Stefan Zweig (1881-1941), the Austrian writer, and Thomas Mann were introduced to Rabindranath Tagore in the summer of 1921. True to their temperament, their reactions to Tagore were quite opposite to each other. Zweig, the suave cosmopolitan and altruistic humanitarian, had visited India in the winter of 1908/09.
He was appalled by the poverty and misery he saw and later bemoaned the feeling of “unsurmountable unfamiliarity” that overcame him when he faced India’s tumultuous life. Yet, he maintained an active interest in India’s freedom struggle and in her intellectual life. He also observed Rabindranath’s rise to fame in Europe and exchanged views on him with that other European intellectual with a keenly critical and supportive interest in India, Romain Rolland.
So when Kurt Wolff informed Stefan Zweig that Tagore was to change trains in Salzburg en route to Vienna, Zweig who resided in Salzburg, jumped at the chance to meet him. The short meeting was deeply meaningful to Zweig. Returning home, he immediately penned a letter to Wolff in which he wrote:
“Thank you very much for the information regarding Tagore’s travel programme. This enabled me to spend half an hour in his company today at Salzburg railway station while he changed trains. Thanks to you, I have encountered this great personality, of whom I formed a strong and profound impression.”
Zweig continued to observe Tagore’s impact on the European public. Zweig unequivocally appreciated Tagore’s message of humanism, while he was critical of Tagore’s ostensible penchant to seek publicity. When Tagore chose to visit the philosopher Count Hermann Keyserling in Darmstadt for a week, Zweig commented that Tagore “was unwise enough to have his visit publicly announced”. And in 1926 Zweig criticised Tagore for this “new mania of travelling around Europe as a missionary of the spirit” which he calls a “contageous disease”.
Stefan Zweig: Benares: Die Stadt der tausend Tempel. In: Zweig: Begegnungen mit Menschen, Büchern, Städten. S.Fischer Verlag, Berlin/Franklfurt 1956, p.260.
Kurt Wolff: Briefwechsel eines Verlegers. p. 414.
Romain Rolland – Stefan Zweig: Ein Briefwechsel 1910-1940. 1st vol. 1910-1923. Verlag Rütten & Loening, Berlin 1987, p.640f.
Rolland – Zweig: Briefwechsel. 2nd vol. 1924-1940. p.187.
Dr Martin Kämpchen is a writer on India and a translator of Tagore from Bengali to German. He lives at Santiniketan, India. For more information visit his website www.martin-kaempchen.com.
[Note: This is an excerpt of an article that has previously been published in Parabaas, July 25, 2003.]