An inadequate bulwark against the ravages of time – Stefan Zweig’s last books in Petrópolis’ municipal library

Susanna Brogi

“He shut himself up in his tower, he placed the bulwark of his thousand books between himself and the noise,” wrote Stefan Zweig in his essay fragment Montaigne during the last years of exile which had taken him to the Brazilian city of Petrópolis in August 1941. The passionate autograph and book collector was fascinated by the suggestive force of a bulwark of books putting distance between oneself and the world as few other contemporaries have been. Not even ten years earlier, Stefan Zweig was forced to leave his Kapuzinerberg villa in Salzburg, and with it his legendary library and autograph collection.

He auctioned off a significant part of his valuable collection at the beginning of his exile in England, but maintained a representative library in Bath. Zweig took along original manuscripts by prominent writers and composers mainly as an investment, but his remaining collection of books which could still be described as a “library” stayed behind in England when, during a trip to the United States, he decided not to return to Europe.

From that point on, Stefan Zweig had to revert to using other sources for research, and that’s how the search for Zweig’s last books led me to the Biblioteca Central Municipal Gabriela Mistral in Petrópolis. Zweig bequeathed the remaining books in his possession – fewer than 100 – to the municipal library there, which he had access to during the last five months of his life. The library director José Kopke Fróes had become one of his close acquaintances during this time in Petrópolis. Meanwhile, his estate has been passed into the hands of the accommodating library director Maria Luísa Rocha Melo and the charming Mariza da Silva Gomes at the Arquivo Histórico.


In one of the adjoining rooms of the archive, we find the small, extremely fragile collection behind a finely etched glass front of an unusually homely-looking bookcase – one which has not provided an adequate bulwark against the ravages of time. Investigating the materiality of the volumes, one cannot help but notice the damage evident in the split spines provisionally patched up with wide strips of tape, and in a condition which represents what their former owner considered a hopeless exile.

Here we discover a “Bong” edition of Goethe’s works alongside the luxurious “Sophie” edition dating back to Zweig’s years in Salzburg, for which he paid 90,000 marks in 1922. From a book scientific and literary perspective, even this edition, which has been reprinted numerous times since, is a one-of-a-kind, and traces of former library labels can be found inside the paper sleeve used by the present library. Various stamps and handwritten names of former owners and numerous other traces of provenance require more detailed analysis. Here we find what Zweig described in his Montaigne essay as “conversing with a pencil in hand” to characterise the ‘wild’ reading material which originated from Montaigne’s oeuvre:

“He enjoys responding, expressing his opinion, and so Montaigne is accustomed to jotting notes in the books, underlining and, at the end, noting the date when he read the book and the impression it made on him at the time. It is not critiquing, nor is it literary writing, but simply conversing with the pencil in hand, and he has absolutely no intention in the beginning to write down anything of coherence. But gradually the loneliness of his room starts to affect him, the many silent voices of the books keep demanding answers, and in order to control of his own thoughts, he attempts to put down some of them in writing.”

According to a legend which Zweig himself contrived, he met Montaigne in the basement of his home in Petrópolis – in the shape of one of the books left behind by its former owners. Specifically, the edition of the Essais, whose annotations on the bastard title unmistakeably expose the term “Freiheit” (Freedom). Its echo can be clearly heard as the legacy of its reader Stefan Zweig in a later draft of the Montaigne essay: “What I find especially moving and fascinating about Montaigne today is how he in times similar to ours was able to internally liberate himself, and how we, by reading him, can fortify ourselves in his spirit. I regard him as a primal father, a patron saint and friend of every “homme libre” (free man) on earth, as one of the best teachers of this new and yet eternal science of preservingoneself against everyone and everything.”

Susanna Brogi is working on the project Writers’ Libraries, which explores the subject of “Exile libraries of German-Jewish writers of the 20th century”. Her research work led her to Brazil in October.