On the History of Stefan Zweig’s Balzac



About a year ago I inherited my mother and my grandmother’s books. They fill up more than one cellar. We are talking about thousands of hardbacks as both never bought paperbacks. They didn’t think they were looking good on the wood shelves. And they removed all the dust jackets which is not helpful as there are so many that may or may not be good but I have no clue what they are about.

To cut a long story short there are also innumerable classics and collected works of many an author. You can find the whole works of Goethe, Schiller, Romain Rolland, Upton Sinclair, John Galsworthy…

I remembered that I had seen a 50s edition of Stefan Zweig’s Balzac somewhere and – oh wondrous moment – found it within a minute. Dusty and with a somewhat musty smell but nicely intact. What surprised me more than the speedy recovery of the book was the afterword and I realized I had had no idea how the book came to be, let alone that Stefan Zweig meant this to be his magnum opus, his most important work. Considering that literary biographies were something he excelled at we can easily deduce how important his Balzac must have been for him.

The afterword in my Balzac edition has been written by Richard Friedenthal, Stefan Zweig’s friend who got to be the literary executor of the manuscripts that had remained in Europe after Zweig fled to Petrópolis where, in 1942,  he ended his life together with his wife.

It took Stefan Zweig over ten years of working, compiling, taking notes and rewriting but when he died, Balzac was still not finalized, or so he said. He managed to finish Die Schachnovelle or Chess in Petrópolis and his autobiography. However he had wished to finish the Balzac as well and had asked Friedenthal to send the manuscript to Petrópolis, which he did, but the papers never reached Zweig. By the time it arrived in Brazil, Zweig had already ended his life. The mansucript was sent back to Friedenthal who then sorted and edited what was, according to him, almost finished anyway.

Zweig had written the last draft of the Balzac in Bath, where he had stayed before emigrating to the US and from there to Brazil.

Zweig’s book Drei Meister or Masterbuilders of the Spirit already contains an essay on Balzac, together with essays on Dickens and Dostojewski. But that was just like warming up. Clearly the topic of Balzac was far too important to him to be left in the form of an essay only.

As Friedenthal points out, Balzac was of supreme importance for Austrian literature. It was the reception of authors like Hugo von Hofmannsthal who contributed to a large extent to Balzac’s fame during his lifetime.

Hofmannsthal said about him that he was “the biggest substantial imagination since Shakespeare”. The Austrian authors thought of him as the incarnation of literary potential. Zweig thought pretty much the same and despaired many times during the composition of the book, it seemed almost too enormous an undertaking.

When Friedenthal, who lived in London during the Second World War, looked at the manuscript, after Zweig’s death, he saw that it didn’t need a lot of changes and undertook to edit what he got. Reading what he writes about it makes you think that it is a miracle this book was ever published. Friedenthal describes how it was literally ripped out of his hands twice when, during the Blitz,  the house he lived in was bombed. Apparently one can still see bits of plaster and little splinters of glass in the original manuscript. On the papers are numerous notes and remarks of Stefan Zweig’s wife who helped him correct and edit his works. Zweig had already written “For the editor” on the front page which led to Friedenthal’s assumption that Zweig himself considered it to be fairly finished.

I am not sure when I will start to read Zweig’s Balzac, but I  know I will. These two authors seem such opposites. I know I’m simplifying things but it seems as if one of the two was so avid for life that it killed him and the other one so tired of it that he ended it.

46 thoughts on “On the History of Stefan Zweig’s Balzac

  1. A marvelous post, thank you! I have this biography and it is my favorite of the half dozen or so that I have of Balzac. But I never noticed the Postscript which is stuck behind the Appendix in my edition. So glad to have been directed to it! I am going to send a link to the Balzac reading group and another fan of Zweig.

    • Thanks, you are welcome, gald you liked it. Did you also read Zweig’s essay on Balzac? I got that as well, might start reading that. I’m glad I saw that afterwoord. I wanted to see if Frriedenthal wrote other things. Need to do that.

  2. What a great story. See, you can’t ever get rid of those books–what treasures there must be amongst them! 🙂 I have read a couple of Zweig’s books and liked them very, very much. And now I know I will have to buy something by Balzac. I had no idea he was considered such an important author (very bad of me indeed). An excuse to order something I can see. Is Cousin Bette the best place to start?

    • Thanks, Danielle. I know they had a great collection but it’s huge. Many of the books are now “re-discovered” or they prentend they are discovered now like in the case of the Hungarian author Szandor Marai. They started publishing him in Germany and it was a huge success, said to be the first time that his books were available in German. Guess what? I found an earlier translation among my grandmother’s books. Gone out of fashione and became a bestseller in the 90s. Many are out of print. Yes, Cousin Bette is a perfect way to start. I just saw that Guy Savage, like you before, did a Triple Choice Thursday on kimbofo’s blog and his first choice is Cousin Bette.

  3. “These two authors seem such opposites. I know I’m simplifying things but it seems as if one of the two was so avid for life that it killed him and the other one so tired of it that he ended it.” This makes me think of Guy’s review of Casanova’s bio by Zweig.

    I’ll be curious to read your review about this.

    PS : I’d be like a kid in a candy store with so many books around.

    • I’m not sure when I will get to it. I read passages here and there and like it quite a lot. The essais are in French as I bought them in Paris and it contains all of his essais something you cannot get in German.
      Yes, it’s occasionally like a candy-store and it’s annoying that they are stored away. I have only two boxes in my cellar, the rest is in a friend’s house. I still think I might give most of them away as hard as it is. I’m never going to read Galsworthy in German or Italian.

  4. Caroline: I read Zweig’s bio of Casanova. Beautifully written but I think he got carried away in a few spots and I can’t say I agreed with him on all points. I would be very interested to read this.

    Didn’t you get a load of Simenons too?

    • That’s why he is called too sentimental, because of this getting carried away. Happens to him, it seems. He is emotional and gets very involved with his topic.
      I’m not sure about the Simenon. Parts may be somewhere stored away with the other books but my father is still very much alive and took most of his books with him. I think he owns most of the non-Maigret ones. He has a collection you would like, I’m sure. He mostly reads classics and noir.

      • Some of the Romans Durs in English are hard to come by and very expensive as used copies. He supposedly used a very limited vocabulary so I broke down and bought some of the impossible-to-find copies in French.

        • Still your French must be quite good then.Or did you not try to read them yet? I saw that they re-issue his books in paperback. They are very cheap on amazon.fr. The delivery cannot be this expensive.

          • I have nearly every Roman Durs written and only a couple of titles missing. My French used to be excellent and I am slowly building it back up. When I feel ready, I will read the ‘missing’ Simenons I have in French.

            • If it was excellent once I’m sure it’s only a matter of jumping in. I believe it gets harder to speak a language if you don’t need it but you will still understand. I inspected the one book from my father’s collection I have and he does indeed have the total of the romans durs, 14 books containing each up to six novels. Mine has Bergelon, La veuve Couderc, Oncle Charles s’est enfermé and Il pleut Bergère. I really wonder where the other 13 books have gone.
              I suppose you have seen the movie La veuve Couderc with Simone Signoret?

              • Yes I have seen it. The book is much better as the film has a Butch Cassidy/Sundance Kid style ending. The book is much nastier.

                Simenon’s roman durs would seem to be potentially dream material for films, but for some reason, they don’t translate well to the screen. I suspect it’s the need for happy endings.

            • I’m sure you can make it. After all I’m in an all French environment and I can speak English. It’s some work but as you seem to have the same method as me (films and books), there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work for you too. Learning songs by heart helps for pronounciation and imprinting the way sentences are built, btw.
              You need to start blogging in French, believe me it helps 🙂
              Anyway, ask anything if you need help with this, I’m always happy to see someone interested in my language.

  5. Wonderful post, Caroline. What a treasure you’ve inherited!

    I read a lot of Balzac in college, but never a biography. Such a sad story about Zweig. Makes me want to read his bio too.

    • Thanks, Mrs Pearl. Yes, it probably is, if only I had more space.
      Zweig’s story is so very sad. He despaired completely, I wonder why he didn’t stay in England like some of his friends. Friedenthal was- considering the name- also Jewish. I think they were too disgusted. Thomas Mann and many others did well in exile but he was certainly too sensitive.Zweig’s memoirs are wonderful. He captures the time before WWI, the end of an era so well.

  6. Wonderful story..you always wrote things beautifully. I didn’t know this man and his works before I read your post, thank you for sharing it.

    Since it is a new information for me, I can’t share my thought on the subject like everyone else here. I sort of envy you with your treasure, the only member of my family (up to 3 generations) who loves to read is ONLY me, I guess I’ll be the one leaving my ‘treasure’ when I die.

    • Thanks, Novia. He is a tragic but interesting writer. I could imagine you would like some of his books, he speaks very much to the heart, in an intelligent and psychological way.
      I definitely come from a family of readers. But as much as I love the books, I have hardly any space left as I’m such a collector myself. I hope your children will enjoy your books as much as I do those of my grandmother and mother.

  7. Not in the least envious that you inherited all those books. 🙂 They will keep you going for quite some time, I should think. How amazing not to know what you will find when you open a book, thanks to no dust jackets.

    • In a way it’s a great inheritance but it’s a bit too much. They removed the dust jackets right after buying the books which is a bit annoying. I can do online-research of course but it’s a time consuming. The classics are no problem but all the others. There are of course some “The Postmistress”-type books among them too…

  8. Thanks for this post, my Austrian parents bought this book used in NY (the Viking 1946 edition with the afterword you mention) a few years after emigrating that year. I recently rediscovered it and Googled to learn more about the work, finding your post about your similar rediscovery of the book. They also left me various original Zweig’s in German as well.

    • You’re welcome. That’s quite a coincidence. I dodn’t know anyone else who own or knows this book. With this afterword.
      I’m sometimes tempted to let go of some of the books I inherited but every so often there’s a true find among them. I have to read more Zweig again.

  9. I too have this book, from my mother. She wrote her PhD thesis on Balzac… and I studied Balzac also in graduate school and the book was passed on to me.
    Something wonderful – I saw the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel, and in the credits it said based on the writings of Stefan Zweig…a new audience for his work

    • What a coincidence! How interesting that she wrote a PhD on Balzac.
      I still haven’t watched The Grand Budapest Hotel. Yes, I’m glad he will be rediscoverd or wider read.

  10. I think you will like The Grand Budapest Hotel… I am glad that Stefan Zweig has led me to your blog. I look forward to reading more.

  11. I just completed Balzac by Stefan Zweig. I loved it. A fitting tribute to a giant figure. I am now 1/2 way through a read of the Human Comedy and found Zweig brought this contradictory man totally to life for me. I was very moved by the story of your inheritance.

    • Thank you Mel. I cherish the story.
      I’m glad to hear you liked it so much. I’ve only read about ten or twelve books of the HUman Comedy so far but I will read more.

  12. Dear Caroline,
    I’m interested in running across this comment by Guy Savage on Balzac; I think I would be interested to see the film. I always thought of Balzac as a ponderous and weighty novel writer, which admittedly he is, but a few years back, I discovered some of his fabliaux, and found him to have a funny, filthy mind and a wicked sense of humor as well. Who knew? (Probably, you!)

    • I once wanted to write a PhD on Balzac as he’s one of my favourite writer’s, so I knew. 🙂 I never thought of him as ponderous. It depends which of his books you read. One can start with the wrong one. Some of his short stories are sickly sweet.
      I’ve never read Les contes drolatiques, btw (it should have an accent on the o of drolatiques but my iPad doesn’t have them).

      • There’s a site called readbookonline.net , and though there are now problems with getting that site to function accurately without having to download anything, it had his short stories on it. As I recall, there was one whole story composed mainly of synonyms and euphemisms (some quite inventive, but some quite obscure and mysterious) for sexual acts and body parts. What a hoot the guy must’ve been!

        • I guess he must have been. Although I wonder how he made time for anything else but writing and drinking coffee. I visited his house in Paris once and it was so interesting. Thanks for the suggestion. I think in French all if his works are available for one dollar or so, for the kindle. I’ll have to get back to him some day. I wonder if I would still live him as much.

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