Driven to suicide by the horrors of a world at war

PUBLISHED: 16:25 29 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:52 07 September 2010

Celebrated author Stefan Zweig s novel The Post Office Girl is finally published in the UK next month – more than 60 years after Zweig s death. Bridget Galton reports THE Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig committed suicide with his second wife Lotte in 1942

Celebrated author Stefan Zweig's novel The Post Office Girl is finally published in the UK next month - more than 60 years after Zweig's death. Bridget Galton reports

THE Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig committed suicide with his second wife Lotte in 1942, in despair over the fate of war-torn Europe.

Among his papers was the manuscript for a novel, The Post Office Girl, which receives its much delayed UK publication next month.

It tells the story of Christine, a provincial post office worker in depressed post World War One Austria. When a telegram from a wealthy American aunt summons her to the Swiss Alps she is swept up in a life of money and passion before being rudely deposited back where she came from.

The Cinderella-esque tale was written in the 1930s as Zweig - at the time the most popular and widely translated author of his day - became interested in the human cost of Capitalist boom and bust.

Sort of Books, based in Parliament Hill, Hampstead, snapped up the UK publishing rights after the novel garnered plaudits in the US.

"It's quite an event to have a new Zweig novel," says Natania Jansz of Sort of Books.

"Before the rise of the Nazis he was very famous, people would stop and ask for his autograph on the streets of Salzburg and Vienna.

"He has been called the most important author not known to the British readership but there are many fans from David Hare, and Ali Smith to Julia Neuberger and Salman Rushdie who think the time has come for a major revival.

"It is reaching a tipping point and I think he is going to become a widely read author."

Zweig grew up in Vienna and after studying philosophy became part of an avant garde movement espousing humanist and pacifist ideals as well as the unification of Europe.

He wrote plays, biographies of Magellan, Marie Antoinette and Mary Queen of Scots, and novels including The Royal Game and Beware of Pity.

He also befriended Sigmund Freud, the pair mutually admired each other's work with the older man saying Zweig's: "perfection of empathy combined with the mastery of linguistic expression left me with a feeling of rare satisfaction."

"He shared with Freud an interest in the psychological underpinnings of behaviour and he consciously used Freud's theories to great effect in creating psychologically insightful characters," says Jansz.

Zweig was not religious, but his Jewish parentage put him in grave danger as the Nazis rose to power and he fled to England in 1934.

Before he left he had written the libretto for the Strauss opera the Silent Woman. When Hitler decided to attend the 1935 premiere in Dresden, the composer came under pressure to remove Zweig's name from the poster. He refused, Hitler did not attend and the opera closed after three performances.

By that time Zweig was living off Portland Place in London, but he paid frequent visits to Hampstead when Freud moved to Maresfield Gardens in 1938. When the doctor died some months later it was Zweig who gave the German oration at his funeral at Golders Green crematorium on September 26, 1939.

Zweig moved to the United States and in 1941 to Brazil where he died at the age of 61.

"It is hard for us to imagine now but in 1942 Singapore had fallen, the war hadn't turned and it seemed that Hitler and Japan would triumph," says Jansz.

"Zweig had lost his home and witnessed the extermination of the people he belonged to and the collapse of his culture and every ideal he stood for.

"The Post Office Girl includes two characters who decide there is no future. They contemplate a double suicide and describe how they would do it in horrific detail. It is so prescient it gives the book an added power."

Jansz and her husband Mark Ellingham wrote the first ever Rough Guide in 1982 (to Greece) when they spotted a gap in the market for "a book for students who cared about the culture of the country they were travelling to and wanted to know about its politics and history".

Ellingham went on to run the hugely successful Rough Guide books business, while Jansz went off to do clinical psychology.

Then in 1999 the couple founded Sort of Books in the basement of their Hampstead home to publish a travel book by their friend Chris Stewart: Driving Over Lemons.

The tiny publishing house now puts out two to four titles a year.

"They are all books we feel passionate about, that have a chance of doing well and that we can get behind 100 percent to gain a wider readership," says Jansz.

These photos of Stefan Zweig are donated by Atrium Press Ltd based in West Hampstead. It holds a tiny photographic archive comprising a Zweig family album donated by Hampstead contacts of the author.

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