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.