Last night, I attended a talk at the New York Public Library between Paul Holdengräber and George Prochnik, the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World. Three different publishers were involved; the room was packed and attentive. In the mysterious way of such things, Stefan Zweig is, after some sixty years of obscurity in the United States, having A Moment. Wes Anderson helps, of course; Grand Budapest Hotel was a tribute to Zweig’s work, and is the cause of much of the renewed interest. But that someone like Zweig—once the toast of the international literati—came to Anderson’s attention in the first place shows signs of the mysterious forces that create such ebbs and flows. What makes a trend? Maybe it has a bit to do with something Prochnik said last night: no one can engage in the work of biography without at least some belief in ghosts.
Spiritualism aside, I am told that the trends for 2014 encompass everything: chocolate-chip-cookie milk-shots, dressing like superheroes, indie crossover R&B. There seem to be a great many cozy dystopias appearing in films. I won’t even speculate on apps. Or exercise.
I can’t tell you why these things have found such popularity. Certainly, I can tell you anecdotally that all of a sudden everyone seems to be reading Stoner, by John Williams. We appreciate good weather as we never have, but we are wary of being made fools of. It is hard to buy clothing, even cheap clothing, without filtering everything through something intellectual. It is okay to talk about insurance, sometimes. I don’t know if it is a product of these ghostly forces, but for the first time in my life I have felt an irresistible urge to drink sidecars. All I know is that in order for these things to take any kind of hold, they must feel like revelations to someone, if only for a moment, before they pretend that they knew all along and then have to reject it as obvious. Is that occult?
Zweig is the rare case that allows for real debate about the nature of his Moment. As Clive James put it,
Largely because of his highly schooled but apparently effortless gift for a clear prose narrative, he attained, while he lived, immense popularity not just in the German-speaking countries but in the world entire, and he is still paying the penalty for it. Except in France, where his major works are never out of print, it is usually safer to call him second-rate. Safer, but not sound.
But when is the instinct to self-protection ever really sound? Or, for that matter, unsound? It is the most universal and perennial of trends, maybe. Zweig himself wrote, “Never can the innate power of a work be hidden or locked away. A work of art can be forgotten by time; it can be forbidden and rejected but the elemental will always prevail over the ephemeral.” But surely to keep company with the ephemeral—in perpetuity—is the greatest triumph of all, no? That’s what ghosts do.