Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hofmann damns even Zweig's suicide note

In the London Review of Books, Michael Hofmann pours torrents of abuse on Stefan Zweig.

Here are some of the more pointed zingers: "Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing."

"... this uniquely dreary and clothy sprog of the electric 1880s; this un-Austrian Austrian and un-Jewish Jew ...; not a pacifist much less an activist but a passivist; this professional adorer, schmoozer ... who logged his phone calls and logged his letters and logged his books, and, who knows, probably logged his logs; ... who left a suicide note which, like most of what he wrote, is so smooth and mannerly and somehow machined – actually more like an Oscar acceptance speech than a suicide note – that one feels the irritable rise of boredom halfway through it ...."

Quit beating around the bush, Mr. Hofmann, and tell us what you really think about Zweig.

I'm not in a position to evaluate Zweig's writing. I've read only one of his works, Fantastic Night, about which I have mixed views (it's repetitive but has some good writing in places). He may have been an inveterate schmoozer, but at least he was generous, trying to help a younger writer schmooze, too.

Here's Zweig with Joseph Roth in 1936.

Update (Jan. 22): Well, I've slept on it and decided three things about Hofmann's article. First, it's outrageously unfair. Second, I'm glad he wrote it, and that the LRB published it without softening Hofmann's vituperation. Third, I've got to read more Zweig ASAP.

I've followed Hofmann's work and have high regard for it, but I also have lots of respect for Anthea Bell, who, as John Self has noted (in the comments to one of his posts), has devoted much time to translating Zweig, so she must want his novels to be read. Hofmann notes that several giants of Zweig's culture didn't take Zweig's work seriously. However, while I'm loath to disagree with Thomas Mann, Musil and Karl Kraus, I'm not convinced by their low estimation of Zweig's abilities. After all, Musil apparently held Thomas Mann's work in low regard, and Kraus ridiculed Freud (who was admired by Schnitzler). Then again, these guys might have disliked Zweig's work because he was a hack-writer, not much better in their eyes than a writer of pulp fiction, but some pulp-fiction and supposedly hack writers have drawn more appreciation in recent times than they received in their own day. Also, Zweig was seen as a tireless self-promoter, which, esp. in his culture, was definitely a vice (not so much being a self-promoter, but being seen as one). So, perhaps these luminaries disliked Zweig and allowed their personal disdain to colour their opinion of his work.

What's an early 21st-century anglo reader to do? I guess I've just got to knuckle down and read me some Zweig!

Update (Feb. 3, 2010): The next issue of the LRB (Vol. 32, no. 3) is on-line and contains six letters objecting to Hofmann's review. Notice, though, that Hofmann's article is the "most-read" on-line item at the LRB's site. This is lit-crit tabloid journalism. Scandal and intrigue sell papers. Yes, I've changed my mind. While it's good for the LRB to run a bracing critique, they shouldn't have run Hofmann's review with its more scathing personal remarks.

Update (March 14, 2010): Nicholas Lezard has a word or two about Hofmann's attack in a review of Pushkin's latest Zweig publication

Update (March 26, 2010): Stuart Walton in the Guardian -- "[Hofmann] has called [Zweig's] output 'just putrid.' A tad harsh, perhaps, but he has a point."

Update (May 13, 2010): Will Stone replies to Hofmann's article.

Update (Oct. 9, 2010): Here's a PEN panel-discussion in NY of Stefan Zweig from April 30, which includes Michael Hofmann, Paul Holdengräber, and others. Here's some coverage of the event.


Shane said...

What a damning review. Enjoyed the little Zweig I have read also. I'm with you; time to read some more Stefan Zweig. Well done Michael Hofmann!

Anonymous said...

I have red "The world of yesterday" by Stephan Zweig (In a Dutch translation) and enjoyed it very much. It really makes me sad to read such a vitriolic review. Hofmann seems to hates Zweig. I can only guess why. Is it because Zweig was:
a Jew
a PAN-European
was/is successful

Michael Hofmann seems to be a very frustrated man. Why does the London review gives him a platform?


manwithoutqualities said...

I think there is much to commend Zweig's The World of Yesterday, The Royal Game and Letter from an Unknown Woman. Not a second-rater by any stretch of the imagination.

praymont said...

Anonymous -- We can safely rule out your accusations. There's not even a hint of anti-Semitism in anything that Hofmann has done. In fact, he has championed the work of several Jewish authors.

Of especial interest here is his great service in rendering many of Joseph Roth's works into English. Note also that Roth was pro-European. Take a look at Roth's 'The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind', which Roth wrote in 1933 (and which is available in the collection What I Saw, trans. by Michael Hofmann), where Roth speaks of himself and many other authors, including S. Zweig, as defenders of "the European mind" and damns the Nazis as "destroyers of Europe." It's hard to believe that someone who has championed Roth's work would be anti-European or against a 'pan-European' ideal.

No, Hofmann's hatred of Zweig stems from some deep aversion to Zweig himself, and that's a real mystery. Hofmann disapproves of Zweig's work in aethetic terms. Fair enough, but why the visceral contempt for Zweig the man? Why does Hofmann express such hatred for someone whom he never knew and who can't be regarded as anything like an immoral monster?

praymont said...

Shane -- Yes, someone should start a Zweig reading group and call it 'The Michael Hofmann Society -- a Group Devoted to the Appreciation of S. Zweig'.

MWQ -- I've heard so many good things about World of Yesterday. That's first on my list.

Walker said...

I'd recommend Zweig's novel Beware of Pity - it's devastating.
As to Zweig hatred, I've always found it a bit bizarre how much disdain there is for Zweig in Austria and Germany. I used to have an Austrian friend who would sneer whenever Zweig's name was even mentioned. Like a lot of Austrian and German literary society, she seemed terrified of anything that anybody had condemned as "middlebrow" and spent her whole time reading portentous but fashionable novels by the likes of Jelinek (The Piano Teacher) and recent Nobel winner Herta Müller. I suspect Hofmann (who has translated Müller)is of a similar bent. You'd also think that somebody who makes a living from writing like Hofmann would be able to produce a slightly more readable essay - it scanned like it had been fed through some random online translator programme.

praymont said...

Thanks, Walker, I didn't know that.

BTW, I recommend Nicholas Lezard's review from last December of The World of Yesterday. It's at

The most scandalous part of Hofmann's review is his yawning dismissal of Zweig's suicide note. Hofmann, and apparently many others in the German-speaking world, dismiss Zweig as a hanger-on who never truly gave himself over to art. Zweig, they imply, was some sort of egomaniac who yoked everything else to the promotion of his dreary, mediocre self. But Zweig's suicide gave the lie to this. He had escaped the thugs and psychos in Europe. He was home free and could coddle his precious self and find happiness on another continent. But that isn't what he wanted. No, he had devoted his life to something beyond himself and his own happiness, to a culture that esteemed intellectual and artistic values above all else. With its disappearance, he saw nothing to live for. He certainly wasn't willing to live simply for self-promotion.

Here's the content of his suicide note:

"I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth."