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

“Stefan Zweig–affluent Austrian citizen, restless wandering Jew, stupendously prolific author, tireless advocate for pan-European humanism, relentless networker, impeccable host, domestic hysteric, noble pacifist, cheap populist, squeamish sensualist, dog lover, cat hater, book collector, alligator shoe wearer, dandy depressive, café enthusiast, sympathizer with lonely hearts, casual womanizer, man ogler, suspected flasher, convicted fabulist, fawner over the powerful, champion of the powerless, abject coward before the ravages of old age, unblinking stoic before the mysteries of the grave–Stefan Zweig falls into the category of those who incarnate the enchantments and corruptions of their environment.”

That’s one of my favourite quotes from The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World because it illustrates the complexities and paradoxes of the subject.  Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), a best-selling author in his lifetime lived to see “his own plunge from glory to darkness,” but currently his work is in revival. My first encounter with a book by Zweig included a brief intro which mentioned his death by suicide, and my impression from other pieces was that Zweig committed suicide in Brazil due to the continued successes of the Nazis. The New York Review Book’s edition of Confusionincluded an introduction written by George Prochnik which gave a much more complex explanation of Zweig’s suicide, so when I saw that Prochnik had written a non-fiction book concerning Zweig’s exile. I knew I had to read it.

The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World is a fascinating title which can be read two ways. Is the exile of the title the many journeys Zweig took all over the globe when he left Austria and attempted to find a new home? Or is the Impossible Exile Zweig himself? 

The Impossible exileThe book’s introduction opens with scenes of Zweig in 1941 living in the Brazilian village of Petropolis. Immediately, there’s a central paradox–a paradox that haunts both the book and Zweig’s life. On one hand, Zweig in a letter “asserted ‘we feel extremely happy here,’ “ and yet simultaneously he “burst out in astonishment: ‘I would not have believed that in my sixtieth year I would sit in a Brazilian village, served by a barefoot black girl and miles and miles away from all that was formerly my life, books, concerts, friends, conversation.’ “  This was, of course, just a few months before Zweig killed himself by poison in February 1942, joined in death by his second wife, Lotte, a woman 27 years his junior. 

Why did Zweig, who successfully fled the Nazis, and who was living in the safety of Brazil chose to kill himself? It’s a haunting question–especially when we try to tally how many other Jews (most did not have Zweig’s privileges–wealth, fame and influence) could not escape and were exterminated. Zweig didn’t flee with only a battered suitcase; he left his home and his much-loved library in Salzburg, going into self-imposed exile in 1933; “the book burnings and the banning of his work in Germany had begun to push him toward” the idea. He was fortunate, famous and wealthy, and yet, in spite of having a distinct advantage over fellow exiles, he did not thrive. This was a man who could have lived anywhere he wanted in North America, South America, Canada or England, but he never fit in, and each restless move seemed to erode a little more of Zweig’s psyche.

The Viennese grandparents of George Prochnik were on a “Gestapo  list” scheduled to be rounded up the following day when they were “tipped off” and managed to escape to Switzerland in 1938. A series of extremely lucky occurrences saved Prochnik’s family, and, after many nearly fatal events, the family sailed to New York. Family stories and experiences gave Prochnik the insight to write this book about Zweig with empathy and with the exception of views of Zweig’s first wife, Friderike, non-judgment. I mention the issue of ‘judgment’ because Zweig was the target of criticism. He continued to work with Richard Strauss “even after Strauss had been officially named the chief musical ambassador for Hitler’s regime,” and Zweig was “accused of cowardice for his continued unwillingness to demand international action to save Germany’s Jews.” At the same time, the author cites “abundant evidence” that Zweig, who loathed and avoided conflict, helped innumerable exiles to the point that he’d become a “one-man welfare office.” Snippets from some of Zweig’s letters reveal a man whose sympathy was vanishing as he bemoaned pleas from  “the latest flood of refugees [as] mostly second-rate beggars who’d delayed their escape too long.”

Discussing his own heritage, Prochnik ruminates on the difficulties of adjustment faced by exiles in a new country, “the sudden, radical disequilibrium in their social worlds,”  and that  exiles “move through their new world, [and] scatter around them the aura of past lives like powder from beating wings–in this case, the splendor and toxins, the black iridescence of pre-Anschluss Vienna.” Prochnik makes this comment about Zweig: “His story is particularly revealing for what it says about the predicaments of exile that aren’t resolved when freedom is regained.”  So for Zweig, escaping the Nazis wasn’t enough to give him the buoyancy to survive, and this reminded me of Anna Seghers’ wonderful novel Transita story about refugees stuck in Marseille desperate to get passage on a ship.  The narrator says that the refugees seem to expect that all their problems will be solved if they can just get to their destination “exchanging one burning city for another burning city, switching from one lifeboat to another in the middle of the bottomless sea.” 

The non-linear book follows Zweig through various periods of his life, his youth, the “honeymoon phase of his exile,” designation as an “enemy alien” in Bath, his move to America, the incongruity of the cosmopolitan Zweig marooned in small town America, and throughout it all, his continuing battle with pessimism and despair.  At one point, Zweig contemplated moving to San Francisco, but then flipped his thoughts to Salt Lake City, but these non-decisions only serve to argue that the destination was superfluous–just another stop on an endless journey. Included are some amazing photographs which underscore Zweig’s diminishment and alienation in the American landscape.  

Gradually through the author’s steady, thoughtful and measured words, a picture emerges of a man who lost his celebrity status, and who felt increasingly out-of-place with the outside world much “less accessible.” While other exiles saw an opportunity for “self re-invention,” Zweig, while materially all options were open to him, mentally he seemed boxed into a corner.  Plagued by his fear of aging (which he attempted to battle with hormone shots), and all-too aware that the Viennese society he’d known and loved had vanished forever, Zweig lost his identity and his world narrowed even as his travels expanded across the globe, fleeing from the ever encroaching arm of Nazi Germany. He “never ceased to be amazed by his own ejection from the Olympus of European artistic celebrity into a miserable, nomadic existence over the course of a handful of years.” The suicide was clearly a measured decision staged and planned, and there’s the sense it was just a final gesture of disappearing from a world in which Zweig had already faded from view

Zweig’s life illuminates abiding questions of the artist’s responsibility in times of crisis: the debt owed one’s fellow sufferers relative to the debt owed one’s muse; the role of politics in the arts; and the place of art in education. His tale also raises questions of how we come to belong anywhere–of responsibility to family and ethnic roots relative to ideals of cosmopolitanism

Review copy.


Filed under Non Fiction, Prochnik George

16 responses to “The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World by George Prochnik

  1. I was offered a review copy of this one too, probably because I wrote several posts about Zweig. I declined since I’m not much into non-fiction and bios. Lazy as I am, I love reading your reviews of that kind of books, though.
    It seems a good bio, the writer having a personal history in the shadows of Zweig’s life. Zweig lived in troubled time for a Jew and an Austrian. It’s like being French a century before (imagine 1781-1842)

    • It’s always a commitment to read a book on this sort of subject. Yes, I think the author had a special role here. He mentions a series of very lucky events & timing that were the foundation of his family’s escape. They always had this to hang on to and it became part of his family’s history. Zweig didn’t have that, but perhaps those sort of narrow escapes fuel a desire to survive.

      There’s a whole chapter about café culture and how Zweig could never replace that. All I could think of was Starbucks, and the idea of Zweig hanging out in Starbucks was just another incongruous image.

      Then I expanded my thoughts a bit further. Let’s say 2 people come over to America separately from Britain or France. One is a cab-driver and the other is some sort of gentry–the type with a country estate. Who is going to have a harder time adjusting? Who will find it easier to reinvent himself? The wealthier man of privilege has lost more–even if he manages to take his $$ with him, his status is different.

  2. Brian Joseph

    Superb commentary on this one Guy.

    What a fascinating person Zweig seems to have been. His suicide sounds so tragic on so many levels. As you illustrate, the irony of that act seems difficult to wrap one’s head around even if the reasons are laid out.

    • Exactly Brian: Some people were angry with Zweig’s suicide as they saw it as allowing the Nazis to ‘triumph,’ and there is a great irony to this–to escape but then to fall prey to one’s own isolation & depression.

  3. I have known quite a lot of people in Australia who were refugees from Nazi Germany, not of the same literary status as Zweig but cultured people who must have felt as if they were living in a country of children in the Australia of the time. There is a bitterness that persists even decades later, even in material prosperity. And “he never ceased to be amazed by his own ejection” makes me think of psychological theories about the loss of the self being the worst thing of all and the thing we all fear.

    • Yes, Zweig did indeed lose that sense of self, and the fact that he had been a person of considerable importance in Austria was just one more thing he lost.

  4. This sounds very interesting. I often wondered why he did it. I don’t think Brazil would have been a country he’d have felt at home in but that might not have been the reason. I suppose age might have played a major role.

  5. leroyhunter

    Great review Guy. This sounds like a must-read, but I need to get to Zweig’s own World of Yesterday first (it’s on the shelf).

    • He worked on The World of Yesterday right up to just before his death. He clearly planned the suicide–I wouldn’t say for a long time, but he and Lotte started giving things away to people a few weeks before.

  6. World of Yesterday definitely seems a necessary pre-read for this one. In a sense he lost both world and relevance, and seeing his art eclipsed must have underlined that. If not a Viennese writer, what was he?

    Of course, now he’s a Viennese writer again, but he had no way of knowing that. Why on earth rural Brazil though? It seems obvious that wouldn’t be suited to him. Surely New York would have been a better choice if at all possible, accepting obviously that he had to leave Europe.

    • I get the sense that part of the choice was to get away from all the other exiles. They depressed him. He was wealthy and was constantly besieged by requests for money. If you get a chance to look at the book, you should see the photos of Zweig in America. He looks entirely out of place, all confidence and bonhomie absent. Many people urged him to move to one place or another, but I think that once he left Europe, he was locked into this odyssey. It probably wouldn’t have mattered too much where he settled. People no longer recognized him, in England he worried about being identified as a German… tragic.

  7. Tremendous review, Guy. (Thanks for the link – I must have missed this last year or perhaps it went up just before I discovered your blog.) Zweig must have felt such a deep sense of disillusionment with the world, a terrible feeling of isolation. Interesting you should mention Anna Seghers’ Transit as it came to mind as it came to mind as soon as I started to read your post. I might start with The World of Yesterday, but the Prochnick bio sounds like an essential companion piece.

    As a side note on exiles, I’m currently reading a collection of short stories by Teffi, a Russian writer who emigrated from Bolshevik Russia to Paris in 1919. One of the stories gives a feel for the sense of mutual wariness amongst the émigré community. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but it’s a fascinating collection.

  8. The whole suicide thing troubled me. It makes sense to escape to Paris, let’s say, only to find the Nazis on your heels yet again, and then to make a decision to top yourself. The book delved into motive but not overtly, so by the time I finished the book, I had a good sense of Zweig’s depression and displacement.

    I have Subtly Worded. Is that the one you mean?

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