"As others strain for eminent positions and to gain influence, celebrity, he labours only for himself. He has entrenched himself in his tower, he has raised the wall of his thousand books between himself and the clamour."
"Arguably the most important encounter, and the one whose implications remain hitherto unsung, especially in the English-speaking world, occurred in the autumn of 1941, in Petrópolis, Brazil, when, at the eleventh hour, Zweig discovered one Michel de Montaigne. For it was here in the spartan bungalow perched above the jungle, where the Zweigs were to spend the last pensive months of their lives, that Stefan, exploring the damp cellar soon after arrival, stumbled upon a “dusty old edition” of Montaigne’s famous Essais. The seemingly random discovery, “einen grossen Fund”, as he excitedly called it later in a letter to his ex-wife Friderike von Winternitz, proved a fateful intercession, and the sudden all-encompassing focus on Montaigne would eclipse competing works in progress during Zweig’s final months. More than any literary seduction, the stricken exile, so bereft of comradeship, was spiritually rewarded with a new-found friend, a fraternal counsellor speaking from a distance of four centuries, whose example chimed with Zweig’s ever more powerful inward convictions concerning personal freedom in the face of tyranny and the absolute necessity to remain true to oneself." From the introduction by Will Stone
The back story of this work is just amazing. Zweig and his second wife have left Europe, stopping inNew York City, to move permanently to Petrópolis, Brazil. He felt the Europe he loved, that of the halcyon days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was gong to be forever destroyed by the barbarism of the Nazis. He felt in Petróplois, close to Rio de Jeniro, he had found a retreat. The world as he knew it and had a place was in his mind coming permanently to an end. In one of the greatest bits of literary serendipity of which I have heard, in the basement of the house he is renting he finds a copy of the essays of the great French writer Montaine. He had never really previously read Montaine and begins to totally throw himself into the essays and the thoughts of Montaine. (1532 to 1592, considered the originator of the essay as a literary art form). Much of the work of Montaine is based on cultivating your self through intensive and extensive reading. Born into moderate wealth, for yeR he lived in a tower he had bui,t on his property, surrounded by 1000s of books. Both Zweig and Montaine are paradigms of The Reading Life.
Montaine had no lidelogy, no doctrines he advocated. He lived largely by and through his reading. He had a wife and children but rarely wrote about them. He withdrew from the world, refused the political positions his rank brought him, withdrawing within his tower.
"never mind the world! You cannot change it, or improve anything. Focus on yourself, save in yourself what can be saved. Build as the others destroy, strive to remain sane in the deluge of madness. Close yourself off. Construct your own world."
These thoughts below are as powerful now as they were in 1580 when they were written or 1939 when Zweig first read them
"Only the contemptuous stand in the way of freedom, and Montaigne despises nothing more than “la frénésie”,* the violent madness of those dictators of the spirit who crave with supreme arrogance and vanity to impose on the world their “glad tidings” as the sole and indisputable truth, and for whom the blood of hundreds of thousands of men is as nothing in the fanatical pursuit of their cause. This then is Montaigne’s attitude in the face of life, and as with all freethinkers it comes back to tolerance. He who demands freedom of thought for himself recognizes the same right for all men, and no one respected this tenet better than Montaigne."
I am grateful to Pushkin Press for publishing so much of Zweig in translation.