After arriving early for a chess lesson at a Barnes & Noble, I was perusing the magazine section when the name 'Stefan Zweig' on the cover of what I took to be the New York Review of Books caught my eye. I was mistaken, as it was actually The Jewish Review of Books, Number 4, Winter 2011. (www.jewishreviewofbooks.com/) It turned out to be a review by George Prochnikof the new book: Stefan and Lotte Zweig's South American Letters: New York, Argentina and Brazil, 1940-42, edited by Oliver Marshall and Darien J. Davis. Zweig authored what I, and many others, consider to be the best chess fiction ever written, The Royal Game, a novella first published in 1942, after the author's death by suicide. It is the Austrian master's final achievement, completed in Brazilian exile and sent off to his American publisher only days before his suicide in 1942.
After the lesson ended I sat there thinking about how little I knew of the life of the author who wrote such a magnificient work, so I took the time to read the review. I learned that he wrote many of his best-known works on a desk that once belonged to the greatest composer of all time, Ludvig Von Beethoven. During World War Two his books were banned in Austria and Germany. He travelled to South America giving lectures. From the review, "Ernst Feder, a Berlin-born journalist writing for a Rio daily, claimed that no other writer, native or foreign, enjoyed Zweig's popularity in Brazil...
...there's no question that Zweig was a literary superstar in both Brazil and Argentina. Zweigs short fictions and long historical biographies, flickering with secrets, abrupt intimacies, and intricately filigreed erotic fantasy, struck home on the continent long bdfore his arrival."
He was severely depressed. His term for it was the notorious "black liver." From the review, "As time closes in on the Zweigs, they spend their hours reaing the classics, taking long walks with their fox terrier, stopping off at the nearby Cafe' Elegante for coffee, and playing chess in the evening."
The German invasion of the Soviet Union provoked Zweig to write his friends the Altmanns that the war situation would only "become worse and worse for our mankind," and that "while a younger generation would no doubt live to see better times, I with my 'three lives' feel that my generation has become superfluous."
Zweig's restrained, deeply moving suicide letter reads at times like a love note to Brazil. It begins with the announcemant that "Before parting from life of my own free will and my right mind I am impelled to fulfill a last obligation: to give heartfelt thanks to this wonderful land of Brazil which afforded me and my work such kind and hospitable repose." There has been much speculation about what, finally, snuffed out Zweig's will to live. He killed himself just after watching Rio's Carnival...But why, really, look for answers beyond the reason he gave in his letter?
"After one's sixtieth year unusual powers are needed in order to make another wholly new beginning. Those that I possess have been exhausted by the long years of homeless wandering. So I hold it better to conclude in good time and with erect bearing a life for which intellectual labor was always the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth...I salute all my friends! May it be granted them yet to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before."
Reading this made me recall some of the last words of one of my favorite authors, the irrepressible Doctor of Gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thomson. "67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted." For some reason the quote I remembered had Dr Thompson writing 7 years past 60. It is most probably because I turned 60 last year. Like most people who reach the age, I never thought I would still be here among the living. After one's sixtieth year unusual powers are needed, indeed...