First, a confession… despite considering myself to have read quite a lot of books and despite the fact that he was once, apparently, one of the most famous writers in the world, I knew nothing, nothing prior to Sunday about Stefan Zweig. I do confess that I was drawn to this event because I think Henry Goodman is a very good actor with one of those lovely, gentle, could-listen-to-it-for-hours voices and because my Mum thinks the same and wanted to go.
Clearly lots of other people wanted to go too. The queue, by which I mean the kind of queue that only Jews know how to create (in which everyone sees at least fifteen people they know and is prepared to use elbows to reach them), filled the foyer and when the doors finally opened I thought I may be shuffled to death in a slow stampede.
The hall filled completely, the lights went down, a mobile phone rang, and then, accompanied on the piano, a woman started to sing in German. I didn’t understand a word but I didn’t mind because she also had a lovely, gentle, could-listen-to-it-for-hours voice, warm and resonant and the music was beautiful. The room was entirely hushed.
After the song came Henry with a reading from Zweig’s work, about what it was to be a writer living through a momentous and defining point in history and to be Jewish and a pacifist in Austria in the 1930s when the world was already turning in on itself. Another song and then a reading from Zweig’s journal, written in 1935, and describing the perpetual movement in which he had been forced to live, the never ending tide of people crossing Europe to escape the fate they could see was coming and the liberation that comes with living ‘without restraint, leaving the past behind.’ Already I’d forgotten Henry, in the sense that he was now Zweig, and I was now absolutely fascinated by this writer I’d known nothing about ten minutes ago, who had seen the future with such insight and could view the present with such clarity. His work, I now understood was a document; a clear-sighted, on-the-ground account of what was happening and of a consciousness squaring up to a terrifying reality.
I learnt later that Zweig committed suicide in 1942 because he’d lost hope for the future of humanity and yet many of these readings seemed resolutely positive in the face of great hardship – in a determined rather than a delusional way. One reading described a shelter in the East End of London, which Jews from every part of Europe somehow knew to come to, as a ‘monument to man’s solidarity’. Another reading from a letter to Czech writer and composer Max Brod outlined Zweig’s Jewish manifesto: ‘We reject without rancour but with determination the subordination of our people’ he wrote, ‘humiliations of this kind are not shameful to those who suffer them but rather those who inflict them.’ The final reading excerpted parts of Zweig’s pacifist play, Jeremiah, based on the story of the biblical prophet and a defiant portrait of Jewish persecution: ‘you can kill a people’ says one of the characters ‘but you can’t kill the god within them’.
By the end of the session I felt I’d learnt a lot but without information being rammed down my throat and it had piqued my interest in a writer I’d not even previously known to be of interest. All in all a very well produced event by Elizabeth Crossley with beautiful music performed by singer Caroline Kennedy and pianist Claire Howard Grace, translation by Anthea Bell and of course, the very lovely-to-listen-to Henry Goodman.
Claire Berliner is a writer, puppet-maker and Centre Director of Totleigh Barton, the Arvon Foundation’s creative writing centre in Devon. http://www.arvonfoundation.org.