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Stefan Zweig: A world pioneer of book marketing

The Salzburg Literary Archive has digitized the Austrian writer’s ledger, which shows how he ran his own work production like a company

Stefan Zweig
The writer Stefan Zweig.acantilado

In the 1920s, a rumor spread in literary circles that Hugo von Hofmannsthal was making fun of Stefan Zweig, a fellow Austrian writer whom he despised. Supposedly, Hofmannsthal was calling his enemy erwerbszweig – a German word meaning “commercial branch,” which also played with the author’s surname.

Clearly, not everyone was thrilled with Zweig’ success. During the interwar period in Europe, the popular novelist – born in Vienna in 1881 to a wealthy Jewish family – was widely read and translated. The author of books such as The World of Yesterday and Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman constantly topped the bestseller lists in the 1920s and 30s. By the time his works were banned by the Nazis, more than a million copies of his novels were in circulation.

Hofmannsthal’s mockery did, in fact, have a bit of truth to it. Zweig – who published more than 60 works of fiction and non-fiction in his life – was not a typical writer. He was the so-called total writer – he wrote constantly, with a strict production schedule. Today, evidence of this is finally available to the general public.

In 1932, Zweig began to scribble in an enormous black leatherette notebook – a hauptbuch, or ledger. In the 119 pages, he annotated – with industrial precision – the inventory of his literary production. This is how he kept track of international publishers, various translations, distribution, film rights, theatrical adaptations, the conclusion of contracts, payments… and even the pirated copies of his books that were reportedly circulating.

For the past 22 yeras, the Hauptbuch has been held at the headquarters of the Salzburg Literary Archive, which is in the same square where the Nazis burned Zweig’s books in April of 1938, shortly after Hitler annexed Austria. But now, Zweig’s ledger is available online. For several years now, the archive has been working on digitizing Zweig’s personal collection, so that it can be consulted in a more accessible format.

“The Hauptbuch shows that Zweig’s office was more like a company, rather than the classic idea of the solitary author at his desk,” says archivist Lina Maria Zangerl. “There were many people involved in the management and dissemination of his work… not just editors and translators, but also his two wives and his secretary, Anna Meingast. [The ledger] also serves as a symbol of the era, in which literary marketing began to play an increasingly important role.”

Stefan Zweig
Stefan Zweig's ‘Hauptbuch.’ Literaturarchiv Salzburg

The writer made the most of the communications revolution at the start of the 20th century. He cared about the impact of marketing and promotion, and tried to get different translations released simultaneously.

Oliver Matuschek – author of The Three Lives of Stefan Zweig – spoke to EL PAÍS by telephone from Berlin:

“I don’t know of any other author from that period who carried a similar book. But who had as many different translations and editions of his works as he did? Many authors left the management of their rights abroad to their publishers. Zweig’s editors offered to take care of everything for him – but he refused.”

Zweig even commissioned the design of his Hauptbuch from a local printer.

“I am sure that Zweig, as the son of a textile merchant, was familiar with how ledgers worked. The term hauptbuch belongs to the specialized vocabulary of accounting… this leads us to the banking and merchant roots of the Zweig family,” Matuschek explains.

Every November 28, the archive celebrates Zweig’s birthday. To commemorate him in 2022 – 80 years after he and his wife committed suicide in Brazil – hundreds of documents and 2,300 images related to the writer’s life have been uploaded to the website. Online visitors can read pages from his travel diaries, research material for his novels, as well as the original preface to Clarissa, which he wrote on the eve of his suicide. Despite its brevity, the preface was ultimately never published with the novel:

“This novel started as … the world between 1902 and the outbreak of the war (World War II) seen from the perspective of a woman. Only the first part is outlined: the beginning of the tragedy. Then, I interrupted it to work on Montaigne (a biography), disturbed by the events and the lack of freedom.”

The Archive has also put Anna Meingast’s encrypted journal online. Zweig’s efficient secretary wrote down confidential information about her employer’s life and work, in an indecipherable shorthand. Even today, the experts who have visited the archive have been unable to read it.

Meingast was loyal and brave to the end. At Zweig’s request, she guarded the Hauptbuch in her Salzburg home, despite the risk involved in hiding a Jewish book during the Nazi era. The ledger was subsequently kept by her son, Wilhelm, until it was donated to the Archive in December of 2000.

The encrypted diary kept by Anna Meingast, Zweig's secretary.
The encrypted diary kept by Anna Meingast, Zweig's secretary.

Zweig settled in Salzburg – the fourth-largest city in Austria – at the age of 38. His previous literary work – poetry, drama and reporting from the trenches of World War I – was largely unknown. What he began writing in Salzburg, on the other hand – his novels, essays and fictionalized biographies – made him a success. The villa he bought with the proceeds from his books was confiscated by the Reich, via property seizure laws that targeted Jews. A car magnate – Wolfgang Porsche – bought it in 2021 for about €8 million. Porsche’s father and grandfather were prominent Nazi collaborators.

In 1934, in light of Hitler’s rise in neighboring Germany, Zweig emigrated to England. After a brief stay in New York in 1940, he moved to Brazil, where he and his second wife, Lotte, spent their final years in the city of Petrópolis.

Zweig fell in love with the South American country: he even wrote a book called Brazil, Land of the Future. However, despite all the beauty around them, the couple felt despair as they witnessed the unchecked spread of fascism. They committed suicide the day after Zweig completed his final manuscript, The World of Yesterday, which describes the Austria he knew as a young man.

In his suicide note – discovered by local police – he wrote, in German, about the land of his exile:

“Every day I learned to love this country (Brazil) more… 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.”

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