28 November 2016
Stefan Zweig and the ‘Magic of Manuscripts’
Stefan Zweig, whose birthday we mark today, was one of the world’s bestselling authors in his lifetime. In recent years his work has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the English-speaking world: his books have been rediscovered by publishers and readers (and was an inspiration for the 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel), and there has been a growth in academic interest in his life and work. One reflection of the latter interest is the collaborative PhD project between the British Library and the University of Bristol which began in 2014 and has seen PhD student Pardaad Chamsaz work on the aspect of Zweig which is perhaps of greatest importance to the British Library: his activity as a collector of autograph manuscripts.
Manuscript collecting was a lifelong passion for Zweig. In the first three decades of the 20th century he built one of the finest and most admired collections in the world. When the rise of Nazism in the 1930s forced him into exile, first in Britain and finally in Brazil, he began to refine the collection, selling many items and keeping only those which had a particular significance for him. In 1986 his heirs donated the manuscripts from this final collection to the British Library in what has was justly described by the Library’s then Chairman, Lord Quinton, as “the most important and the most generous gift that the British Library has received since its foundation.”
The manuscripts now in the British Library reflect various aspects of Zweig’s life and interests. The greatest number are musical scores: Zweig had long sought solace in music from “the grime of the political stuff, the black downpour of events” (Diary, 27 October 1915), and in his years of exile he found in the abstract beauty of music a better example of art as he understood it, as a humanistic and uniting force, than the written word, especially the written word in his native German which was becoming known as the language of the Nazis.
But although he collected and retained more musical than literary and historical manuscripts, Zweig did not neglect the latter. Among the literary and historical manuscripts in the collection there are some which recall Zweig’s own literary friendships – works presented to him by authors such as Émile Verhaeren (Zweig MS 193-4), Romain Rolland (Zweig MS 184-6), Rainer Maria Rilke (Zweig MS 179-80) and Sigmund Freud (Zweig MS 150), all of whom he knew personally.
Freud is also an example of someone Zweig himself wrote about, along with historical figures such as Marie Antoinette (Zweig MS 171), Dostoevsky (Zweig MS 143) and Friedrich Nietzsche (Zweig MS 175), all present in the collection.
Zweig’s interest in the act of creation is clear from many of the manuscripts, perhaps most strikingly in the proof copy of Balzac’s novel Une Ténébreuse Affaire, with its numerous corrections and additions, but also in, for example, poems by John Keats (Zweig MS 163) and the German Romantic writer Novalis (Zweig MS 176).
Although French and German writers predominate, the European cultural internationalism of Zweig’s outlook is clear from the scope of his collection. There are works in English, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. Many items also recall Zweig’s love for collecting items that he felt brought him close to great figures of the past, including one surviving ‘relic’, a collection of clippings from Goethe’s hair (Zweig MS 155).
The first volume of a catalogue of the British Library Stefan Zweig Collection, covering the music manuscripts (Zweig MS 1-131) was published in 1999 (2702.f.433), but for various reasons the cataloguing of the literary and historical manuscripts (Zweig MS 132-200 with some later additions) was delayed, despite the dedicated work of two now retired colleagues. One aim of the collaborative PhD project – alongside overseeing the digitisation of the literary and historical manuscripts, which can now be seen on our Digitised Manuscripts Catalogue – was to help see the second volume of the printed catalogue through to publication, and we are delighted that this will appear early next year.
In order to celebrate this publication, and to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Zweig’s death in 1942, the Library will be mounting a display of items from the collection, ‘The Magic of Manuscripts’, in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery from 21 February until 11 June 2017, and on 20 March will host a study day, ‘Stefan Zweig: European, Humanist, Collector’, followed by an evening event featuring readings and music from manuscripts in the collection and from Zweig’s own writings.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies