Historical fiction is strange. We approach it with the understanding that what we are reading both is and is not true. We contract with the writer to accept her interpretation of events without requiring she take on the burden of proof. The situation become even more complicated when we’re deal with historical figures, versus fictional characters placed in historical settings. For better or worse, Philippa Gregory’s Boleyn sisters have supplanted the historical Ann & Mary in her reader’s minds. I prefer Hilary Mantel’s versions. But my point is that both portraits are flawed and filled with inaccuracies, due in part to the limits of the historical records. The facts that are represented – dates, portraits, whatever written documentation remains – are true. The mannerisms, the inflections of the voice, the emotions and motivations, events that took place behind closed doors – all this information is fabricated by the author to add depth to the narrative. But it raises the question: if history is, as Voltaire said, “fables that have been agreed upon”, what is historical fiction?
Laurent Seksik’s The Last Days attempts to understand the last days of the author Stefan Zweig and his young wife Lotte, who kill themselves at the end of the novel.
During his lifetime Stefan Zweig was one of the most celebrated and translated authors in the world. But while he was commercially successful, critically he was/is considered a minor author. It was an opinion he accepted, perhaps even shared, showing extraordinary humility. When his books were burned by the Nazis in 1933 he is reported to have called it an honor to see them thrown into the same bonfires as the works of great men like Einstein, Freud and Mann.
The Last Days skips over most of Zweig’s life and goes straight to the year 1942. Stefan & his young wife Lotte are attempting to make a home in Petrópolis, Brazil after fleeing from Austria to England, then from England to New York, and finally to South America. Zweig is presented as a middle aged man obsessed, like the varsity football player who peaked in high school, with the glittering Vienna of his youth.* Lotte, half his age and in awe of his celebrity, finds herself living a life of exile and self-imposed isolation that is very different from the glamorous existence of her fantasies. The Last Days is a carefully written novel – contemplative, thoughtful, and uniquely French.
Andre Naffis-Sahely’s translation moves readers towards the couple’s death gently – the cadence of the writing slow and sad and achingly beautiful. Zweig seems older than his actual years as he actively disengages from the concrete world. Many of his friends are dead. Those who managed to escape are pressuring him to take a political stand condemning Germany.** His world is shrinking – geographically and intellectually. Those closest to him recognize this.
“It’s funny to notice how the choices you made as a writer reveal your true inner nature. Mann opted to write about Goethe, while you chose to focus on Kleist and Nietzsche. You look for a path through the darkness and wander from country to country, with neither children nor a fixed address, and now you’ve buried yourself in this godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere, Meanwhile, Mann proceeds full steam ahead. Mann surrounds himself with people and protects himself. He has placed himself at the crossroads so as to watch all comings and goings, he’s the sun around which everyone else revolves. Whereas you have escaped to a place where nothing happens and have reached a point of no return. Mann is planning his reconquest of the literary world. Mann is busy building a statue to himself, while concealing his true nature. Mann will never own up to his pederastic inclinations. Mann conceals anything that might compromise his public image. Mann sees himself as peerless. Mann looks for light and finds it in Thomas Mann. On the other hand, here you are doing your utmost to disappear.”
Seksik uses Ernst Feder, as he uses everything in his novel, as an opportunity. He is there to psychoanalyze husband and wife. He works through his hypothesis on the page and it is fascinating to watch. (Though I couldn’t help wondering if the reality isn’t quite as tidy as he’d like us to believe). Viewed retrospectively, Zweig’s suicide is not entirely surprising. He had a history of depression (something his first wife, Friderike Maria von Winternitz, confirmed in her memoir about their life together which was published after his death) and something Seksik only alludes to.*** Lotte, in my opinion, is the meatier subject. She was hired by Friderike to act as Zweig’s secretary. They began an affair. Zweig eventually convinced Friderike to divorce him, and he and Lotte were married. She was completely devoted to the both the man and the world famous author. But Seksik is insightful enough to understand that a young wife might not have been entirely content with their life in Petrópolis. Seksik’s portrait of Lotte, his interpretation of her psyche, is fascinating and troubling at the same time. She’s a pathetic creature willing to diminish herself in return for his love, and yet there are sparks of rebellion. They amount to nothing, but their brief flaring allows us to see the character as more than two-dimensional.
On the whole neither Stefan or Lotte Zweig are sympathetic. They are each isolated, from society and each other, separated by the fog of depression. Seksik manages to channel that depression into a semblance of life, proving his characters are made of blood and bone. When husband & wife venture out with friends to celebrate Carnival Lotte wears a new red dress. In the crowds Stefan loses sight of her and Seksik describes his initial panic and his reaction when he finds her again.
He had lost hold of Lotte’s hand. He looked around frantically. The thought that she might have drowned in that human flood terrified him. Pushing his way through the pandemonium, he began screaming out her name, a cry that was lost in the midst of that racket. Everyone around him was lost in jubilation. A man wearing a skeleton costume and a skull mask roared in his face. He felt oppressed by the crowd and began thinking he’d lost her for good. A group of women wearing open bodices surrounded him, their bodies dripping with sweat as they shook in a sort of primitive dance. He saw himself as rather grotesque, lost in a ragged crowd wearing a white linen suit. A man wearing a fake beard jumped towards him and stole his Panama hat from his head. He stood motionless, petrified. Then, just as quickly as the crowd had assembled, it dispersed. All of a sudden, he caught sight of her, covered in ticker tape, swaying her hips in front of a man playing maracas. He lingered for a while observing the scene, in the middle of that frenzied outburst, keeping his gaze obstinately fixed on his wife. She appeared to be floating before his eyes as if in a dream. He felt a hand on his shoulder.
While Zweig’s critical reputation has waxed and waned in the decades since his death, European additions of his books have continued in print. He experienced a revival – the beneficiary of the public’s nostalgia for the Edwardian period fueled by the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey, as well as films like Atonement and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson’s film was, in fact, inspired by Zweig’s novels). The New York Review of Books & Pushkin Press have reissued, between them, almost his complete catalog of books – translated into English. There have been reviews and articles in The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, and The NY Times Book Review. While Zweig’s suicide continues to draw curious readers, — we humans are morbid by nature, — Seksik has managed to elevate the conversation, gleaning beauty from tragedy, and presenting universal truths in the absence of facts.
*The Youtube video below provides a sense of what that lost world looked like.
**Fellow Jews who had fled the Third Reich took Zweig’s pacifism in life & eventual suicide to be an almost personal betrayal. Mann wrote after learning of Zweig’s death: “He should never have granted the Nazis this triumph, and had he had a more powerful hatred and contempt for them, he would never have done it.”
***I can’t help seeing parallels to Virginia Woolf’s suicide at the beginning of WW2. Her nephew, Quentin Bell, in his amazing biography tells how the Woolfs planned to commit joint suicide in the event of a German invasion. Leonard Woolf was Jewish, and rumors had already begun to spread about the fate of the Jews under Hitler. Bell attributes the stress of a possible invasion, along with the loss of their London home and the Hogarth Press offices during a Blitz as contributing factors to her final breakdown.
Title: The Last Days Author: Laurent Seksik Translator: Andre Naffis-Sahely Publisher: Pushkin Press, London (2014)