Backlist: Get Ready to Read!
The Pushkin Press in London has been doing the English-speaking world a fine service by bringing the works of Stefan Zweig back from their underserved limbo. Anthea Bell has been doing new translations of the fictions, impressive in their accessibility and accuracy of tone, and Pushkin has also been re-publishing the non-fiction in the original 1920s and 1930s translations by Eden and Cedar Paul. I remember about a dozen volumes of Zweig in English on my mother’s bookshelves when I was a kid (my grandmother had them in the original German). She was always telling me that he was one author I shouldn’t miss.
When I was growing up it was still accepted that Zweig was one of the most important modern German writers, along with Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Hugo von Hoffmansthal, Franz Werfel, and other greats of that era; during the period before WWII Zweig was, for a time, the best-selling writer in the Western World. His biographies of Marie Antoinette, Mary Stuart, Magellan and Casanova, among others, were iconic. If you wanted to be “cultured”, you had to know your Zweig. His novel Beware of Pity has to be one of the most astute and poignant psychological studies ever written as well as a gripping portrait of the final years of the Austrian Empire. It is, like all his fiction, one of those great and un-put-down-able reads. Zweig’s novellas and short stories are as unique and special as Chekhov’s or Katherine Mansfield’s, and as important as James Joyce’s Dubliners in their innovations and experiments-–or as unique as Alice Munro’s tales. At least one, Letter from an Unkown Woman, was the inspiration for a classic film of the same title by Max Ophuls in 1947. These new Pushkin publications have even inspired filmmaker Wes Anderson, or so he claims, to create The Grand Budapest Hotel, whose characters are loosely based upon and inspired by Zweig and his gallery of books.
The author’s own story is ultimately very sad. Convinced that his world had been blown away forever by the Nazis and fearful that it would never recover, Zweig ended up committing suicide with his young wife in Brazil after sending his memoirs, The World of Yesterday, to his publisher in Sweden; it was forbidden to publish him anywhere occupied by Germany (he had Jewish ancestry and was therefore an examplar of entartete or degenerate art. And everywhere that Zweig was known and loved or had friends and connections was occupied by Germany. A recent and very successful French novel, The Last Days by Laurent Seksik, imagines Zweig’s final months in Brazil and his suicide and was also recently published in English by the Pushkin Press.
If you haven’t already discovered Zweig, then perhaps the best place to start is his novel Beware of Pity and his memoir, The World of Yesterday. Both are brilliantly evocative of the final years of the Hapsburgs and just beyond and help you understand both their glamour and their crushing conventions. I would also acquire his Collected Short Stories, (relatively recently published) and perhaps one of the many famous biographies. He also wrote some fascinating essays; there is a collection of sketches of great historical moments called Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures, full of surprising information and brilliantly constructed sketches with the impact of tiny fables.
Novelist, playwright, journalist, biographer and historian, Zweig was wrong about one thing–his kind of culture has not perished from the earth. And with Pushkin’s new translations and publications in English, there’s a good chance for even more of a revival.
Recommended Stefan Zweig Starter Pack: The World of Yesterday; Beware of Pity; Collected Short Stories; Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures; Marie Antoinette; Magellan
Then you can move on to: The Post Office Girl, Journey into the Past, Casanova, Tolstoy, The Struggle with the Daemon…and more! He was incredibly prolific. But If you have holiday reading plans beyond everything by Zweig, here are some favourites on my bedroom table for Book-at-Bedtime reading.
Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 (Victoria Wilson)
One of the most thoroughly researched, best-written and consistently fascinating biographies of a Hollywood star ever published. It’s also nearly a thousand pages long and covers, so far, only about half the life. But, though it’s neither scurrilous nor gossipy–all the details are clearly supported by meticulous research–it feels much truer and more concise than it looks.
Victoria Wilson clearly adored Stanwyck both as an actress and as a person, and her enthusiasm and admiration shine through. She gives us a movie-by-movie analysis of Stanwyck’s considerable body of work as well as all the salient facts of her life while she was working on each film. And more! Because every time Stanwyck meets with a new director or writer or actor, Wilson gives us essential context.
As the political background to Stanwyck’s life changes—from World War I, the flapper era, the crash of 1929, Roosevelt’s presidency, to the rise of the totalitarian regimes in Europe–it’s clear not only what was happening to Stanwyck, but to the world in which she was living. We watch her grow as a human being and as an actress, applaud her triumphs and feel sad about the failures and problems. Every character remains vivid, not least Stanwyck herself; her difficult childhood is a riveting starting point. You gain insights into her abusive marriage to Frank Fay and her powerful need to stick with it and make it work as long as she could bear it; you understand the nuances of her love for Robert Taylor who was, as she noted, more beautiful that she was.
The book is fascinating not just for Stanwyck’s story but also for the story of Broadway in the 20s. plus the emergence of the talkies and their growing sophistication and technique throughout the 30s. If you have any interest at all in this era, you’ll love this book for its generosity of spirit. It’s endlessly informative, surprising, and provocative. It makes you want to read biographies of Frank Capra, Robert Taylor, Mae Murray, John Ford, and many others. Best of all, it makes you think about and want to see (or see again) just about every movie it mentions, especially the ones with Barbara Stanwyck. This is a five-star book I can enthusiastically recommend to any film fan. Or, in fact, to anybody.
The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (David Nasaw)
Joseph P. Kennedy would be worth writing about even if he hadn’t been founder one of America’s most extraordinary political dynasties. He was a hugely successful banker during World War I, the owner of a film studio and a major player in Hollywood in the 1920s; Ambassador to England at a crucial and troubled time in the 1930s and a huge influence on his sons John and Robert. His personal legacy was besmirched by scandal (read his erstwhile lover Gloria Swanson about him) and by his extremely authoritarian political stances. Yet he was also, finally, one of Roosevelt’s men.
In this substantial biography, Professor Nasaw – who had access to papers the family had never shown before– goes far to clarify Kennedy’s beliefs and behaviour and evoke strong understanding (if not exactly sympathy) for him. Kennedy’s stand in favour of co-operation with Hitler’s Germany, for instance, is made more explicable. He was extremely able, and a central figure in much that is important in twentieth century history and, indeed, influential to this day. So the book is a kind of “must-read” for anyone interested in the personalities of that period. Though exhaustive, the book is never exhausting,
but well-written and almost impossible to put down. I didn’t like Joseph Patrick Kennedy any better for knowing more about just why he was anti-Semitic or how helpful he was at times to Roosevelt. Still, this is definitely a good account of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century from a conservative, ambitious right-wing point of view. But I find I liked and respected the Roosevelts a lot better. In fact, The Patriarch drove me straight back to Doris Kearns Goodwin and No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt–the Home Front in World War II.
More on Ms. Goodwin in the next installment.