Listen to this article
The Last Days, by Laurent Seksik, translated by André Naffis-Sahely, Pushkin Press, RRP£8.99/$14.95, 160 pages
“One is always at home in one’s past,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov in his memoir Speak, Memory (1951) with an aphoristic breeziness that warns against making oneself too comfortable with this idea. How at home in the past it is safe to be is a question that preoccupied Nabokov’s near contemporary, the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig. His own memoir, The World of Yesterday, was a requiem for a liberal intellectual European culture that had been annihilated by two world wars, the rise of communism and Nazism, and “the ultimate pestilence, nationalism in general”. It was also, as it turned out, a requiem for Zweig himself: in February 1942, shortly after the book’s publication, Zweig and his second wife, Lotte Altmann, committed suicide at home in Petrópolis, Brazil.
The French novelist (and practising doctor) Laurent Seksik has produced a mesmerising fictionalised account of the final six months of Zweig’s life. The Last Days is a bestseller in France, and has been adapted into a stage play. Seksik’s narrative ferrets into the dark places left unexplored in Zweig’s memoir, and assembles what he finds there into an explanation that is as tragic as it is plausible.
Born in Vienna in 1881, Zweig was a hugely successful author of novels, plays, biographies and essays. His books sold in their millions and his plays were performed in hundreds of theatres. By the early 1930s he was one of the most translated writers in the world. He wrote librettos for Richard Strauss, discussed translation with James Joyce, was a close friend of Rilke and Freud (he gave the sermon at the latter’s funeral in London), knew Bernard Shaw, Romain Rolland, Walter Rathenau, Maxim Gorky, Joseph Roth and Herman Hesse, to name but a few. Einstein owned copies of all Zweig’s books and in 1930 they had dinner, at Einstein’s request.
Nazism changed everything. As a Jew, a pacifist and a humanist, Zweig was a triple persona non grata. His books were burnt and officially banned. In 1934, seeing the signs of worse to come, Zweig decamped to England, where he took British citizenship. Branded an “enemy alien” on the outbreak of war, Zweig and his young wife left for America.
In The World of Yesterday Zweig carefully concealed all traces of his private life yet it is impossible to read that book without searching for some clue of the tragedy that lay ahead. And there are clues. “I ask my memories to speak and choose for me, and give at least some faint reflection of my life before it sinks into the dark,” he writes in the preface. Despite these ominous hints, it remains hard to comprehend how, so soon after, Zweig could have acted on that feeling and persuaded a woman nearly 30 years younger than him to do likewise.
In The Last Days, Seksik has created a voice for Zweig that is entirely consonant with that of the novelist and memoirist yet, at the same time, distinctively private and personal, drawing us into the mind and heart of a man who, even as he was putting down his suitcase in a new home, feared “the chasm was widening all around him. The past was being chipped away piece by piece.”
In Brazil, as Seksik recounts, Zweig writes his brilliant novel of obsession, The Royal Game (1942), and completes a book on Montaigne but increasingly finds himself writing “like Roth used to drink, joylessly and effortlessly ... Nothing sang in his soul any more.” Work on a biography of Balzac and a new novel come to nothing. “There were no characters left in his mind, no children were born and no women smiled. The heart of mankind had stopped beating.” Eventually even the past, his one reliable refuge from despair, becomes a gilded prison. “His memory took up too much room, and fear occupied too large a suite in his mind. His writing was fed only by nostalgia.” The words of his friend, Romain Rolland, haunt him: “It’s far too late in our lives to put down roots again, and without any roots, we’ll turn into shadows.”
Seksik’s portrait of Zweig’s final months is dignified and tender. He gives us a great spirit broken by an insupportable sorrow for humanity in general and his fellow Jews in particular. Zweig’s decision to end his life is neither mad nor self-indulgent but a lucid response to the horrific news filtering through to Brazil about the Nazi death camps, combined with the fall of Singapore and the terrifying spectre of an imminent invasion of America. But, Seksik also posits, the seeds were perhaps already there in Zweig’s fascination with the poet Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) whose biography he had written 15 years earlier, and who had likewise died in a suicide pact (Kleist’s was with a terminally ill woman).
“The cradle rocks above an abyss,” wrote Nabokov in Speak, Memory, “and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two extremities of darkness.” Why one of these great writers found sustenance enough in that brief crack of light while for the other it only served to illuminate the extremity of darkness ahead is explored with sensitivity and grace in this very fine novel.
Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)