The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World by George Prochnik, book review: Mitteleuropa’s tragic symbol

Stefan Zweig died in despair, but his  legacy helped heal a wounded world

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The Independent Culture

Stefan Zweig seemed to enjoy the Rio de Janeiro carnival of February 1942.

From his new home in the “lush perch” of nearby Petropolis, the émigré Viennese bestseller relished the warmth, grace and tolerance of Brazil’s “new kind of civilisation”, with its blessed absence of racism.

Meanwhile, in the Nazi-occupied Europe that the literary superstar had fled, total war had reached its deep midnight. With his younger second wife Lotte Altmann chronically ill, his peers scattered and the “posthumous existence” of the exile closing in, his depression deepened. A few days later, he took a fatal dose of barbiturate; Lotte followed him. Although their double suicide seemed to ratify Goebbels’ grim jest about artistic émigrés as “cadavers on leave”, the shock stiffened the resolve of Zweig’s many friends in the anti-Hitler diaspora. The New York Times ran a heartfelt editorial: not the refugees but the Nazis, it said, were the real exiles from civilisation, “branded with the mark of Cain”. By the end of 1942, after El Alamein and Stalingrad, a faint daybreak began. Zweig would never see that dawn.

 Thoughtful, evocative and quietly gripping, George Prochnik’s book about Zweig’s exemplary exile does not offer a cradle-to-grave biography. Oliver Matuschek, whom he fully credits, did that job superbly in 2011. Rather, The Impossible Exile braids this hugely successful writer’s ordeal of dispossession and homelessness after 1934 with the trajectory of Prochnik’s own family – like Zweig’s, Viennese Jews who moved to the Americas. He also travels in his subject’s footsteps and crafts aphorism-studded reflections on his work, life and times.

If such a hybrid genre presents pitfalls for the writer, it can also deliver rich rewards. Rebecca Mead, for one, reaped them in her fine book about a lifetime’s journey with George Eliot, The Road to Middlemarch. If this equally subtle blend invites that comparison, it may not be pure coincidence. George Prochnik and Rebecca Mead are husband and wife.

Prochnik’s family connections mean that Zweig’s frustrating spell in US suburbia looms large (it was mostly spent in Ossining outside New York – where Don Draper lives in Mad Men). He explores the spiritual dislocation of cultivated but déclassé refugees in this brisk, bland, busy America. Conversely, the years that Zweig spent in 1930s Bath only come into focus towards the end.

In Orwellian vein, this mercurial, sensual, sociable Viennese café-hopper used his interlude in Jane Austen land to examine and celebrate the “Keep calm and carry on” stoicism of his hosts. It both moved and exasperated him. Prochnik surmises that sheer provincial tedium as well as terror of German invasion may have driven him across the Atlantic. Zweig dug into our “phlegmatic national character” through the study (and practice) of gardening, that cross-class passion via which “the English earn their solidarity”.

 Prochnik treats Zweig as a tragic symbol of cosmopolitan Mitteleuropa, and of the secularised Jewish culture that so often made it tick and made it shine. Thus he need not make excessive claims for the fiction. Even at the time, rivals suspected that Zweig had bought his fame with crowd-pleasing middlebrow fluency. Prochnik can pay homage to this big-hearted, hyper-active visionary with a “genius for friendship” without making him the equal in exile of Thomas Mann or Sigmund Freud – whose eulogy Zweig delivered at Golders Green cemetery in 1939.

Typically, it fell to Zweig – the ultimate networker and stalwart volunteer – to do the job. Up the road in Hampstead, Prochnik speaks with Lotte’s niece Eva, who as a child lived with the couple. Now in her eighties, Eva can look back on a long, rich career in the health service and as a mentor for young musicians. Despairing solitude snuffed out Zweig’s own hopes. Yet his books endure – re-translated recently to loud acclaim – while those he nurtured would heal a wounded world. Through the lives and minds of others, the exile rebuilt his home.