The return of Stefan Zweig

I have a feature on the Austrian writer in today’s Sunday Times (paywall). On assignment in Brazil last month, I paid a visit to the house where he and his wife Lotte took their own lives. It’s due to re-open as a museum and memorial later this summer:

Renamed Casa Stefan Zweig, it stands on a steep side street in a humble, traffic-clogged quarter of Petropolis, an hour’s drive along the mountain road north of Rio. Zweig and Lotte, his former secretary, arrived there in 1941. A committed pacifist and pan-European, he had been shattered by the rise of Nazism. After abandoning his beloved Salzburg, he had settled first in London, then Bath, before moving on to New York. Unable to adjust to the pace of life there, he emigrated to Brazil, a country with which he had fallen in love on a lecture tour some years earlier, his every appearance greeted by adoring crowds.

Petropolis promised to be a refuge where Zweig could devote himself to his work and recover his peace of mind. He even published an optimistic book, Brazil, Land of the Future, a motto still much in use today. Yet news of the war was impossible to ignore. On a visit to the Rio carnival in February 1942, Zweig saw headlines proclaiming the fall of Singapore and the sinking of a Brazilian merchant ship by a U-boat. Seemingly as calm as ever, he returned abruptly to Petro­polis with Lotte. They spent the next few days writing letters of farewell before taking their fatal overdose.

To visit the house is, inevitably, an eerie experience. The tiny bedroom where the couple’s bodies were found lying side by side is now a stark, whitewashed space that will be separated from the rest of the premises by a discreet curtain once the renovation — initiated by Zweig’s Brazilian biographer, Alberto Dines — is complete. Some of the house’s character has been sacrificed in the removal of interior walls to make space for visitors, but as you stand on the veranda, the tropical landscape stretching to the horizon, you can still understand why Zweig settled there.

And here’s a photo. I’ll probably post more in the next few days.

 

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