Yesterday I blogged about Josepth Roth and his nostalgic salute (in The Radetzky March) to his Galician homeland (link). The Galician salute was almost a superfluity in the novel, not at all necessary to the plot, although perhaps useful to suggest the breadth and diversity of the Austrian Empire.
The other great nostalgiast of the Austrian Empire is Stefan Zweig. Roth and Zweig are easy to confuse, but only from a distance. They were both Jewish; both industrious and productive practitioners of a kind of high-end journalism; they shared an affectionate, if ironic, affection for the Empire after its collapse in the debacle of World War I.
But the differences are dramatic. Zweig’s father was a rich textile manufacturer. He spent his young adulthood among the aesthete glitterati, scarcely aware that he was a Jew; for years he presided over a salon at
Roth was one of the ostjuden. He was the orphaned son of a nobody from Brody near Lviv (Freud’s mother came from the same place).
No surprise that Roth salutes the ostjuden. More remarkably, there is a somewhat similar strain in Zweig’s only novel, Beware of Pity. The plot revolves around the household of Herr von Kekesfalva, seemingly a country aristocrat but in truth not at all what he appeared to be. We learn his story from another character, the all-seeing Doctor Condor (who himself may be modeled on Sigmund Freud, but that is yet another matter). Dr. Condor says:
Perhaps we had better begin at the beginning and for the moment leave our aristocratic friend Herr Lajos von Kekesfalva completely out of the picture. For when my story begins no such person existed. There was no landed proprietor in a long black coat, with gold-rimmed spectacles, no Hungarian nobleman. There was only, in a wretched little village on the Hungarian-Slovak frontier, a keen-eyed, narrow-chested little Jewish lad called Leopold Kanitz, familiarly referred to, I believe, as Lämmel Kanitz. …
Yes, Kaniktz—Leopold Kanitz, I can’t change that. It ws only much later that on the recommendation of a Minister the name was so sonorously Magyarized and decked out with the prefix of nobility. … Kekesfalva’s father, or rather Kanitz’s father, then, far from being an aristocrat, ws the poverty-stricken, be-ringleted Jewish landlord of a wayside tavern just outside of town. The woodcutters and coachmen looked in there every morning and evening to warm themselves with a glasss or two of kontuschowska before or after their drive through the Carpathian frost. Sometimes the fiery liquid went too quickly to their heads; at such times they would smash chairs and glasses, and it was in a brawl that Kanitz’s father received his death blow. …
Dr. Condor indulges himself with a leisurely and loving account of Kanitz’s maturation. It turns out he was another of those traders of whom Roth spoke:
--Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity 95-97 (NYRB Classic 2006)
There is much more of this; clearly, Zweig enjoys it at least as much as Dr. Condor. It’s readable and engaging, yet I don’t think it strikes quite the right note. Joan Acocella says: “Zweig’s portrayal of Kekesfalva’s early years is what, today, many of us would call anti-Semitic writing.”
Beware of Pity is, in its own way, a wonderful novel: both Roth and Zweig paint indelible portraits of life in the old Empire. But at the end of the day it is Roth the nobody who does a better job with life among the nobodys.
Sadly, there are other points of convergence between Roth and Zweig. Both found their lives destroyed by the Nazis. Zweig committed suicide in Brazil in 1942; Roth preceded him, having died of alcoholism (suicide by bottle?) in Paris in 1939.
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