. He doesn't notice before asking that the woman is paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. She believes he's making fun of her, and he, in a fit of shame and embarrassment, overcompensates in his attempts to win her good graces. Soon, the young woman's wealthy family has embraced the officer, and pity and shame keeps him returning to befriend the woman, even though he doesn't enjoy (or even really like) her or her family. It's packed with observations like this:
Pity is a confoundedly two-edged business. Anyone who doesn't know how to deal with it should keep his hands, and above all, his heart, off it. It is only at first that pity, like morphia, is a solace to the invalid, a remedy, a drug, but unless you know the correct dosage and when to stop, it becomes a virulent poison.
But my favorite of Zweig's works is a novella titled Chess Story (NYRB Classics, $12.95). It's the story of an eccentric and arrogant chess master who becomes locked in a heated match against an amateur who claims to have not played chess for decades. The opponent's story is so sad, so unthinkably terrible, that it's hard not to apply Zweig's own biography to it—the character was imprisoned and mentally tortured by the same Nazis who Zweig was forced to flee in 1938. Like the chess player, Zweig was suffering from the kinds of injuries that don't leave marks: Four years after going into exile, just after finishing Chess Story, Zweig and his wife killed themselves by barbiturate overdose. They were reportedly found at peace, in bed, holding hands.