‘A few, rare moments of inspiration’ [book review]

A review of Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Anthea Bell

Earlier this year I enthusiastically reviewed Stefan Zweig’s memoir, The World of Yesterday, so I had absolutely no hesitation in picking up another of his non-fiction titles. Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures is a now slightly dated but still eminently readable voyage through significant moments of history, offering a new angle on well-known stories and a glimpse into lives hitherto unexplored. Written with his signature exuberant intellectualism, Shooting Stars is also a perfect introduction to Zweig’s style of non-fiction prose and the lens through which he viewed the world.

Shooting Stars Stefan Zweig

Beginning with the discovery of the Pacific Ocean in 1513 and proceeding through topics as varied as the composition of Handel’s Messiah, the Battle of Waterloo, the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable and the race to the South Pole, Shooting Stars is a potted history of the world in moments of ‘greatness’. As with any project of this nature, there is a good deal of subjectivity involved – it is up to Zweig to define what exactly constitutes ‘greatness’, and while all the stories he selects no doubt had an impact on politics, economics, culture or technology, their considerable differences makes it hard to rank them in terms of importance. For some readers, the new technological era ushered in by the laying of the transatlantic cable will vastly outweigh a moment of musical genius; for others, the origins of the Gold Rush may pale into insignificance compared with the sacking of Byzantium. This is one of the great features of the book – incorporating military, political and social history, there really is a story for every interest here – but also means that it is perhaps best taken slowly, savoured one chapter at a time over several days.

Despite their inherent differences, the one characteristic these ten historical portraits share is their transience: as the title suggests, Zweig has chosen to illuminate fleeting moments of human history, many of which were the product of circumstance. Of course it could be said that any historically defining episode can be described as coincidental or short-lived, especially when viewed with the benefit of hindsight, but Zweig has taken care to explain how these events almost never happened or ended up belonging in a different biography. One of the best examples of this is surely the chapter on Waterloo, a battle which (and this was news to me) could have resulted in victory for Napoleon had it not been for the unswerving obedience of one brilliantly named Marshal Grouchy – a lesson on the benefits of using personal initiative if ever there was one. By focusing on people as well as events, Zweig demonstrates the fickle nature not just of fate but of collective human memory, which is of course responsible for deciding who gets written up in the annals and who goes unremembered.

‘Destiny makes its urgent way to the mighty and those who do violent deeds,’ writes Zweig, yet he himself was a man much concerned with philosophy, literature and the less violent pursuits. As such, his moments of historic greatness are often skewed towards the quest for knowledge or advancement of culture, and his personal admiration for men such as Handel or the members of the Scott expedition shines through in prose that is vivid and inspired. Zweig writes in the present tense, occasionally stepping back into the role of historical commentator, but most often adopting a tone of immediate, lyrical descriptiveness that brings his figures alive on the page. There is at times an almost breathless quality to his writing that suggests how he was carried away by each of these stories, how much each of these moments meant to him personally. Not just an informative history for readers, Shooting Stars often seems like an expression of the author’s wish to write himself into history, using his imagination to participate in scenes he yearned to have witnessed.

It is moving, the almost schoolboy-like enthusiasm with which Zweig goes about his authorial duties here, and the sense that he was so wrapped up in his subjects goes a long way to mitigating what can be an overwrought style of writing. While his flights of fancy do become a little much at certain points, it is also possible to overlook this and view the book as a product of its time (the individual chapters of Shooting Stars were originally published in German in 1927 and 1940). Also no doubt a consequence of the time in which Zweig was writing – though for a modern reader far less forgivable – is the distinct absence of women from this book: not a single chapter looks at a female achievement, and only a handful of women in supporting roles are even granted the dignity of being named. As a book with an appealing structure and concept, it must be high time that someone wrote a female-led version of Shooting Stars as well.

Casting aside this major omission and matters of personal taste when it comes to prose style, we are left with a highly enjoyable and approachable collection of historical portraits written from an extremely personal angle. Personal in that they illuminate individual, perhaps forgotten figures in history; personal in that each story clearly meant a lot to Zweig himself; and personal in that nearly every one was composed when the author was in exile from his home country, dealing with the horrors of Nazism and the Second World War. That this was much on Zweig’s mind is clearest in the final chapter – an examination of the role Woodrow Wilson played at Versailles in 1919, which would have far-reaching consequences for Europe – but it comes through at plenty of other moments as well. Throughout the book, Zweig tries to concentrate on ‘what are the true triumphs of men, because they were achieved jointly’ – for each dazzling figure, there is an entire cast of supporting characters. Individual greatness is all very well, he seems to be saying, but humankind’s biggest achievements have been the result of team effort.

Read individually, but especially when taken together in this context, the stories contained within Shooting Stars could be a kind of personal lifeline. At a time in which the world appeared to be nearing total moral collapse (at least from Zweig’s perspective), this was perhaps his way of focusing on what makes humankind brilliant, an attempt to find comfort in remembering moments at which men worked together to bring about something good. As with his wonderful memoir and much of his fiction, there is an air of poignancy about this book that again left me wondering what Zweig would make of the world today. I hope that, dark though the night sky can seem, he would still see how many flashes of brightness it contains.

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