Stories Within Stories: A Profile of the Writer Stefan Zweig

An exploration of one of the most influential European writers of the twentieth century.


Brazilian National Archives, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Stefan Zweig ultimately fled to Brazil during the onset of World War II, where he sought refuge from the Holocaust and the horrors of war.

On a vessel drifting through the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, a sailor lies in his hammock, staring at a photograph of a library of old sanctity and extensive record, in which lies a book with its meaning long forgotten. This is where our story should begin. Such is the method of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, famous not only for his sharp, startling ideas and tone of his prose, but also the way in which he reveals a secret story to his readers.  

A story within a story is Zweig’s preferred method of drawing readers into a new world, frothing with authenticity and pacing, but gifted with a small detachment of doubt and a sense of inconsequentiality bestowed upon the reader. Born in November of 1881, Zweig lived to see the onset of two World Wars, skillfully capturing the sentiments of the interwar period before his death on February 22nd, 1942. Considered an essential figure in German and Austrian literature, it would be hard not to find his work on any respectable Viennese bookshelf. Yet Zweig’s influence does not end there; it stretches throughout the entirety of the twentieth century Western canon, defining the global perception of an individual within his period of history.

Inspired by the tumultuous time period of his artistry, despair is palpable throughout all of Zweig’s works; however, many of his most memorable writings focus on introspection. The fundamental subject of exploration for Zweig is the effect of the passage of time on the mind and an individual’s sense of self. Journey to the Past, a novella published after his death, details the life of Ludwig, a man attempting to return to an obsessive and gripping love after nine long years of war. His former boss’s wife is the object of his affection, yet she too has somewhat lived in the memory of what could have been. However, nothing is the same, and Zweig takes this as an opportunity to delve into the mind of Ludwig. While some might describe his method as nearly clinical, it’s far too coated in the author’s own ideals and vision to be so. The story continues on as if Zweig is almost trying to show Ludwig himself, with perverse zeal and apparent misery that nothing can be as it was and the romance of memory is far from objective. As a consequence, the reader too feels as if they are being down a road to which they know the conclusion, that our protagonist’s delusions cannot be true. Yet, we continue to read, lamenting alongside Zweig that Ludwig is wrong, but not exactly blaming him for being so, and perhaps even envying the wool that has been pulled over his eyes. However, there comes a moment in the novella in which the reader is surprised by the similarities between themselves and Ludwig. They too, in all their cynicism and attitudes, would be unable to accept the brilliant gift of love which still lay in front of them. Unfortunately for Ludwig, he longs not for love, but instead for the past. 

Zweig makes a point with the inherent obscurity to his stories and a veil over what is in fact the truth, often delving into the delusions and illnesses of his characters, placing the reader within the characters’ warped realities. The objective truth, to Zweig and many of his contemporaries, is less important than the authenticity of the humanity of his accounts and those described within his pieces. Regardless of whether these stories are truthful, even the fictional universe of their existence is rendered to some extent meaningless, because it is beyond contention that these stories communicate truthful ideals and experiences, sometimes shocking, sometimes humorous, rarely hopeful, and never boring.  

Zweig’s unique gift for storytelling is subtle, finding brilliance in all that is on the surface bleak and uninteresting. In this way, the intentions of his stories often parallel those of stylistic modernists with regards to the message that the work intends to convey. Zweig himself, however, veers away from the modernist deconstruction of language exercised by both Joyce and his German counterpart and author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin. 

Stefan Zweig has had a major impact not only in capturing the European zeitgeist of the early 20th century, but also in contemporary American literature and film, despite the fact that his name is seldom heard across the Atlantic. Zweig’s most notable point of influence is Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, a film largely inspired by the summation of his works, which too attempts to capture the decay of Eastern Europe and the tension prior to the onset of World War II.

Grand Budapest Hotel serves as a concentration of the spirit of the Austrian’s best works, triumphantly basking in the sarcasm, irony, and resilient nihilism which makes the writer’s work so special. M. Gustave functions as the epitome of all that is ridiculous about the societies that he explores, but the humanity of each character to whom a serious amount of time is dedicated shines through above all. Zweig’s conclusion is never that society is ridiculous despite the sincerity and triumph of the human condition, but rather that the conditions of human nature make it so. 

In essence, Zweig’s conclusions are not completely unique at face value. The aspiration to recognize the ridiculous and fundamentally flawed nature of human existence, while not abandoning the more noble and sacred acts of humanity is not necessarily new. The genius of Zweig comes in the form of the conclusion that it is our nobility which makes us ridiculous, far more than the severity and malice with which we usually conduct ourselves.

Tribalism and violence, to Zweig, are the backdrop upon which any story must be told. The acts of goodness in Zweig’s works, while seemingly tonally treated with a sort of somber nobility, are profoundly preposterous in the context of the constructed world in which Zweig places them.

This contrast is deeply subtle in nature as Zweig’s immersive style prevents the direct introduction of the conclusions drawn from his stories within stories. Even if the conclusions of these small vignettes were clear, they are so detached from even Zweig’s more fictional reality that they would still leave the reader with something of a surreal impression. 

From this point, while Zweig’s stories are seemingly very difficult to replicate, one finds their influence in almost every modern depiction of Zweig’s period of commentary, particularly in German film, but also in the United States. 

Zweig’s tragic story is one that clearly influenced his work, as his depressed state of mind after  his exile from Austria due to his Jewish heritage took a toll on him that is clearly demonstrated in his writing. After leaving Austria for England, and then Brazil, he and his wife committed suicide together in 1942. Zweig’s love and dedication for his homeland fuel his earlier works, and the crushing of his young idealism via the rise of the Third Reich gives his later works a melancholic disillusionment and lust for a simpler, more beautiful time. 

This is when the resilience of the character portrayed in Zweig’s most famous novella Chess Story shows the reader true brilliance and light, demonstrating the destroyed man tortured by the Nazis in Vienna standing tall in an attempt to conquer not only the world’s greatest master of the game, but the trauma and anguish of his captivity, to heal with the game that was his only sanctuary in a world of torment. The isolation and horror explored throughout the piece is undoubtedly the same experience which led Zweig and his lover to ultimately submit to death. 

The truth of Zweig’s personal trajectory is not lost by the words of his stories, as the end of Chess Story quite clearly communicates an aerie sense of surrender and release, foreshadowing that the victory experienced by our protagonist is in spite of his ultimate fall, and the experience of standing tall against all power in a moment of personal transcendence is undefeated by the palpable and tangible defeat which will inevitably occur. 

Thus, Zweig’s suicide is a fundamentally terrifying occurrence when considered within the context of his work. Zweig’s protagonists oft look to the past with longing, and even the aforementioned Ludwig somewhat understands the idea that it cannot be recreated. However, once this conclusion is obtained, it leaves not much room for an effective solution. Ludwig’s desires could not be quelled, and his dissatisfaction is palpable. Its possible that the war barely described throughout the novella is the second World War, clearly connecting the Novella to Zweig’s own sentiments of uncertainty with regards to his own future after the suffering has ended.  The “happy” ending which awaits Ludwig and his love at the end of their train ride is not very clearly so, and it is this precise uncertainty that led Zweig and his love to take their own lives.

Zweig’s dream of self-actualization is almost romantic in nature, pleading for more and imagining a world in which his experience could so mirror his desire. In fact, his work is more akin to the depiction of a romantic spirit being washed back by the tides of a tumultuous and in his eyes hopeless century of suffering and pain. In essence, this is to say that we are all fighting a storm in a century in which our existence feels futile and ineffective. 

Zweig however, isn’t so focused on personal ambitions and identity such as his American predecessors in F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, but rather on the direct challenge of the hopelessness and isolation which comes from a more collectivist and communal European culture of sacrifice and endurance. Naturally, then, Zweig doesn’t necessarily see a personal surrender as a failure or as something to be looked upon with shame, but rather instead the end of a long losing fight after energy and valor is spent. 

While it’s arguable that the American culture sphere has held on to the details of the stories of Stefan Zweig, it is unquestionable that the set of literary elements which separate him not only from American writers but from any other figure in the twentieth century Western canon, have left a serious cultural mark. Despite the time and geography which separates many of us from Zweig’s tragic story, as he sought to demonstrate in the abstraction of his tails, the humanity and truth of his struggles with isolation continue to transcend boundaries of time, space, and culture.

A story within a story is Zweig’s preferred method of drawing readers into a new world, frothing with authenticity and pacing, but gifted with a small detachment of doubt and a sense of inconsequentiality bestowed upon the reader.