How Wes Anderson's "spiritual adaptation" of Stefan Zweig's writing reveals the melancholy – and the danger – in nostalgia.
In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera insists that it’s not his place to lay out a theory of literature — this is the job of the novel itself. “Every novelist’s work,” he argues, “contains an explicit vision of the history of the novel, an idea of what the novel is.” This throat-clearing is followed by an essay containing a wonderful and wonderfully concise summary of European literature, from its origin with Cervantes (who “inquires into the nature of adventure”) to Proust probing the “elusive past” and Joyce prodding the “elusive present”.
As I was recently re-reading Stefan Zweig, I wondered what place in this history the early twentieth-century writer takes. What vision of literature does his writing offer? The answer seems self-evident in the perspicuous set of values he espoused across his many stories, single novel, and irreplaceable memoir: Zweig was the first self-consciously European writer, not as an author from a contingent continent, a coincidental collection of nations bound by arbitrary borders, but as an author emerging from and representing a set of values he thought of as distinctly European. Zweig was a writer of Europe as an ideal.
It was the particulars of this ideal as represented in Zweig’s only novel, Beware of Pity, that drew director Wes Anderson to the novelist as a source of inspiration for what would become The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson found in this novel the “details of a universe most of us have no experience of”. In a conversation with Zweig’s biographer, George Prochnik, Anderson describes the unique way Zweig captures the Vienna of his youth, and in this we read a microcosmic depiction of Zweig’s European idealism:
“The daily newspapers they got each morning had poetry and philosophical writings. He and his friends went to meet in cafés regularly in groups. And there were new plays continuously being produced, and they were all following these playwrights. Vienna was a place where there was this great deep culture...”
There is no direct adaptation of Zweig’s stories in Anderson’s movie; the director opts for more of a spiritual adaptation, a translation of the thematic and value-suffused core of Zweig’s writing into cinematic language. There are, for instance, none of the aforementioned coffee houses or plays in the movie (though Ralph Fiennes’ infinitely watchable Monsieur Gustave does deliver a daily philosophical treatise and poetry recitation before his employees eat their dinner each evening).
There is, however, an early scene in which Monsieur Gustave lectures Zero, our young protagonist hopeful for a career at the hotel, on the definition of a lobby boy. His monologue plays out over a montage of the kind of high society that had begun to fade at the time of the film’s setting in 1932. The speech, too, while differing in content from Anderson’s representation of Zweig’s Vienna, echoes its high standards and idealism. To the question, “What is a lobby boy?” Monsieur Gustave waxes poetic:
“A lobby boy is completely invisible, yet always in sight. A lobby boy remembers what people hate. A lobby boy anticipates the client’s needs before the needs are needed. A lobby boy is, above all, discreet to a fault. Our guests know their deepest secrets – some of which are, frankly, rather unseemly – will go with us to our graves.”
This attention to detail and application of the highest standards is taken directly from Zweig’s conception of Europe as a centre of culture, and is applied here to the high-minded view some characters take to the elegant and highly-regarded Grand Budapest Hotel. In fact, when Monsieur Gustave asks Zero in his job interview, “Why do you want to be a lobby boy?” Zero’s response (“Well, who wouldn’t — at the Grand Budapest, sir? It’s an institution”) could stand in for Zweig’s dialogue in a fantasy scenario in which he is stopped at the gates to Europe and asked why he wants to be a member of this transnational community: “Who wouldn’t — in Europe? It’s an institution.”
Zweig as chronicler of a European ideal is only a partial description, and what’s left out is what makes Zweig so distinctly Zweig. He was a writer of Europe as a vanishing ideal, a Europe that once was. It’s striking that the earlier chapters of his memoir, which deal with the golden age of Vienna, read with the immediacy of fiction. These early scenes exist in a state of perpetual present; as the writer ages throughout the memoir and we read our way into the twentieth century — and the “suicide of Europe”, as he thought of it — the sense of these being memories grows, and the hint of the past- rather than present-tense increases. For Zweig, the past was more salient to him than the present — even though it would be Europe’s present that would determine how his story unfolded.
The unnerving way that hindsight underscores even the greatest joy depicted in those bygone days is replicated artfully in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Our first look at the once-grand Grand Budapest shows us a drab, Brutalist refurbishment of the hotel, which was “by that time, decidedly out of fashion, and had already begun its descent into shabbiness and eventual demolition”. This knowledge of the end of the establishment’s road is mostly pushed to the back of one’s mind by the glory and vitality of the hotel as it was, which is how it is for most of the movie. However, that knowledge of the dismal future means that even as we enjoy this temporarily-recalled present, we know that it’s doomed.
Zweig rarely wrote a story without a narrator remembering a meeting with an interesting character who recounts the actual story. Anderson borrows this with a teenaged girl visiting the statue of a beloved writer, leading us back to the heyday of said writer, through to his past in which he met an elderly Zero, before drawing us in to the story of Zero’s beginnings at the hotel. This is more than homage — this is a method of tapping the melancholy that comes with tragic knowledge of the future, as well as Zweig’s personal sadness at the fate of his beloved Europe. It is, after all, not only the hotel whose future we know at the start of the story: a title card opens the movie with the information that we are in “the former Republic of Zubrowka”, which was “once the seat of an empire”. This is a country that is no more, evidence of the changing landscape of a vanishing continent.
For Zweig, for this movie, and certainly for Monsieur Gustave and his high idealism about the hotel he so lovingly presides over, remembrance of things past is paramount. In this way, Gustave embodies Zweig’s romanticism for a way of life and set of values belonging to an earlier time. In its specific manifestation as a love of Europe, this romanticism is how Zweig embodies Milan Kundera’s definition of a European: “One who is nostalgic for Europe.”
But between Monsieur Gustave and Zero, it is the lobby boy who most closely resembles Zweig. Monsieur Gustave believes that the way things were should not be remembered merely to make an artefact of the past out of them, but to serve as an example of how things ought to be — that is, how they ought to remain. He has faith in the longevity of the institution he upholds. Zero, however, is able to see that what Monsieur Gustave takes for reality is something of a myth. Perhaps this is because Zero outlasts the hotelier, surviving long after Monsieur Gustave is shot by fascists, or perhaps because he was born into the end of Gustave’s world rather than into its glory days. At the end of the movie, Zero says:
“[Gustave’s] world had vanished long before he ever entered it. But I will say – he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace.”
Both Zero and Zweig understand that things end, including those things they most love, and all that remains is to stoically and nobly preserve their memory, even at some personal cost. It can be incredibly painful to remember such things. Asked why he “had traded a great and important fortune in exchange for one costly, unprofitable, doomed hotel”, Zero is ready with a simple yet sincere answer: “The hotel I keep for Agatha,” he says, referring to his long-since departed wife. “We were happy here, for a little while.”
Given how cynical Zweig became at the end of his life about the chances of Europe’s survival, it would be fair to wonder why he invested so much in remembering it, going so far as writing the lengthy memoir that became his final work. I can imagine him answering this with something similar to Zero’s reply — that he kept his Europe alive in his writing because he had been happy there, for a while.
In Zweig’s work — rich with aesthetic and moral beauty, and brought to life with the charm of nostalgia — there’s very little sense of the future. Reading Zweig, one feels that while there were such things as true beauty and joy, they exist now only in the past tense, that everything good is either long gone or on its way out. The future rarely figures into his stories, and to the extent that the future figured into the man’s own thinking, it seems to have been a shadow looming over the diminishing light of yesterday.
This is probably why, a decade into exile in Brazil where they’d fled their homeland and the Nazi terror, Zweig and his wife dressed themselves up — he in a suit with the collar buttoned and tie straight, she in an elegant kimono — then swallowed a lethal dose of sleeping pills and lay down together for the final time. When the police found the couple, his hand held hers and her head was resting on his shoulder. One hopes they drifted off thinking of the best of the lives they’d lived. In his suicide letter, Zweig wrote:
“Every day I learned to love this country [Brazil] more, and I would not have asked to rebuild my life in any other place after the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself. But to start everything anew after a man’s 60th year requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless.”
This man gifted with the ability to invent stories could not write a future for himself. His story had been written and lived, and he had no more to tell.
Here, an important departure is made in Anderson’s film from the man who inspired it. Like Zweig, Zero suffers great loss: first, when Monsieur Gustave is dragged away by a death squad and shot; second, when his wife and baby both die a little over a year later. The world as it was is so brutally and quickly taken from him. But there’s an Easter egg near the film’s opening that suggests a path for Zero that’s different to the self-induced end-of-the-road that Zweig opted for. A series of newspapers are briefly shown on-screen and their headlines give us the short version of Zero’s rise to economic and social prominence. Pausing at this moment on one of the articles, we read:
“[Monsieur Gustave’s] death was a great blow to the young Lobby Boy, but it was the loss of his wife and infant child fourteen months later that, some say, permanently and irrevocably crushed his spirit. Perhaps this was, in its infinite sadness and mystery, to the benefit and salvation of the people of Zubrowka. He emerged from this tragedy fearless and bent on self-sacrifice, gave his life to the liberation of his adopted nation — and lived.”
How much hope — and how much potential for wondering, in the case of Stefan Zweig, “what if?” — those two words hold: and lived.
There is a fatalism in Zweig’s writing, born of his backwards gaze and after-the-fact knowledge, without which his work would not have his signature melancholy nor his particular wisdom. In some ways, he’s a figure of absurd tragedy, or tragic absurdity, as a conservative taken to the extreme, a reductio ad absurdum of the nostalgic perspective. For Zweig, at least at the end, it was not only that the past was better than the present, but that the past was all that there was.
But Zweig must have believed that his writing would go on living beyond him, given that he worked on his memoir until the end, delivering it to his publisher just days before his suicide. He still had faith that there might be some value in his “messages from a lost world” (as a posthumously published collection of his essays is titled). Even here, in this story of loss, the future cannot be completely annihilated, and the future is where hope resides. Or perhaps this is simply my own idealism that, like Zweig’s and Monsieur Gustave’s, will one day vanish. Until then, we keep our past with us, carry our values on — and live.
• The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera (1988); first published as L’Art du roman (1968)
• The Society of the Crossed Keys, Stefan Zweig, selections by Wes Anderson (2014)
• The Grand Budapest Hotel, dir. Wes Anderson (2014)