Friday, 19 November 2010

Everything that Goes Around Comes Around: Stefan Zweig on Brazil

Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer (1881-1942,) is a recent discovery for me. A wildly popular writer of novels, short stories, travel essays, history and biographies, his reputation has been obscured in the English-speaking world for decades. Lately, however, new translations of his work are appearing, and I stumbled across one a couple a years ago. By chance I picked up a copy of Beware of Pity in the library the summer I had Xray therapy for DCIS, and found the long novel engaging enough to keep me distracted while I waited to be zapped.

Two of my book groups have read his work this fall. Last night the French-language group at the Kirkland library discussed 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman, a deceptively simple story of repressed passion among the wealthy at the turn of the 20th century. That was where I found his suicide letter, written just before he and his second wife Lotte gassed themselves, in despair over the state of the world, it seems.

They had taken refuge in Brazil, hoping to find a place to weather the storm of World War II. But the world outside couldn't be kept at bay, so he wrote:

Before parting from life of my free will and in 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. My love for the country increased from day to day, and nowhere else would I have preferred to build up a new existence, the world of my own language having disappeared from me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself.

It seems Zweig did not realize that he was living in another sort of dictatorship--those were the years of Getúlio Vargas--but nevertheless his words are another tribute to a vast country, whose qualities are frequently underestimated, it seems to me.

1 comment:

lagatta à montréal said...

Mary, have you read Zweig's account on Brazil, "Land of the Future" in which he counterpoises the huge American country to the "World of Yesterday": the Central European countries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (especially their Germanophone culture)? Yes, he suffered from the honeymoon many exiles have at first with the country that welcomes them, but Brazilian "race-mixing" was a pleasant contrast to Nazi ideas of so-called "racial purity". Eventually Zweig thought there was no refuge anywhere. He was a man of advancing years by the standards of the day and felt unable to reinvent himself; sadly, Lotte was a much younger woman.

Vargas was indeed a dictator, but I don't believe his rule was anything near the brutality of the 1964 Brazilian military dictatorship, which like the later Coño Sur ones to its south, drew upon the worst of European fascisms and sometimes relied on old Nazis as advisers.

A good friend of mine fled the later Brazilian dictatorship; his parents travelled as exiles from Vienna to Brazil in the 1930s. He spoke both German and Portuguese as a lad and now speaks 12 languages.