Book review: Stefan Zweig’s meetings with books

This collection of columns, essays, and articles by Stefan Zweig is actually called “Begegnungen mit Menschen Büchern Städten” and the edition I read dated from 1955. The articles themselves were written and published even earlier. So some have dated, but the majority remain highly readable and very interesting.

My main interest were the articles collected in the chapter called “meetings with books” or “Begegnungen mit Bücher”. However, this did not prevent me from dipping into the other chapters and read many of the other articles. The volume contains four sections and each section has essays or columns related to the theme of the section.

Stephan Zweig 1Begegnungen mit Menschen

The first section, “meeting people”, contains writings about various people from musicians to artists. You will find essays on Rilke, Rodin, Toscanini, Herzl, Maxim Gorky and others. Some remain well known; others have been forgotten.

The first article in this section “Erinnerungen an Emile Verhaeren” was first published in 1916. The last one, “Abschied von John Drinkwater” dates from 1937. Two names who now probably no longer ring a bell, but Zweig’s impressions and thoughts about Rilke, Schweitzer, Mahler and the names mentioned above are still interesting to read. Especially, when the articles are written by a contemporary, or even a personal friend.

Begegnungen mit Zeiten

The second section is titled “Begegnungen mit Zeiten”. Two essays caught my attention. “Das Herz Europas” from 1917 and “Die moralische Entgiftung Europas” from 1932.

When Zweig wrote the first essay, the First World War was still in progress. His topic differs from topics chosen by other writers: “Mögen andere die Schlachten schildern, Feldherren bejublen, Kaiser und Herzoge rühmen – ich habe nichts gesehe in diesem kriege, was mir wichtiger schiene zu schildern, würdiger, erhoben zu werden, als das kleine Haus auf der Place Neuve in Genf, das ehemalige Musée Rath. …

The small house which was a museum before the horrific war started, functions as the headquarters of the Red Cross during the First World War. The reason why Zweig thinks this a far more important topic is “… Denn hier antwortet dem wahrhaft unmenschlichen Leiden der Zeit noch ein ewiges Gefühl: das menschliche Mitleid. …” His is a deeply moving account.

The second article, or rather proposal for education to counteract developments in Europe which Zweig considered dangerous, was written when European countries were already slowly but surely moving towards another world war. Zweig worries about developments and wonders how to counter them, especially in the younger generation.

He already mentions a malaise and lack of perspective for people in general, as well as mistrust and increase in hatred among European nations. Zweig stresses the importance of cultural and historical awareness and education – but of course to no avail. He witnessed the eruption of another World War and like many artists, committed suicide.

Begegnungen mit Städten und Landschaften

Other essays, from the section called “Begegnungen mit Städten und Landschaften” are more like travel writing columns. A few interested me, because I am familiar with the towns or landscapes Zweig describes. But again: he describes places and landscapes as they were during roughly the first half of the 20th century.

His “Ypern” is very moving, as he visited the Belgian town before the  First World War and a few years afterwards. He writes about the great changes not only caused by progress, but especially due to the devastation during the First World War.

Ypres 30000 Last Post CeremonyWhat made this article even more moving, was that on July 9th 2015, Ypres celebrated its 30,000 Last Post Ceremony. On this special occasion, the beautiful and impressive ceremony was shown life on television channels and included life links to India, Canada and other places where similar commemorations took place. It is sad to know, that Zweig never revisited a restored Ypres after the Second World War, for he committed suicide in Brasil in 1942. Life had become unbearable and any future too bleak.

Zweig’s “Salzburg: die Stadt als Rahmen” was less moving, but certainly brought back cherished personal memories of this lovely town and its charming landscape. The very short impression called “Das schönste Grab der Welt” is fascinating. It is an impression written by Zweig on visiting Tolstoy’s grave. “… nulla crux, nulla corona …. nicht einmal der Name Tolstoi”. According to Zweig not Napoleon’s grave, nor Goethe’s , not even Shakespeare’s plaque in Westminster Cathedral can vie with this anonymous one in the middle of a wood.

Begegnungen mit Büchern

The last part of the collection is about authors and books. A few of the articles are dated. One of them, the long essay on Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, seemed like the first draft of a possible biography. It is a fascinating read and for me served as an introduction to this French poetess.

Zweig combines his retelling of her life with excerpts from her many poems. It is a moving account and certainly illustrates his feeling for and understanding of a woman and poetess whose life was filled with even more hardship, loss, sadness than his own. His long essay of about 54 pages certainly managed to whet my appetite to read up on her life and poetry.

The collection starts with “Das Buch als Eingang zur Welt” and ends with “Dank and die Bücher” and amounts to about 140 pages of the volume. As with the other sections, it contains discussions of authors and works with which we are no longer familiar. Marceline Desbordes-Valmore was never mentioned to me while at secondary school or university. Similar black holes in my education are for instance Hans Carossa and Ernest Renan.

But among the essays are also an interesting one on Dante. It gave me a new insight: Dante not so much as a humanist and great poet, but as a clinical judge passing judgement. Then there are the interesting essays on Goethe’s poetry, Sainte-Beuve, Rimbaud, notes on Joyce’s Ulysses and Balzac’s novels.

Apart from the very long essay on Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, the other essays vary in length but do not reach over 10 pages. As with the one on Dante, they offer interesting opinions and insights. Unlike some essays in the other “meetings with”, the majority of these articles are still very readable and have hardly aged. Quite a few offer an insight into Zweig’s philosophy, stance, taste.

Many of Zweig’s writings collected in this volume are interesting to read as examples of for instance travel writing, criticism, column writing. Though some have dated and clearly belong to a different age, the majority remain readable and certainly offer food for thought. In most, you will find signs of Zweig’s great humanism.

Stefan Zweig 2So if you come across this volume or the part “Begegnungen mit Büchern”, why not set aside some time and immerse yourself in Zweig’s notes, critical writings, opinions, impressions and ideas and become better acquainted with this great author?

“Begegnungen mit Menschen Büchern Städten”, Stefan Zweig, 450 pp, S. Fischer Verlag, 1955.
“Begegnungen mit Büchern” is for sale as a separate collection as well. The above and this smaller edition are available through Amazon.

Though both prints have been translated from German into other languages, I have not been able to find an English translation yet.


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