One Way to Put It

Stefan Zweig, according to the literary supplement to the Economist magazine, “was in the 1920s and 30s one of the most famous writers in the world.”

In 1929 Zweig wrote Joseph Fouché, The Portrait of a Political Man, a book that is not only still in print but even has an electronic edition. All of the historians and thinkers who have considered the career of this survivor, Zweig wrote, mistook him: a double-dealer, an intriguer, with no principles, they said; only the great Honoré de Balzac, according to Zweig, in an aside in one of his least-read books, A Murky Business, gave Fouché his due — a great criminal who ” . . . was a man of deep, unequalled, unsuspected genius,

a genius undoubtedly as great as [that of] Philip II, Tiberius [Caesar], and Cesare Borgia. . . . Fouché was the only real minister Napoleon ever had. Napoleon feared him at that time. Fouché, Masséna, and Prince Talleyrand are the three greatest men, with the strongest intellectual power on diplomacy, war, and government, that I have ever known. If Napoleon had frankly associated them with his work, Europe would no longer exist, but only a vast French Empire.

(translated from the French by Herbert Hunt, who died in 1973)

In real life, Zweig continues, it is not necessarily (indeed it is seldom) the heroic figure who controls the flow of events, but the more skillful fellow, the one who stays in the background (as Fouché did, running Napoleon’s Ministry of Police).

So a biography of a powerful but little-known figure, by an author so talented that the New York Review of Books this year brought out half a dozen of his books in reprint editions in their “Classics” series, can be rewarding reading simply for its study of humanity.

And indeed, when in 1794 Fouché is threatened by his old friend from his provincial youth in the Atlantic seaport of Nantes, Maximilien Robespierre,
and the two have a personal interview, Zweig characterizes the latter in a few well-chosen words:

Denn dieser Mann, der leidenschaftlich die Tugend liebt und ebenso leidenschaftliche und lasterhaft in seine eigene Tugend verliebt ist, kennt keine Nachsicht und Verzeihung für einen, der jemals anderer Meinung als er selbst gewesen.

That is [in my translation]

For this man — who loved virtue so passionately and who was so equally passionately and viciously in love with his own virtue — had no patience or tolerance for anyone who had any opinion other than his own.

Dear Reader, this is a portrait to the life of one of my Party colleagues who, were I to name him, would doubtless demand that I be stripped of all Party office and barred ever again from any position of responsibility. No, I am not kidding, as Dave Barry was wont to write. So let him remain nameless here. A man of the shadows.

About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
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