Star hours and Stefan Zweig

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Star hour in Germany is a metaphor for decisions, deeds or events that fatefully affect the future. The concept of astrology, which postulates that the status of the stars at the time of birth, determines the further course of life, is borrowed. In colloquial terms, Sternstunde is also used for an extraordinary or glamorous event in a positive sense.

The term gained particular popularity through Stefan Zweig’s well-known 1927 book “Star Hours of Humanity”, in which he illustrates historical transformation processes in 14 essayistic narratives based on events taking place during this period (e.g. “The Discovery of the Pacific Ocean”, “The Martian Ice Ise is created” or “The First Phone Call on the Ocean”). In the foreword, he explained the term as:

Such dramatically concentrated, fateful hours, in which a time-consuming decision is squeezed to a single date, a single hour and often only one minute, are rare in an individual’s life and rarely in the course of history. I have called them so because they shine brightly and immutably like stars over the night of transience.”

Zweig was a prominent writer in the 1920s and 1930s, befriending Arthur Schnizler and Sigmunf Freud. He was extremely popular in the United States, South America and Europe, and remains so in continental Europe; however, he was largely ignored by the British public. His fame in America had diminished until the 1990s, when there began an effort on the part of several publishing.

Critical opinion of his oeuvre is strongly divided between those who praise his humanism, simplicity and effective style, and those who criticize his literary style as poor, lightweight and superficial. Michael Hofmann scathingly attacks Zweig’s work. Hoffman uses the term “vermicular dither” to refer to a passage attributed to Zweig and quoted in 1972, though the passage does not occur in Zweig’s published work. Hofman adds that in his opinion “Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing.” Even the author’s suicide note, Hofmann suggests, causes one to feel “the irritable rise of boredom halfway through it, and the sense that he doesn’t mean it, his heart isn’t in it (not even in his suicide)”.

But Zweig is best known for his novellas (notably The Royal game, Amok, and Letter from an Unknown Woman – which was filmed in 1948 by Max Ophüls), novels ( Beware of Pity, Confusion of Feelings (homosexuality), and the posthumously published The Post Office Girl) and biographies (notably of Erasmus of Rotterdam, Ferdinand Magellan, and Mary Queen of Scots, and also the posthumously published one on Balzac). At one time his works were published without his consent in English under the pseudonym “Stephen Branch” (a translation of his real name) when anti-German sentiment was running high. His 1932 biography of Queen Marie Antoinette was adapted byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a 1938 film starring Norma Shearer.

Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday, was completed in 1942 one day before he committed suicide. It has been widely discussed as a record of “what it meant to be alive between 1881 and 1942” in central Europe; the book has attracted both critical praise and hostile dismissal

Zweig acknowledged his debt to psychoanalysis. In a letter dated 8 September 1926, he wrote to Freud “Psychology is the great business of my life”. He went on explaining that Freud had considerable influence on a number of writers such as  Marcel Proust H.D. Lawrence, and James Joyce giving them a lesson in “courage” and helping them overcome their inhibitions. “Thanks to you, we see many things. – Thanks to you we say many things which otherwise we would not have seen nor said.” Autobiography, in particular, had become “more clear-sighted and audacious”.

Zweig enjoyed a close association with Richard Strauss, and provided the libretto for Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman). Strauss famously defied the Nazi regime by refusing to sanction the removal of Zweig’s name from the programme for the work’s première on 24 June 1935 in Dresden. As a result,  Goebbels refused to attend as planned, and the opera was banned after three performances. Zweig later collaborated with Joseph Gregor, to provide Strauss with the libretto for one other opera, Daphne in 1937. At least one other work by Zweig received a musical setting: the pianist and composer Henry Jolles, who like Zweig had fled to Brazil to escape the Nazis, composed a song, “Último poema de Stefan Zweig”,based on “Letztes Gedicht”, which Zweig wrote on the occasion of his 60th birthday in November 1941. During his stay in Brazil, Zweig wrote Brasilien, Ein Land der Zukunft (Brazil, Land of the Future) which was an accurate analysis of his newly adopted country; in this book he managed to demonstrate a fair understanding of the Brazilian culture that surrounded him.

Zweig was a passionate collector of manuscripts. There are important Zweig collections at the British Library, at the State University of New York at Fredonia and at the National Library of Israel. The British Library’s Stefan Zweig Collection was donated to the library by his heirs in May 1986. It specialises in autograph music manuscripts, including works by Bach, Haydn, Wagner and Mahler. It has been described as “one of the world’s greatest collections of autograph manuscripts” One particularly precious item is Mozart’s “Verzeichnüß aller meiner Werke” – that is, the composer’s own handwritten thematic catalogue of his works.

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