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The Last Days (B-Format Paperback) Paperback – 29 Aug 2013
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A novel of staggering beauty. We see into the inconsolable soul of the great humanist, become a pariah. (Le Nouvel Observateur)
A marvel, which will enchant all lovers of Zweig. (Le Figaro)
This tragedy-Racine transplanted to the twentieth century-is told with talent by Laurent Seksik. (Livres Hebdo)
Laurent Seksik recounts this tragedy with a stunning gentleness. (Le Point)
About the Author
Laurent Seksik trained as a doctor, was a radiologist in a Paris hospital and continues to practise medicine alongside his work as a writer. Before The Last Days (2010) he published Les Mauvaises Pensées (1999, translated into ten languages), La Folle Histoire (2004, awarded the Littré Prize) and several other books, including a biography of Albert Einstein. The Last Days was a bestseller in France and has been translated into ten languages. The novel has been adapted for the stage into a very successful play, and a film version is currently in production. Seksik lives and works in Paris
Top customer reviews
Laurent Seksik's book was written as a fiction, but none of the names had been changed, nor any of the major events in the last six months of Stefan Zweig's life, the months from September 1941 to February 1942 represents a chapter. In these six months, Seksik skilfully shows what might have gone through the mind of the man whose books sold more than 60 million copies in more than 30 languages. Zweig and his second wife, Lotte Altmann, lived in hope that the Nazi nation might soon be vanquished and life as Zweig knew it in the Vienna of old would return. Despair won. Zweig was weighed down emotionally by the fact that he was a member of a race facing increasing persecution; that he was the first to flee and the last to survive - all his friends were killed or had killed themselves; that he was most proficient in German, a tongue he had grown increasingly to hate; that he had given up on his God, and more deeply, that his God had given up on His people.
In the six chapters, we learn more about Lotte than we could from Oliver Matuschek's biography of Stefan Zweig (`Three Lives - a Biography of Stefan Zweig, 2012 Pushkin Press). Lotte, Zweig's former secretary, was much younger than him and, although sickly with asthma, she was utterly devoted to him. She vowed that she would accompany him wherever he might go. Thus on 22 February 1942, she died with him, in the arms of her love, a man `whose soul was impenetrable to light'.
The narrative is split into six monthly chapters, beginning with the Zweig's arrival in Brazil. Experienced exiles, they had fled the Nazis in Europe - Stefan was more prescient than others in knowing when to get out; having been declared enemy agents in Britain, and having grown tired of New York, they had come to escape the cityand to be out of harm's way. Lotte, too, suffered from severe asthma and needed clean air. Zweig, once rich, now poor, worked hard on his memoirs, on a novel and a book on Balzac, but he felt exhausted and ineffectual; he was depressed that his books had been burned in Austria and Germany and were no longer published in his native tongue. Would anyone read him again, he who had once been the most read author in the world?
Even though they found a kind of peace in that remote place, they could not keep the world out. News of Nazi victories and Allied defeats, of the oppression of the Jews, of the deaths of friends and relatives, came through letters and newspaper, friends and visitors. Stefan, seen to be a powerful figure, a saviour of his people and a voice of conscience, was plagued with requests for life-giving assistance, but he felt powerless, overwhelmed by all he was asked to do for others. He and Lotte were haunted by the past, through dreams and conversations and memories, Lotte by the thought of Fredirike too, Stefan's former wife of thirty years. Yet life - as symbolised by a Mardi Gras in Rio at the end of the book, when the Zweigs became separated in the crowds and Stefan panicked - goes on in Brazil, oblivious of the threat. It was only a matter of time, Stefan thought, before the Nazis landed in Brazil... All these roads led to the taking of poison, after which the Zweigs lay down on the bed together to die.
Lotte's point of view is not neglected: she cannot bear the thought of being left behind without him and begs to be taken with him. In Zweig's book on Kleist, written fifteen years before, their suicide is prefigured in the death of Kleist and his wife - Lotte had read it and knew what she was doing.
A sombre moment in literary history, then, told with great delicacy. It's a fine repost to those who criticise Zweig for becoming - unlike his contemporary Thomas Mann - a victim of his time and of his inner demons, rather than one of its more obvious heroes.
There's a partial bibliography at the end, and sources for some of the quotations. The author states "This novel is based on facts and historical events culled from various archives, witness accounts and documents. The remarks and reflections made by some characters are faithfully based on the books, articles and correspondence these characters left behind."
At the beginning, hope is in the air as the Zweigs look forward to their new life in Brazil. Step by step, the hope is mixed with disappointment as upsetting incidents occur. The mood gradually turns darker, despite some happy moments along the way, until the very moving, bleak conclusion.
The pace and timing are immaculately executed as the plot moves forward inexorably to its destination. I can see how this works well as a play.
This is a novel, not a factual account, and I can't be sure what is fact and what is imagined. I have often thought how sad it was that the Zweigs' suicide took place just before the turning point of the war, but this book is very good at showing how events would have looked at the time, without the benefit of hindsight.
My only doubt is that the commentary on world events occasionally sounded slightly as if coming from the 'allied' side of the conflict, (the author is French after all), whereas Zweig's own memoirs seemed to me to be written from a higher level - a less biased, perspective. We should not forget he was Austrian and that German was his mother tongue. This could be my imagination however, and I have not studied the source material to check.
Nonetheless an impressive achievement. Recommended.
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