Carefulness and obscurity in fiction

I’ve been reading Stefan Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday. Zweig is a writer from the inter-war period whose literary reputation has really gone up in the last ten years. I remember 5-10 years ago reading this article that was like, “Hey, there’s this dude out there, Stefan Zweig. He wrote this story, ‘The Royal Game,’ that’s a metaphor for the conflict between nations that led to World War II.” And that was it. His reputation was confined largely to that one story. He was a curio piece.

Now, thanks to the translation and reissuing of his novels and, lately, of this memoir, he’s roared back to life. Thanks must be given here, as with many literary resuscitations, to the NYRB classics imprint. I read two of Zweig’s novels, Beware of Pity and the Post-Office Girl in NYRB editions. His memoir, however, was put out by the University of Nebraska Press! It’s almost unbelievable, considering that it has hundreds of Amazon reviews and has attracted quite a bit of critical acclaim.

Like Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (which I’ve never read), Zweig’s novel is an evocation of a lost world: the Vienna of the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was a particularly fertile period for fiction. Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities and Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March were also written during this time, as well as a host of lesser books that may or may not also be making a comeback (of the authors Zweig mentions in his book, I’ve read works by Hugo von Hoffmansthal and Arthur Schnitzler as well, and Schnitzler at least deserves to be more widely known).

As with all memoirs of bygone times, it’s hard to know what is real and what isn’t. Zweig describes a time of literary ferment, when everybody cared deeply for culture and art, when theater actors were mobbed on the street, when the conductor of the Opera or the Symphony was a superstar, and when 18 year old kids looked upon poets and authors almost as divine beings, completely separate from you and me.

I don’t entirely disbelieve this account. I’ve only been to Vienna once, but it struck me that even today, it’s a city that prides itself on being cultured. Even the commercials that showed on television had a very dreamy, artistic quality, and I have a vivid recollection of wandering through a public park as an aria from the Marriage of Figaro was pumped through the square by loudspeakers.

But even within this ferment, Zweig sought out a somewhat niche area. He avoided the popular press, he avoided the big imprints that sometimes published lighter fiction, and he exclusively sought out only the most renowned presses, theaters, and publications. As a result, his work, those of his fellows, and those of his idols, was often very unknown during the time in which he worked. He in particular recalls during his time in Paris that the writers in whom he was interested were the exact opposite of the super-star writer. They were humble people, who often worked minor civil service jobs, lived simple and bourgeois lives, and wrote without expectation of reward. He also comments that the three people in Paris who would later make the biggest impression on the literary world, Paul Valery, Marcel Proust, and Romain Rolland, were all entirely unknown even in the literary world at this time.

I’ve several times now read literary memoirs about small groups of highly intellectual people who wrote in periodicals with poor circulations or for small presses or in tiny editions, and who later had an outsized influence on the world (also coming to mind is Norman Podhoretz’s memoir Making It), and I can’t deny that there is something very attractive about this image.

It’s all farce and image, of course. Plenty of authors seek out immediate notoriety. Plenty of great authors write for money, or write for the commercial press. But I am attracted to the monastic quality that Zweig describes, the sense that the work itself has its own purity that will someday shine through. He tells, for instance, of going to visit Rodin in his workshop, and seeing Rodin start to work on a sculpture. The artist works for a few minutes, making corrections to a clay model, and when he’s done he’s surprised to find a strange young man in his studio: he’d entirely forgotten that Zweig was in the room.

This vision of artistic greatness has seeped into our culture and congealed. Books nowadays come with their own creation myths that are released in tandem, or even before, publication. The story of how The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took ten years to write, for instance, or the idea of the immense periods of time that elapse between books by Donna Tartt or Jeffrey Eugenides. Yet oftentimes that labor is more of a reaction to celebrity culture than it is an inherent demand of the work. I think oftentimes authors take a long period to follow up on books simply because the pressure of delivering another success is so immense. In some ways this is the opposite of the careful, painstaking work of a Proust or of a Romain Rolland.

In my own revisions, I’ve really been enjoying the gentle suturing I’ve done on the book. Most of the changes I’m making aren’t going to matter to the reader, but they matter a lot to me. I do feel slightly resentful that the work needs to come to an end. Part of me thinks a few more rounds of revision would really be useful.

Everything about this book has been hurried. I wrote it to fulfill my contract with Disney, then after losing my agent and publisher, I rewrote it, feeling hurried and oppressed, because I wanted it to sell but I also didn’t quite have the same faith in the book. Then since it’s sold I’ve been working on my publisher’s (albeit very generous) deadlines. I’ve worked quite a bit on the book, but every word in it is also new since August of this year, and I feel that newness in the pages. Even now, I’m writing new scenes, and I think, well, these scenes are more or less going straight to press, they won’t ever get that time to sit and be mulled over.

The structure of the book is excellent. It’s as perfect a thing as I’ve ever put out, but I still somehow want more from it. And yet I also feel that the market won’t really reward that care. Whether the book succeeds or fails will depend entirely upon only the broadest possible reactions: whether people identify with the protagonist whether librarians and teachers think it’s ‘important’; whether it arouses in kids a sense of hope and longing. By the time they get to the third chapter, they’ll either be sold on the book or they won’t, and the rest won’t particularly matter.

I think all writers ultimately know this. Zweig had books and plays accepted by the most prestigious venues in Austria at an early age, and yet he pooh-poohs these works, saying he’s never allowed them to be reprinted. He knew instinctively that he hadn’t yet created anything truly great.

In the same way, I think writers need to hold themselves to higher (and different) standards than the market does, and yet that’s not an easy thing to do, because the mere fact that these standards are different means they are unrenumerated. Nor will you even have the satisfaction of seeing readers or critics grasp what you’re doing–they might like it, but they’re unlikely to like it because of those things you put into it. A really intelligent and sympathetic reading is something that most authors don’t get until they’re well into their careers.

This book is done (or almost so). I honestly don’t think I could handle another round of revision. But with my next book I hope to be able to take more care throughout.