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.