Tag Archives: exile

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

Magnet of Doom by Simenon

Watching the films of Jean-Pierre Melville led me to Simenon’s novel, Magnet of Doom (The First-Born). Magnet of Doom is one of Simenon’s non-Inspector Maigret, Romans Durs (hard novels) so it’s highly recommended for noir fans. Melville’s version of the novel, a 1963 film called  L’Aine Des Ferchaux stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel, a washed-up boxer who latches on to a disgraced millionaire. With murder charges and a subsequent scandal about to break, Ferchaux employs Michel as his personal secretary and together they flee France.  Melville’s film strands the two men in the American deep south, and the film is a sometimes peculiar reflection of Melville’s fascination with American culture. You can see the film and then read the book without spoiling either. You’ll recognize the basic raw material, but that’s as far as it goes.

l'aine de ferchauxOne of the frequent themes in the films of Melville is loyalty between men, so it should come as no surprise to Melville fans that Michel and Ferchaux develop an usual, and even unhealthy bond–you could apply the term ‘co-dependency’ here, but while Melville’s film is ultimately positive when it comes to analyzing the relationship between the aging millionaire and Michel, the Simenon novel on which the film is based is far darker. If there’s any truth to the idea that a relationship can be judged by the way it alters the people involved with each other, then the relationship between Simenon’s characters Ferchaux and Michel Maudet is toxic.

In the novel, Michel Maudet, the son of “small insolvent tradesfolk,” is desperate for work when he applies for the job as a secretary to the very wealthy Dieudonné Ferchaux. It’s rumoured that he’s a difficult employer and the number of secretaries he’s hired and fired in the recent past are proof that he’s not easy to please. Ferchaux isn’t at his home in the Rue des Chanoinesses–he’s retreated to the country, to his villa. Maudet leaves his long-suffering wife, Lina, alone in their bleak hotel room while he applies for the job, and when he learns that Ferchaux isn’t in Paris, he pursues him into the countryside stranding Lina with no money.

Maudet’s determination to get the job may seem normal, but it sets a precedent–at least as far as his priorities. Ferchaux quickly employs Maudet and the idea emerges that perhaps Ferchaux sees Maudet as a version of himself as a young man–hungry, ambitious, and eager to carve a place for himself in the world. But if Ferchaux feels this way, it certainly isn’t reflected in his initial  treatment of his new secretary who assumes the role of a possession rather than an employee who clocks off after a reasonable amount of time. Maudet, after overcoming his dismay at Ferchaux’s Spartan lifetstyle, admires his new employer and he absorbs his stories as if he might become more like Ferchaux through extended contact. While Maudet admires Ferchaux for his courage and the way he effortlessly flouts moral laws, he also envies the power and the fortune Ferchaux possesses. As their relationship continues, Ferchaux seems to envy Maudet’s youth, and there’s definitely a mutual predatory quality to their relationship–after all, each man possesses something the other man envies:

Ferchaux had his eye on him the whole day long, scanning him, watching for his reactions. Once he had said: “you’re impatient, aren’t you?”

There was no doubt what he meant. Impatient to live, impatient to taste and enjoy all that life had to offer. More than anything perhaps, impatient for power, impatient to get to the top.

“I’m still young,” he answered. “I’ve got time.”

Ferchaux had studied the boy’s pointed teeth, his nervous fingers, his sensitive nostrils. What was he feeling? Admiration, perhaps, and mixed with it, envy.

Wasn’t it his own portrait, his portrait at the age of twenty, that he contemplated in Maudet?

“Admit that if you had to do something a bit crooked to get your foot on the ladder … “

Even though Ferchaux is a phenomenally wealthy man, he has a stingy, mean side, and as the novel continues, it becomes clear that Ferchaux’s character was shaped in the Congo where he lived for over 40 years. Ferchaux may have been brutalized by spending most of his life in the Congo, but he is also one of the brutalizers. There are various stories circulating about his life there, and one of the uglier stories which includes murder of Congo natives is perfectly true–although, of course, Ferchaux has a different version of events. One of Maudet’s duties is to take dictation of Ferchaux’s memoirs, and in the beginning–the early days with Ferchaux, Maudet almost falls in love with his employer. Let’s say it’s a kind of homage, extreme admiration of a man who can command respect and put fear into the hearts of others. Maudet would like to be Ferchaux. There’s the underlying idea that a man like Maudet, a man with few principles to trouble his conscience, would also have thrived in the Congo and, just like Ferchaux, he would made a fortune on the blood on sweat of the natives. Dieudonné Ferchaux’s brother, Emile, also spent time in the Congo, but he minimized this period and got out as soon as he could. Emile lives a life of luxury with a chateau, a chauffeur driven car, wears expensive clothing, and mingles with the cream of French society. Dieudonné Ferchaux, on the other hand, nothing less than a bold unscrupulous adventurer who lost a leg in the Congo, has kept his rough edge, and rebuffs ‘the soft life.’

We could call the beginning of Maudet’s relationship with Ferchaux a honeymoon. After Lina reenters the picture to form an uneasy trio, there’s an emerging sense of jealousy, and she also senses a sort of “vicious” quality in Ferchaux’s attitude to Maudet. At first she doesn’t understand why Maudet admires Ferchaux–a man whose soiled reputation and crimes in the Congo have made headlines, but Maudet defends his choice:

“I’ve got a chance of entering into a world that was closed to me before, as it’s closed to most people. A world in which you juggle with millions–you call the tune and thousands of little people have to dance to it…”

Shortly the three characters-Ferchaux, Maudet and Lina go on the run. With 5 million francs in a suitcase, a large amount of money on deposit in a South American bank and a stash of diamonds, the plan is to live in exile in a godforsaken hole where French law cannot reach. Fate dogs our characters all the way from France to a South American hovel, and there the relationship between Ferchaux and Maudet simmers unhealthily as each man experiences a sick, growing dependence on the other and Maudet mingles with a strange crowd of ex-pats, prostitutes, rich, lonely socialites, and a seller of shrunken heads.

The book’s title, Magnet of Doom refers both to the relationship between the two men and to the idea that the conclusion is ominously unavoidable. In the Congo, Ferchaux did whatever he deemed necessary to bolster his success–he didn’t shrink from murder, torture, & there’s one great scene detailing the very deliberate humiliation of a groveling employee & his wife who’ve established a bourgeois “suburban villa” in the Congo. Morality is absent from Ferchaux’s mind, and so his actions are based on success and survival rather than any moral code. One of the issues between the two men is the question of whether or not Maudet is made of the same material:

“You see Maudet, the question you ask me is one to which no one has the right to answer…. A leopard doesn’t hesitate to jump over a paling, because it knows its strength. But when a jackal tries the same thing and gets caught on the pales….It’s not a pretty sight, that…. I’ve seen it….”

Clearly Maudet initially worships the much older man, but as his power wanes, so does Maudet’s admiration. It’s almost as if Maudet saps the strength from the other man, and perhaps some of this is a natural process. In these two men, however, a terrible and unhealthy dynamic exists with Ferchaux initially baiting Maudet  to see just how far he’ll go:

What Michel wanted to know and what he sought for in Ferchaux’s eyes was the answer to a question that was so vague and terrible, a question which he had never formulated, yet which both men understood, a question which could be summed up in the words: how far?

Translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury


Filed under Fiction, Simenon

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

“On one of the little leggy tables stands a vase of yellow daisies. The vase is too big for them, and they have slipped down to water level with their poor little faces up-raised, like drowning people crying for help. But all the same, someone has taken the trouble to put them there.”

When I wrote by Best-of-2011 list, my Aussie mate, Gummie mentioned that she hoped I’d have a Best Australian category in my Best of 2012 list. It seemed to be a very reasonable request. This led me to Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson,  a book I saw mentioned on Gummie’s blog. Why did I pick this Australian book over many others I have on my shelf?  No easy answer to that one. Perhaps the selection was due partly to my annoyance at finding Anderson’s name mis-spelt as Andersen on several book sites. Whatever motivated me, I read the book and I am predicting that this one will make my Best-of-2012 list. In fact I can’t imagine reading an Australian book that surpasses this one.

At just a slim, yet dense, 141 pages, author Jessica Anderson distills down the life of one woman, Nora Porteous, into its most salient moments. Nora, now an elderly woman, returns home to Australia after an absence of many decades spent in England. Her childhood home, although empty, is essentially the same, but the neighbours–the faces from the past–are gone. As a young woman, Nora couldn’t wait to escape her home, and although she’s had her share of difficulties, she never wanted to return. After the horrors of a stifling marriage, she chose independence over security, but now at the end of her life, circumstances have brought her back to Australia, back to her now-empty childhood home and to the bitter-sweet memories which form the narrative of her life.

The novel begins with Nora’s arrival:

I arrive at the house wearing a suit-greyish, it doesn’t matter. It is wool because even in these sub-tropical places spring afternoons can be cold. I am wearing a plain felt hat with a brim, and my bi-focal spectacles with the chain attached. I am not wearing the gloves Fred gave me because I have left them in the car, but I don’t know that yet.

Stepping inside the house, Nora recalls her departure all those years ago, “running down the path to the yellow taxi,” waving goodbye to her mother and sister, Grace, while thinking “Thank heaven it’s over.” But now she’s back, on the last stretch of her life, back to the place she thought she’d never see again.  The novel goes back and forth between Nora’s memories and her present as she adjusts to her new-old life, and as her memories unfold we learn about Nora’s past. Mostly this is a novel about the complexities of memory–the things we choose to remember, the things we choose to forget and the narrative formed by these connecting memories. Some years disappear without a trace–memories melt into others, and then some memories are so bright and detailed, the distance of 10, 20, or 30 years seems nothing. Since the novel is written through Nora’s memories, the names she mentions don’t immediately fit into the frame, but gradually we learn about the important phases of Nora’s episodic life. She mentions “the household at number six” and a series of names (Hilda, Fred and Liza) of those who lived there, but something has gone wrong. The household “exploded” and Nora no longer has the sustaining friendships of those she lived with in London.

Nora’s life can be described by its distinct phases: the longing to leave home, a drab unhappy marriage, a career in England, and then old age. Her teenage years included ideas of romanticism and escape from home, but the ‘escape’ brought her only to a different sort of prison–life with her husband, lawyer, Colin  and her bête noire, Una, her disapproving mother-in-law. During their peculiar marriage, Colin steadily wears away any confidence Nora has, reminding her that she’s “frigid,”  and a disappointment. Gradually Nora drifts away from the lie that she’s happily married, even as she is attracted to the bohemian atmosphere generated by a group of artists. Here’s Nora asking her stuffy husband for an allowance:

Whether my submissiveness is ingrained or was implanted I do not know. I only know that all open aggression on my part, in whatever field, has always led me to sorrow and retreat. But beneath my renewed submission a sour rebellion lay. I was told there was no money for fares to the city. ‘We can think ourselves lucky,’ said Colin, ‘to have a roof over our heads, and food to eat.’

‘And besides,’ said Una, ‘when our local shops are having such a thin time, it’s them we should deal off, and not go traipsing into town all the time.’

I didn’t have a penny. I would certainly have tried to fiddle the housekeeping money, only, Colin now gave it to Nora Porteous.

‘It’s Mum’s house, after all.’

‘Yes, and I am sure Nora wouldn’t begrudge me handling the money in my own house.’

I asked for a small allowance, and Colin said he would think about it. A fortnight later I asked if he had thought about it.

‘Thought about what?’ he said to his shaving mirror.

‘My allowance.’

‘What allowance?’

‘You must remember.’

‘Must I?’ he was inclined to be humorous. ‘Well I don’t’

I went back to the beginning and made my request again. When I had finished he pulled his mouth awry to tauten the skin under the blade. A minute passed in silence except for the scrape of the razor. Then he leaned forward and looked intently into his own eyes.

‘But why bring that up when I am shaving?’

He was shaving, he was reading the newspaper, he was just about to turn on the wireless, he had to go out and mow the lawn, he must get his eight hours sleep.

‘Then when can we discuss it?’ I cried at last.

‘One day soon, don’t worry.’

But when I asked again, ‘one day soon’, he sighed heavily, folded his arms, and raised his eyes to the ceiling. In that attitude, he heard me out, and then rose and left the room without a word in reply. I lost my head, and followed him, and threw myself against his silence, railing.

‘If you’ll excuse me saying so,’ said Una Porteous, ‘you don’t know how to handle a man.’

Reduced to stealing coins from Colin’s pockets (he refuses to give her a penny of her own), she defiantly develops some significant friendships. Nora’s modest freedoms from surveillance are hard-won, and in some ways surprisingly meagre.

While Nora is a flawed human being, she is also genuinely delightful, and with Anderson’s skillful prose, we see not only Nora’s development and adventures, but also her quirky world view. Now in old age, she’s learned a few lessons that serve her well. For example, she recognises the patterns of her life and its “vile wastage”  and somewhat uncomfortably, she’s now temporarily at the mercy of housekeeper Lyn Wilmot, a woman who “disowns her arrow as soon as it reaches her mark” much the same as Una Porteous. Nora tartly notes:

It really is too bad that I should be afflicted with this reincarnation of Una Porteous.

But with the wisdom of age, Nora has learned to manage the Lyn Wilmots and the Unas of this world.

And then there are her memories and her past:

likened to a globe suspended in my head, and ever since the shocking realization  that waste is irretrievable, I have been careful not to let this globe spin to expose the nether side on which my marriage has left its multitude of images. This globe is as small as my forehead. Yet so huge that its surface is inscribed with thousands, no millions of images. It is miraculously suspended and will spin in response either to a deliberate turn or an accidental flick. The deliberate turns are meant to keep it in a soothing half-spin with certain chosen parts to the light, but I am not an utter coward, and I don’t mind inspecting some of the dark patches now and again. Only I like to manipulate the globe myself. I don’t like those accidental flicks. In fact, there are some I positively dread, and if I see one of these coming, I rush to forestall it, forcing the globe to steadiness so that once more it faces the right way. I have become so expert at this, so watchful and quick, that there is always a nether side to my globe, and on that side flickers and drifts my one-time husband–and, I have often thought, a very good place for him too.

Nora has memories that are extremely painful, so they remain on the “nether” side of her memory–the “globe” she has learned to control. By reducing Colin, an insufferable cold domestic tyrant of a husband, to a figure of fun, a great source of entertaining stories for friends, Nora effectively diminishes his impact on her and renders him impotent by making him a comical figure. At the same time, Nora remembers some of her own less than admirable behaviour while noting that as for Colin, “Perhaps the real man has been so overscored with laughter that he will never be retrieved.”  As the novel develops, we see that some memories are best left on the “nether” side of the “globe,” for to conjure them forth can be a devastating experience.

The Tirra Lirra of the title crops up early in the novel when Nora picks up an ancient book of poetry, and she still finds the marker left on an oft-read page that includes the lines from Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. It’s impossible to miss the significance of the title as Nora can be compared to The Lady of Shalott, and while the two share some commonalities, Anderson never overworks the reference. Both The Lady of Shalott and Nora wait for life to happen, both spend their time on embroidery, and both of them have romantic notions. We know, of course, what happened to The Lady of Shalott, and if you wish to discover more of Nora’s elegiac yet ultimately triumphant reflections of life by reading Tirra Lirra by the River, a delightful, rich reading experience awaits…

Thanks Gummie


Filed under Anderson Jessica, Fiction