In The Society of the Crossed Keys, Lachlan Liesfield rediscovers the work of Stefan Zweig, a gem who shines far beyond The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The Society of the Crossed Keys
Only recently has the writing of Stefan Zweig been re-discovered by the public. Firstly through Wes Anderson’s 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel proudly stating “Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig”, and now through a new set of translations, which also shares Anderson’s particular aesthetic on the book jacket.
It is in this collection of selected works that Anderson continues to provide such promotion for the writer who is said to have inspired him. Zweig, a literary talent both in Europe and abroad during the early twentieth century, deserves the return of fame awarded to him during his lifetime which appears forgotten following his death.
Zweig’s writing style flows freely and easily, helped by an unexpectedly smooth translation which would appear to lose none of Zweig’s apparently notably original wit. So then, despite the period setting of the pieces, Zweig’s dialogue and descriptions seem ripped straight from the fingertips of a particularly modern writer, as if written by a man looking back at the time from a modern vantage point. The title of Zweig’s autobiography, The World of Yesterday, only seems to make this clearer; portions of which are included in the book.
And it is the portions pulled from The World of Yesterday which mark the most entertaining and engrossing sections of the collection. Written in the later years of Zweig’s life, it is a portrait of a place and time not experienced often in English markets, that of pre-war continental Europe; and is all the more interesting for it. The eccentricities of Viennese society, its contradictions and hypocrisies, lit up by the ways in which they affected the author, presenting them then with a personal note that goes a long way to exposing them as important to the people who lived there, rather than simply scene-setting window dressing to serve a narrative.
Similarly, Zweig’s hindsight into the mood of the times allows him to see truly the changes in society following the First World War, felt just as keenly by those who made it through as the effects of any conflict for those that followed; an aged mirror for those to compare their own experiences, the book’s period references made relevant for future readers. Zweig’s own memory of the times recalls a resigned melancholia, the loss of a golden age now passed that, despite its flaws, now rests as a “Golden Age of Security” in comparison to the political quagmire that followed. Zweig’s reminiscence for better days gone by acts as a way to re-establish his writings in modern, nostalgia-hungry minds, and my only hope is that some will take the time to read him.
It’s a similar tone that permeates the book’s other selections, chapters from Zweig’s Beware of Pity and his complete short story Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman. While both are interesting in their own way, only Beware of Pity truly competes with The World of Yesterday for your attention; its selected chapters the highlights of the piece.
The only real disappointment of the collection is the introductory A Conversation With Wes Anderson which, outside some interesting biographical details of the author and some light discussion of his themes, does not amount to much for those not fans of Anderson. It was simply lucky for me then that I am.
But despite this introductory lapse, Zweig’s writings deserve no less attention, and if nothing else, The Society of Crossed Keys has led one more reader to seek out Zweig, and his enchanting World of Yesterday.