I subscribe to the London Review of Books in order to try and keep the grey matter moving and to read opinion and formulate my own. It arrives on a Friday fortnightly and sometimes I have the thing worn down to its very staples within an hour, whilst at other times, if I'm truthful, little seems to grab my immediate attention other than the Personal Column which always does...
'Free on Wednesdays...On January Ist my husband informed me that he would now be spending every Wednesday with his mistress. Impossibility of disentangling our library means that separation is not an option. Writer with senior railcard, still beautiful, seeks diversions.'
An interesting piece in The Times about LRB tribulations on Monday (I wrote this on Sunday) and it seems we've all spotted that Personal.
Last Friday however I was late getting to the Personals because there were far too many diversions of my own to contend with en route to page thirty-nine. In fact it all nearly spontaneously combusted in my hands, not only for Anne Enright's piece on the Mrs Robinson affair rumbling on over in Ireland and about which I have no comment to make, but also for Michael Hofmann's review of The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig about which I think I do.
Now I have had the utmost respect for Michael Hofmann, the translator. I'm an amateur but I have read a great deal by Joseph Roth in recent years, in the hands of Hofmann he is a great writer, in the hands of others Roth sometimes seems merely good.
In 2001, in a piece entitled A Chilly Extravagance, Michael Hofmann made clear his dismay at the popularity of W.G.Sebald, ( read about it here at Vertigo) and he has now done likewise with Stefan Zweig. Well, of course he is entitled to express his opinion and my own discomfort is not about an inability to accept negative critical opinion of an author I love either, but bludgeon me with unmitigated disdain and you've lost me.
Michael Hofmann's critical appraisal of the The World of Yesterday is fleshed out with the pejorative, he's a master of words after all and can read in the original which I cannot, and he seems to have spotted what I have failed to on the subject of 'this absolutely natural, but absolutely dreadful writer.'
'...the book of the week here, rediscovery of the century there, and indulgently reviewed more or less everywhere; this uniquely dreary clothy sprog of the electric 1880s...this professional adorer, schmoozer, inheritor and collector...'
Stefan Zweig according to Michael Hoffman 'just tastes fake, he's the Pepsi of Austrian writing.'
In certain parts, The World of Yesterday is declared 'slobbering and sanctimonious' and 'full of adulatory humbug', and, lest there be any doubt in my mind about the veracity of this, a litany of Stefan Zweig's failings, barrow-loads of them, are wheeled on to persuade me of my foolishness.
Every last literary acquaintance of Zweig's mined for a derogatory anecdote, even Stefan's teeth are fair game, even the post-suicide photograph comes under scrutiny.
Now of course what do I know?
Michael Hofmann will forget far more than I can ever hope to know about Stefan Zweig's world (and he hearts Hofmannstahl above all others it would seem) so I don't doubt there are kernels of truth to his opinion, but I can't believe Stefan Zweig never did a single solitary good thing ... he must at least have helped an old lady across the road or given a literary friend a leg up the ladder somewhere along the way?
I'd love to read Hofmann's opinion in a form untrammelled by his painful dislike for his subject, because perhaps I'd come away with some legitimate access to that kernel of truth, but a piece like this does me a great disservice, denies me that knowledge.
Clive James wrote a very informative essay on Stefan Zweig and he makes a very pertinent point.
'He [Zweig] would have been horrified to find that Thomas Mann thought of him as mediocrity. It would have been one horror too much...that Mann had uttered such an opinion was the simple truth. But we should not put too sinister a construction on a snide remark. Mann was never at ease with the idea that some other German writer might sell more books than he did in the world market.'
Michael Hofmann feels there must be 'odd moments of honesty' in these expressions of dislike from Zweig's peers and wants me to believe he has found them.
Clive James elaborates further,
'The natural state of affairs between exponents of the humanities is one of tension, suspicion, rivalry, and, all too often, enmity. Only a catastrophe can bring about, among its survivors, any degree of mutual regard that Zweig dreamed of so fondly.'
Stefan Zweig didn't survive that catastrophe so we can never know, but I do know that fear does different things to different people, for a man of Stefan Zweig's disposition it was disastrous. His flight was clearly far more honed than his fight, who of us can be sure we'd act differently given the circumstances and the capability?
The message by implication of Michael Hofmann's opinion is that I am very stupid.
I have been duped and seduced into buying into the latest Zweigzeitgist, (can't you do that with German? Just keep adding bits on the end? ) this revival 'plotted' by Pushkin Press with their 'nice paper and pretty formats' and who knows, perhaps occasionally I have been, except I've read most of this latest book in the old University of Nebraska edition.
In his final paragraph Michael Hofmann utilises a form of second-person narrative thus slightly divesting himself of the ultimate responsibility for his final damning indictment, positioning his reader inside the mind of Stefan Zweig in the time leading up to his suicide and suggesting that Zweig, confronted by his own duplicity has a bit of a revelation,
'...the rottenness of your writing isn't just confined to your style, because rottenness isn't like that, and perhaps more to the point style isn't like that either - didn't someone once say ' le style c'est l'homme'? - and you admit, not before time, that you are just putrid through and through.'
It's all backfired badly here because just supposing you've written a piece about someone popular but who you heartily dislike and you desperately want to convince others of their folly, except in writing that piece you may have unwittingly revealed far more about yourself than your subject.
And what about your reader?
Far from being persuaded or inclined to reflect on their position, far from informing them or staying their hand or their imagination as they reach for another book by your subject, perhaps instead they find themselves subliminally inclined to cut off their nose to spite their face and hesitate over your books in future...it's a funny old world.
Is it just me or does this happen to you sometimes?