In the post-holocaust world a Jewish author, whose books had been publicly burnt by the Nazis, and who had been forced to flee into exile by the Nazis, and who eventually, despairing of the future of Europe in 1942, had, along with his wife, committed suicide in Brazil because of the Nazis, would have every reason not to expect, some sixty years after his death, to have his character and work cruelly mocked, with a vicious cleverness horribly reminiscent of the great Dr. Goebbels himself. But the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s (1881-1942) autobiography, The World of Yesterday – recently republished in a new translation – did indeed get exactly that kind of hatchet review by Michael Hofmann, a poet and translator, in that most Olympian of highbrow journals, the London Review of Books. Even the poor man’s suicide note was contemptuously dismissed as ‘boring – more like an Oscar acceptance speech than a suicide note’. ‘One feels’, Hofmann writes, ‘that Zweig doesn’t mean it, his heart isn’t in it (not even in his suicide)’. According to Hofmann, Zweig’s life was such a continual ‘fake’ that a fake suicide would have been par for the course. (Such a brutal comment seems to me totally improper in a book review).

There is much more in the same vein. Zweig’s character and work – as Gillian Tindall, in a letter of protest to LRB, has pointed out – are at different times described as dithery, duplicitous, weak, cowardly, humourless, snobbish, conceited, dull, and, keeping the worst for the last, ‘putrid’. If a LRB reviewer had poured such a basinful of bile over the head of, say, the fanatical, anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi, collaborating, French writer, Celine, that would be fair enough. But for the LRB to do the same kind of ad hominem evisceration on Zweig, one of Hitler’s earliest victims, who was also all his life a leading European humanist and idealist – as well as a generous subsidiser of young writers – is not only unfair but positively perverse, rather like doing a vicious hatchet job on a memoir of dear old Dame Margaret Rutherford.

So why did the LRB publish such a vile piece? Mr. Hofmann’s main justification is that Zweig was a sentimental, second-rate novelist whose best selling works – particularly his Beware of Pity – are currently being over-praised. This could well be true. Somerset Maugham, in the 1930s, made the same complaint about the English novelist Hugh Walpole – and wrote a satirical novel, Cakes and Ale, to prove his point – but Maugham’s venom was mild compared to Hoffman’s. Another justification he makes is that many of Zweig’s illustrious friends and fellow writers – Musil, Kafka, Hoffmannsthal, Mann, Richard Strauss, Brecht, Canetti and many others – were themselves patronisingly contemptuous of the man and his works, and to back up that ‘line of enquiry’ – to use a police term – he has dredged through the records to find a rich array of their bitchiness and malicious gossip. Well done him: but if posterity were to rely on what one writer-friend says of another – particularly if the other happens to be more successful – then not even the great T. S. Eliot would come out un-smeared. (If you doubt this degree of literary malice, then read The Goncourt Diaries). Of course it was true that Zweig was never taken very seriously by his contemporaries. But the deduction to be drawn from that, surely, is not that he deserves a brutal pasting but rather that he hardly deserves a review at all. Furthermore, Zweig himself never claimed to be in the first rank and always looked up with reverence at the great heights he knew he could never climb. Hofmann rightly points out that Joseph Roth – whose novels about the decline of the Hapsburg Empire are also now appearing in English – was very much Zweig’s superior. What he does not lay equal emphasis on is that without Zweig’s generous support Roth’s masterpieces might never have appeared.

Another stick Hofmann uses to belabour his victim is that he failed to criticise German aggression during the First World War, in spite of his professed humanism, internationalism and pacifism. While this is a fair point, it is also worth remembering – which Mr. Hofmann chooses to forget – that Thomas Mann, in 1914, was also carried away on a wave of Germanic romanticism, and even wrote a major work at the time arguing that German Kultur had every right to triumph over French civilisation. If the great Mann has been forgiven for that, why pick on Zweig?

No, the real reasons for belabouring him, I believe, have nothing to do with his writing. The writing is just an excuse to get at Zweig for other reasons: reasons that have more to do with political prejudice than literary taste. For although Zweig was a Jew, he was also a member of the Austrian haute bourgeoisie. One biographer even elevates him to the rank of a ‘Jewish noble’ – and in the world of the left-leaning and anti-capitalist LRB the sympathy for being Jewish – even a Jewish victim – is more than cancelled by the odium provoked by being noble. Nor was ‘nobility’ his only sin. He was also the beneficiary of a large hereditary fortune, much of which was spent, as I have said, on younger writers – building up for himself, it seems, a great reservoir of posthumous resentment and envy which is only now beginning to overflow.

‘Vermicular Dither’, Michael Hofmann, London Review of Books, Vol.32 No.2, 28 January 2010.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.