The Last Days
Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.
It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then his fans have wondered what life must have been like for him in his last few months.
Absent the mystery of what happens, what remains is why. These days it might be difficult for us to imagine why he’d want to kill himself. He was a successful writer and met devoted followers everywhere he went. He had successfully escaped Europe before Hitler’s army could capture him (though many of his friends and family members weren’t so lucky). By 1942, he was waiting out the war in warm, sunny Brazil, where alcohol-fueled celebrations in the street seemed routine. His wife, Lotte, was a picture of youth and devotion. Why commit suicide when life seemed so full of opportunities for happiness. The Last Days is Seksik’s attempt to answer that question.
The book opens in September 1941, when Zweig and Lotte move into a little house in Petrópolis, Brazil, having lived in New York and London. Once again Zweig finds himself struggling to adjust to a new place. Meanwhile, his home country is torn to pieces by the Nazis. Zweig finds it difficult to focus on new writing projects. News of the war’s advance becomes more horrific, and at one point, he realizes that “news of barbarism’s sweeping victories no longer affected him like it used to . . . Had he grown jaded?”
The Last Days does not paint the portrait of a man who has become jaded. Rather, Stefan Zweig is portrayed here as a man deeply affected by what’s happening in his homeland—a man who cannot put out of mind Germany and the evils of the Third Reich. He copes as best as he can. At one point, he attempts to believe that he, like the essayist Michel de Montaigne, must not “worry about humanity as it self-destructs” but rather “go ahead and build your own world.” But the novel shows that such bulwarks cannot possibly hold, and eventually he recounts lines from his own play, Jeremiah, written years ago: “I have cursed my God and extinguished Him from my soul.” By the last month, a friend remarks that he knows what books Zweig’s would take with him on a desert island, and the narrator, in Zweig’s unmistakable darkened view, remarks that “they were already living on a desert island.”
While it’s clear that World War II and Nazi atrocities push Zweig over the edge, it’s also clear that Zweig was a dark soul from the get-go. Multiple references to Zweig’s past work, including Jeremiah, indicate that the darkness inside him was held at bay only by hope that happiness may be possible someday. Similar references to Zweig’s first wife of thirty years, Friderike, indicate that she knew perhaps better than anyone the blackness that took up residence inside his soul.
The novel also charts another interesting why: why does Lotte, Zweig’s young wife, agree to commit suicide with him? Lotte, whom Zweig met in England while he was still married to Friderike, feels deep love for Zweig, but that’s not the full answer to the question. Lotte also feels guilt for falling in love with and stealing away a married man. Her devotion is, in that sense, balanced by a sense of obligation to enjoy what she has taken away, to justify the theft. That Zweig still has a certain place in his heart for Friderike leaves Lotte in constant competition with Friderike, even though Friderike has no interest in regaining what she has lost. Feeling this sense of competition, Lotte aspires to be the perfect wife, and to her this means following Zweig wherever he may lead—including the grave.
To illustrate this point, Seksik makes use of Zweig’s own writing. Years earlier, Zweig wrote a biography of Kleist (called Kleist) which applauds Kleist’s decision to kill himself and his wife. Zweig had told her to avoid reading this biography, to save it for last, if she ever did decide to read all of his work, but then she overhears a conversation he has with a friend about it, and begins to read it. Inside she finds that Kleist sought a woman who was “sensitive and highly suggestible, and therefore open to the promptings of his morbid enthusiasm.” In this way, Lotte learns that she has been chosen to die with him, and to refuse him would be to deny that she is actually what he professes to love. In this way, one could argue that Lotte was a victim, dragged to her grave in the name of love.
The novel is a convincing character study of a man tormented not only by the war but his own demons, which the war emboldened. The use of Zweig’s own texts adds authenticity to the novel, but the characters don’t lean too heavily on primary source material. Seksik’s imagination has reached into a key part of Europe’s history—the emotional turmoil of those living in exile while Europe burned.