Lonely is vision that leads man away
John Drinkwater, Lincoln
A published writer, accomplished journalist and teacher Friderike Maria Burger von Winternitz (1882-1971) wrote this part-autobiography, and part-biography of Stefan Zweig, to preserve her husband's extraordinary personality, to highlight the image of a man of worldwide fame who, nonetheless, appeared disassociated from ordinary life. I personally wanted to know more about the author whose work I highly admire, including the unique woman who stood in his shadow.
She was still married and had an infant daughter when she first noticed Stefan Zweig in 1908: a young poet and playwright with a bright future, just making his mark in the world. Their chance encounter four years later seemed like kismet to Friderike, who initiated and maintained a correspondence with Zweig thereafter, confessing that her marriage was suffering an early death. Friderike switched to third person narration in this section relating to their romance, strangely detaching herself to the borders of the memoir, inadvertently giving it the context of a work of fiction.
She admits in nearly imperceptible, self-aggrandizing tones of being a mediator of sorts, mending the rift between Zweig and his mother: "It seemed unnatural that Stefan should still remain critical and resentful of this deaf, old woman, thus robbing himself of the joy of having a mother. After being reunited through my efforts both became gentler and happier. For this she was ever grateful to me." Such suggestions were later contradicted by Zweig's brother, Alfred.
Zweig's entire works are thoroughly chronicled by Friderike in the book, adeptly catalogued by theme. She sheds some light on the famous author's contradictory personality ( an aspect of himself I felt he intentionally neglected in The World of Yesterday ); reviews his travels and significant friendships, describes his hardened work ethic, explains his obsessive collecting of famous literary and musical manuscripts; provides rationalizations for his pacifist stance on the escalating unrest that developed into full-out war around them: a detached viewpoint which many of his peers harshly criticized. "Zweig breathed the life of a monomaniac fully immersed within himself and ignoring a war that shook the world," who deeply felt "the confrontation of one still dwelling in peace with a world at war."
Friderike describes her primary role as one to assure the strict quiet the genius demanded, the "task to protect his security in everyday life and pacify his unrest. As guardian to his inner world, I was to keep the outer world away, pregnant as it always was with disturbances." She was his 'helpmeet', assisting in research, translations, letter writing; a companion and partner through his undeniable restlessness and wanderlust.
Sometimes his enormous fame and popularity overwhelmed him, invaded the solitude and quiet he required, encroached on his privacy and his work, leading to weariness, depression, outbursts of anger, abnormal attacks of over-excitability, fluctuating mood swings, irritability and increased smoking; referring to this as his sensitive emotional apparatus which she was usually able to assuage.
Friderike shows herself to be a rare wife, one entirely unselfish and enamored of her husband. Her description of their fairytale relationship holding court in their Salzburg 'castle', mixed with my personal belief in loyalty to the spouse, leaves me flummoxed when she overlooked his many indiscretions. It is perplexing to me that she turned a blind eye when she 'caught' Stefan and Lotte Altmann - the young secretary she hired - dreamily gazing, trance-like, at each other in their library.
Lotte's passiveness, silent, childlike adoration and devotion of an unpretentious girl were the qualities Zweig appraised in her. To the more exuberant first wife: "I found her somewhat too sober, a quality possibly due to her bad health"suggesting her chronic illness with asthma depreciated the tone of her entire life. Friderike was certain that the example of "this young girl driven by illness into an isolation without hope of marriage or motherhood" urged Zweig to write his novel Beware of Pity.
Irony or twist of fate shadow the tragic ends of the disabled Edith of Beware of Pity, and Lotte. Friderike wonders at Zweig's foresight in choosing that book's theme. More curious to me is what might Lotte have been thinking when she typed up Beware of Pity?
One might imagine hidden, unspoken feelings of a scorned, broken hearted woman. In the last chapter Friderike wrotebetween the lines, alluding that Lotte's passive, meek and unprotesting nature might have been another weak link that failed to rescue her husband from his ballooning despondency, ultimately ending in tragedy.
Perhaps future psychologists will be able to demonstrate that insufficiency of the joy of life may lead to mortal illness. When seized by fatal depression, my beloved friend had at his side neither an intuitive physician nor the old trusted nurse. A submissive woman, immersed in her service to him and weakened by physical debility, lived with him in a loneliness she acquiescently shared in spite of her youth. Stefan who had always sought occasional isolation, always fled from it in haste when the emptiness around him filled itself with images of too somber a nature.
Through separation and eventual divorce, Friderike remained Zweig's most constant friend, confidant and correspondent. She showed herself to be a generous, warm and caring person, deeply and spiritually devoted to Stefan. She always addressed herself as 'Mrs. Zweig', and he, her 'husband', up to her own death in 1971.
Married to Stefan Zweig was a good assessment from a wife who idolized her husband, but obviously a biased one. I have since found The Impossible Exile by George Prochnik to be a more complete, unprejudiced biography.