Sorel and Seksik, The last days of Stefan Zweig (2012)

I don’t often talk here about graphic novels (I prefer this term to comic books), because I read only about 4-6 every year and I’m hard to please. But they should not be forgotten.

I took this one because I wanted to learn more about the circumstances of Stefan Zweig’s suicide, and not so much because of the graphic art. I must say that although Guillaume Sorel’s work is quite atmospheric and impressive, it is not really my cup of tea. I’ve been raised close to Belgium, which the kingdom of “la ligne claire” when it comes to comic books, and I’ve never quite grown out of it.

[La ligne claire (clean line) is a style of simple drawings, without shadows]

Anyway, this graphic novel was first a novel by Laurent Seksik published in 2010. I could have picked the novel but the graphic one was among the newest library acquisition when I passed by. I couldn’t resist.

It had always been unclear to me why Stefan Zweig had committed suicide together with his young wife in Brazil in 1942, after he’d managed to escape Germany. In my view, he could have started over or waited it out on the other side of the world. Brazil, in comparison to the turmoil of the rest of the world, seemed a great, peaceful place to be.

Of course, I was naïve to think that way. In 1942, nobody knew when the war would be over or which side would win. In fact, the Nazis didn’t seem in bad shape at all. The US had entered the war but a few days before Zweig’s suicide, the British side had suffered a major setback when Singapore fell to the Japanese (this part of history had totally escaped me, as my history classes always focused on the European war and never on the Pacific war).

In the book, this is presented as the tipping point for a deeply depressed man who lived in nostalgia for a world that no longer existed, that of the multi-cultural, highly intellectual Vienna and peaceful and civilized Europe. He couldn’t imagine a world after the Nazi barbarity and too many of his friends had died. He couldn’t really adapt to a new country and a new world. Not everyone was hopeful enough to fight back.

This is clearly not a book to pick up when you’re feeling melancholy, but otherwise, an impressive and deeply moving read. I completed my reading with a short recording from the French radio about Stefan Zweig’s life (available here): a great incentive to read Stefan Zweig again, especially The World of Yesterday, the book he last wrote in Brazil.


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