Book Review: The “Three Lives” of Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig’s was a dramatic, action-packed, intense epic of a life, but Oliver Matuschek’s biography, “Three Lives,” simply plods along.

Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig by Oliver Matuschek. Translated by Alan Blunden. Pushkin Press, 384 pages, $32.

By Helen Epstein

Three Lives was Stefan Zweig’s own working title for his memoir The World of Yesterday, his last complete work. In adopting it as his own title, biographer Oliver Matuschek implicitly adopts Zweig’s own map of his life -— not always the best strategy for a biographer and probably not the best one for this subject, whose life straddled many worlds.

Zweig (1881–1942) was a Viennese Jew, journalist, playwright, author of fiction and non-fiction books, public intellectual, sometime pacifist, and cosmopolite. Before his death by suicide at the age of 60, he produced 15 volumes of fiction; 15 volumes of non-fiction; three plays; an opera libretto; hundreds of translations of poems; hundreds of journalistic dispatches; thousands of letters; and his classic memoir of turn-of-the-twentieth century Vienna, The World of Yesterday.

Translated from his native German into 50 languages, Zweig’s books survived being burned and banned in Nazi-occupied Europe for the duration of the Third Reich. After the war, he continued to be read in Germany and Austria and remained a popular author in Europe and Latin America. But he was always less popular in the UK and English-speaking countries of the world. No longer. Here in the United States, New York Review Books has been republishing the author’s fiction in translation: Journey into the Past, Confusion, The Post-Office Girl, Beware of Pity, and Chess Story. In London, Pushkin Press has republished both his fiction (Amok and Other Stories among others) and his biographies of Mary Stuart, Marie Antoinette, and Magellan. British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro picked Beware of Pity for this year’s World Book Night on April 23rd. And Plunkett Lake Press, of which I am co-publisher, has been republishing Zweig’s literary essays on Casanova, Kleist, Tolstoy, Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, and Freud.

I became interested in Zweig years ago when I was researching my own Central European family and cultural history. But I soon came to regard him as a grand-daddy of today’s narrative non-fiction. Because Zweig recognized his vocation early and did not have to earn his living, he was able to write about whatever drew his interest —- art, love, class, psychology, religion, history, power, adventure, and the writing process itself. He often spent years revising his work before releasing it for publication, and he supervised the process carefully in a way contemporary authors can only dream about — choosing publishers, paper stock, illustrations, and titles.

Zweig’s freedom, prolific output, style, commercial success, temperament, and differences with other émigré authors -— not to speak of his suicide pact 70 years ago with his much younger, second wife at the height of the Second World War —- all made and make Zweig a fascinating and controversial figure. Also a much-envied one.

In a much-quoted, over-the-top review of a newly-translated edition of World of Yesterday published in the London Review of Books, for example, translator and poet Michael Hofmann called Zweig “the Pepsi of Austrian writing.” He notes as damning evidence that 18 of his books were made into 38 films and, not just content to review his books, evaluated Zweig’s life and death:

. . . not a pacifist much less an activist but a passivist; this professional adorer, schmoozer, inheritor and collector, owner of Beethoven’s desk and Goethe’s pen and Leonardo and Mozart manuscripts . . . who, in the words of the writer Robert Neumann, ‘spent his life on the run. From the Great War to Switzerland. From the symbolic firing-squad across the Channel. From Blitzed London to the safety of provincial Bath. From Hitler’s threatened invasion of England to the USA. From Roosevelt’s impending entry into the war to Brazil. He even fled Rio for a Brazilian mountain resort. From there, there was no more running’; who left a suicide note which, like most of what he wrote, is so smooth and mannerly and somehow machined—- actually more like an Oscar acceptance speech than a suicide note -— that one feels the irritable rise of boredom halfway through it, and the sense that he doesn’t mean it, his heart isn’t in it (not even in his suicide. . . .)

I am more sympathetic to Zweig’s life, work, and suicide, and I expect his biographer to illuminate them. I want insight into his early life, his family dynamics, and the way he coped with two world wars, in addition, I want some speculation about why he decided to take his own life in Petropolis, Brazil when it looked like Hitler might indeed conquer the world. Zweig wrote in his suicide note he left on February 22, 1942:

Every day I learned to love this country more, and I would not have asked to rebuild my life in any other place after the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself. But to start everything anew after a man’s 60th year requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless. I thus prefer to end my life at the right time, upright, as a man for whom cultural work has always been his purest happiness and personal freedom — the most precious of possessions on this earth.

I send greetings to all of my friends: May they live to see the dawn after this long night. I, who am most impatient, go before them.

Stefan Zweig

There are several Zweig biographies and critical studies in a number of languages that try to address this complex man and his work (the first was written by his friend Erwin Rieger in 1928), but most follow the narrative line Zweig and his wife set down in their respective memoirs. Oliver Matuschek’s Three Lives provides new documentation of the old story, but the volume does not offer the kind of revelatory insight I wanted.

Patient, thorough, curatorial, and dry, the biographer presents new material from Zweig’s long “life on the run” but doesn’t explore what drove him. Instead of breaking new ground, it paraphrases, quotes from, or fills in some of the hazy places in the Zweigs’ memoirs; it rarely questions their versions of events.

Matuschek’s background is in museum work, and this biography originated as a 2008 exhibit for the German Historical Museum in Berlin. Three Lives often resembles good catalog copy rather than penetrating biography. There are many excerpts from letters and diary entries —- but little analysis or cross-referencing. Stefan’s brother Alfred’s archive is a major source for this biography, but because Matuschek lacks the skills of a reporter or biographer, he doesn’t use it well.

This is a pity because, whatever his literary merit, Zweig was a fascinating character: deeply ambivalent, troubled and mercurial, a dutiful son who had little in common with his parents or brother. Starting in adolescence, he sought out a series of artistic and intellectual mentors, including his Viennese elders Artur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud; Belgian Symbolist poet Emile Verhaeren (whom he addressed as “Maestro” and whose work he championed in his own German translations); and the novelists Herman Hesse and Romain Rolland. Matuschek dutifully records Zweig’s pursuit of these father figures and he tracks Zweig’s bumbling networking efforts with writers and publishers too. But while I noted that the strategies of an ambitious, young author remain the same over time and enjoyed seeing Zweig collect autographs and manuscripts and choose and micro-manage his publishers, Matuschek’s portrait of the artist as a young man never came fully alive.

Zweig biographer Oliver Matuschek

The same holds true for Zweig’s veiled emotional and sexual life as an older man. Zweig apparently had many one-night stands and brief affairs during his travels, but the gender of his hook-ups is not entirely clear. He married late and by proxy, living apart from his two wives as much as he lived with them. In 1903, when he was 21, he wrote an unusual note to Hesse about his fiction: “I have hidden myself away in the characters of girls, so that I hardly know myself what I have made up and what I have borrowed from myself.” Alfred Zweig recalled that his younger brother had, to his knowledge, never been in love with a girl or had a steady girlfriend as a young man. Ten years later, he wrote in his diary, “Sexual passion frightens me, because it takes hold of me -— rather than me taking hold of it.” Although Friderike Zweig left her first husband for Zweig, her memoir portrays their relationship as more collegial than sexually passionate. She’s on record as saying that he was “no Don Juan.” Matuschek notes that Zweig referred to his first wedding as “the homosexual ceremony” because it involved only male proxies. He quotes occasional references to “perversion” in Zweig’s words or those of his contemporaries. But he barely hints at even more compelling evidence that Zweig was a closeted gay man.

The biographer is similarly delicate about Zweig’s Jewishness. Like many of his generation, Zweig was an ambivalent Jew, born in 1881 into a wealthy, highly assimilated Jewish family in fiercely anti-semitic Vienna. His father owned a textile factory in northern Bohemia; his mother’s folks were bankers; and Stefan grew up in Vienna’s socially segregated Jewish upper-middle-class. Jews had been allowed to move freely within the Austro-Hungarian Empire only since 1848, but the Zweigs traveled a lot and Zweig grew up speaking German, as well as becoming fluent in French and Italian. The family did not observe most Jewish traditions but expected their two sons to marry “in.”

Matuschek doesn’t delve into the fact that Friderike was a Jewish convert to Catholicism before she met Zweig (and so identified with Austria that she initially refused to leave it in the 1930s, but it’s hard not to suspect it was an irritant in their marriage. The Jewish theme runs through Zweig’s life and work. In Friderike’s memoir Married to Zweig, which Matuschek both draws on and disparages, Friderike describes how Stefan lost his temper every Christmas over the “tree” and the ritual of gift-giving. Matuschek doesn’t delve into the complexities of the couple’s differing views of Jewish identity, which became more acute as Nazism encroached on their daily life.

Matuschek is on surer ground when he’s discussing business. He traces the development of the Zweig fortune and how, as a younger brother, Stefan became a “trust fund baby” when his older brother, Alfred, volunteered to take over the family business, leaving Stefan free to get a doctorate and follow a literary career.

Like many of his classmates at gymnasium, Stefan wrote poetry. Unlike most of his classmates, Zweig published his poems as a book, Silberne Saiten (Silver Strings), when he was 19 The volume garnered 40 reviews. Soon after, he met with Theodore Herzl, then features editor of the Neue Freie Presse (Vienna’s New York Times) and was invited to write for the paper. In 1902, when he was 21, he published his first novella there. Zweig began to write what would become hundreds of dispatches and feuilletons in the Neue Freie Presse and newspapers throughout Europe.

Stefan Zweig — he led a dramatic, action-packed, intense epic of a life.

That, plus a disjointed account of Zweig’s activities during the First World War, is Life Number One in the Zweig/Matuschek structure. In Life Number Two (1919–1934) a married Zweig produced most of his best work based in Salzburg, aided by Friderike, who served as his researcher, in-house translator, editor, and sometimes typist. He cohabitated with Friderike and her daughters, but continued to travel extensively, spending as much time away as at home, enjoying enormous popular and critical success. This comfort was brought to an abrupt end by the rise of Hitler in 1933.

Life Number Three is the life of a refugee: Zweig’s home was searched, his books were burned. Like thousands of Jews and prominent anti-Nazis of his generation, he fled first to France, then to Britain. Although Matuschek does not delve into this either, Friderike was slow to realize that she would not be able to ride out the war in Salzburg. That and other tensions between the couple -— including Zweig’s growing problems living with Friderike’s two adult daughters -— led to their estrangement and eventual divorce. In London, Zweig began an affair with the young Jewish refugee Lotte Altmann, whom Friderike had hired as his secretary. He began traveling with her, then married her, and the couple moved to New York and, ultimately, to Brazil.

This is a dramatic, action-packed, intense epic of a life, but Matuschek’s Three Lives plods along. The biography, for all its tantalizing documentation, breaks no new ground, offers no penetrating literary or psychological analysis. Zweig deserves better.

Helen Epstein is the author of a biography of Joseph Papp and profiles of art historian Meyer Schapiro, Vladimir Horowitz and Leonard Bernstein — all available on amazon Kindle.


  1. Piero San giorgio on May 1, 2024 at 4:36 am

    Great article. Thank you. Zweig is one of my favorite authors. And his style is magnificent. I have been treading his books since the 1980’s at school and I also thought early on in my readings that he must have been gay or a closet-gay. Yours is the first article I read about this theory of mine. Thanks for your article

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