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Saturday, 24 January 2015

Tales of Burial and Resurrection

No wonder adults never used to remark on a child’s extensive vocabulary. Please look at the opening words of a book I was given to read aged eleven in 1965.

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So starts the story of The Buried Candelabrum, a historical novel that twins the destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of the Jewish diaspora with the second sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455.

But loath to rely on a hazy childhood memory, I instead offer a verbatim review from Kirkus.com:

The Buried CandelabrumBeautifully handled, the story mirrors the tragedy of the Jews of the Roman world trying to keep their traditions alive in the midst of scorn and exclusion. The legend in the making is created out of the fate of the seven branched candelabrum from the Temple of Solomon, seized by the Vandals in the sacking of Rome, carried to Carthage, kept there for a generation and taken again in the plundering of the Emperor Justinian who takes it to Constantinople. The connecting link between the two is Benjamin, who as a child was the last to see and touch the candlestick, and at eighty is called upon by his people to attempt to rescue it and restore it to Jerusalem. A fable which is symbolic of a great race, with its strength and weakness, and which rings true to the spirit of legend. The appeal will be first of all Jewish, but it should be wider than that, and Zweig's name will give it broader scope …

Yes, the author was Stefan Zweig, the once universally esteemed and popular Austrian-Jewish novelist, whose work fell into obscurity but is now enjoying a revival thanks in part to the Oscar-nominated film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, whose director,  Wes Anderson says is based on some of his settings and characters.

But more interesting even than Zweig’s output - which ranged from essays published by Theodor Herzl in the Neue Freie Presse to his memoir, The World of Yesterday - was why he and his second wife Lottie died in a suicide pact during February 1942. Stefan.Zweig

It appears that both were natural depressives, so perhaps the often-cited reasons  of exile and  dispossession are almost secondary.

Instead, I’d like to look at a piece by Francis Phillips in the current issue of the Catholic Herald which examines why Zweig chose suicide, when unlike so many  other Jews he was able to escape the Nazis.

It may well be that Zweig was too morally weak to cope with exile; that he feared growing old;  that the increasing persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany made him fear further displacement and that he became uncomfortable hearing German spoken as the language had been hijacked for Nazi propaganda and he felt ‘imprisoned’ by a tongue that he had grown reluctant to use.

Then Phillips argues that “even deeper, as a secular Jew and grand man of letters, was his sense of alienation from other (religious) Jews … in retrospect one can see Zweig’s final years of exile as a conscious descent into despair. Removed from all his purely human props and resources and without religious faith to sustain him, he simply felt he had nothing left to live for. Phillips adds that  Zweig had an “entirely selfish wish to die, knowing that his young second wife, completely under his influence and caught up in his deepening pessimism, would not consent to live without him”.

While Phillips’s argument  is reasonable, I suggest it has flaws. First, I argue that The Buried Candelabrum displays Zweig’s innate cultural attachment to Judaism; second that he and Lottie  had spent a good number of years in exile before their deaths and last, while Lottie was indeed almost half his age, she was also a mature adult with her own history of depression. In fact, for all we know, she may well have encouraged Zweig’s decision.  Most sadly, these sort of double-deaths are not uncommon in an artistic milieu, and I quote that of  the Hungarian-British author and journalist, Arthur Koestler and his wife,  Cynthia as a further example.

© Natalie Wood (24 January 2015)

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