on 22 November 2013
This novel has a very special atmosphere.
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.
Stefan Zweig wrote in `The World of Yesterday' that `none of us in Germany and in Austria in 1933 and even 1934 thought that a hundredth, a thousandth part of what was to break upon us within a few weeks could be possible.' But Zweig, among his peers, was not only the most well-known writer of his day, but also the most prescient. In spite of the general incredulity, Zweig told his publisher `that the end of my books in Germany was in sight'. Within a year he fled, first to London, then New York, and finally, to Petropolis, in Brazil. His friends who remained in Europe were imprisoned or killed by the Nazis. Many of his intellectual friends such as Joseph Roth and Walter Benjamin committed suicide - a fate he too was to share.
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'.
on 23 March 2014
This is a book about the last months in the lives of Stefan Zweig and his second wife, Lotte Altmann. It is factually based but written as fiction - from a subjective point of view - that gets into the minds of both characters. It is clear, precise and cerebral. It is also unremittingly sad. The only light comes in as negative space - through the reader's sense of the magnitude of the characters mistake - their misjudgment of circumstances and the tragedy of beauty cut short.
'The Last Days' is a moving, concentrated, elegiac account of the events that led up to the suicide of Stefan and Lotte Zweig in Brazil in 1942. It concentrates on the last six months of their lives, in the remote, small villa they moved to, homing in on the many internal pressures that contributed to their fatal act. It's a brave and convincing blend of fact and fiction which, though it can only sketch in and suggest what might have happened, does justice to the seriousness of its subject. Seksik's slim novel goes a long way to answering the questions: why did they decide to kill themselves? What made it so imperative? And how should we regard it?
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."
on 24 June 2015
Very poignant account. Not a first person narrative, but it really feels like one is inside the heads of the characters. I'd read the graphic novel first and then discovered that this existed. I've not always been a big fan of Zweig - I like some of his books and hate others. But it's impossible to avoid being touched by this. The holocaust and the deaths of all of his friends, and his world, are much more present in this than in the graphic novel. But I'd say Brazil was also more present - reading the book evoked physical memories of my brief time there, while the graphic novel didn't.
Another thought. Zweig was neither a religious Jew nor a Zionist, but he does seemed to have had a feeling of impending doom for Europe's Jews from very early on - long before the Nazis. And he seems to have been aware that unlike some of his friends he wasn't any kind of fighter, not even a pamphleteer or a petition-signer. He seams to have felt himself to be weak in every sense. He also seems very old at 60 - three years away from my age now. Are all the suicides of the anti-Nazi exiles the same, or are they all different - a result of the personal histories of the individuals?