The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World by George Prochnik, book review


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There is a dual meaning in this subtitle. When he took his own life in 1942 Stefan Zweig was convinced that the civilisation he had been born into was close to extinction.

Marooned in a bungalow in Brazil, he could hardly have wandered further from his homeland. Cut off from occupied Europe, his books burned by the Nazis, this most cosmopolitan of souls lost the will to survive in an age in which the German language itself had become a mark of shame.

Seven decades later, of course, his reputation is flourishing once more. Wes Anderson's film The Grand Budapest Hotel may have had little real connection with the creator of Beware of Pity, but the fact that Anderson claimed the Austrian writer as an inspiration marked yet another step in Zweig's rehabilitation.

The Impossible Exile isn't the first recent study. Oliver Matuschek's conscientious biography arrived a couple of years ago, and Alberto Dines' bustling 700-page account, written from a Brazilian point of view, has yet to be translated into English. As an introduction to its subject's life and times, though, George Prochnik's portrait could hardly be bettered. A New York intellectual whose own family fled Austria in the 1930s, he embarks on a journey retracing Zweig's fretful search for a refuge, from London to Bath to Manhattan, and ending in Petropolis, the restful city in the hills above Rio de Janeiro where the 60-year-old Zweig and his much younger second wife, Lotte, spent days writing farewell letters before taking their fatal overdose.

It's not a conventional chronological narrative. Prochnik is more interested in interweaving themes and obsessions, from Zweig's passion for order and silence – he once described his books as "handfuls of silence, assuaging torment and unrest" – to his ambivalent sense of Jewishness and his exploration of society's erotic codes and hypocrisies. In public, Zweig seemed the most urbane and self-assured of authors, the mirror image of his friend Joseph Roth. Without spending much time on the books themselves, Prochnik demonstrates how passions stirred just below the surface. He's particularly acute on how exiles in America struggled to adjust to a democratic society in which they rubbed shoulders with the common man rather than members of the romantic underworld of Vienna or Berlin.

As he follows in Zweig's footsteps, Prochnik sheds light on the darkness that consumed him in his final years. And Lotte, too, emerges as a much more fully rounded figure. News of their suicide came as a terrible shock to Zweig's admirers and friends. The Impossible Exile makes that final act seem much more comprehensible.