“The Impossible Exile” by George Prochnik – A world in which Stefan Zweig cannot live

This is my review of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World by George Prochnik.

The subject of a recent revival of interest, for instance as author of the short story on which the Oscar-winning novel, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was based (“Beware of Pity” or “The Post Office Girl” give a better idea of his talent), Stefan Zweig was for decades a phenomenally prolific and popular writer, mainly of novellas and biographies: he preferred to write about “the defeated” rather than successful people – “it is the task of the artist to picture those…who resisted the trend of their time and fell victim to their convictions”. For him, literature was not an end in itself, but, to quote George Prochnik, “a bridge to some hazy higher mission on humanity’s behalf”.

This kaleidoscopic take on Zweig’s life which often reads more like a novel than a biography, focuses mainly on the experience of exile, when the rise of Hitler forced him to leave the cultural hothouse of Vienna in search of a refuge which he always hoped might be temporary but which, whatever its advantages, never quite met his needs. In Bath he found the society too cliquey and suspected that British calmness denoted a lack of imagination- he was not confident that the UK could defeat Hitler. In New York, he deplored the commercialisation which pressed everyone to look and behave the same, the education system which emphasised learning facts rather than understanding them. At first, he loved Brazil for its racial tolerance (ironically overlooking some of its overt anti-semitism) and open attitudes to sex compared with his uptight Viennese upbringing before he became jaded by the monotony and isolation of his days, waiting for the mail to arrive. He was horrified by events in Europe, felt guilty over having survived, old at sixty with nothing more to give future generations. Zweig ended up improbably in the Brazilian tropical mountain winter resort of Petrópolis where he committed suicide with his much younger first wife Lotte who was devoted to him and his writing. Zweig’s “work orginated in friendships.. and it was lack of personal contact with friends, homesickness for human companionship.. that brought him to his end.”

His inability to cope with exile was continually evident in his writing: “We are just ghosts – or memories…..The abyss of despair in which, half-blinded, we grope about with distorted and broken souls…. .The predicaments of exile which aren’t resolved when freedom is gained”. This seems at odds with his view that the Jewish Diaspora was preferable to founding a Jewish homeland, and that Judaism had given him “the absolute freedom to choose among nations, to feel a guest everywhere, to be both participant mediator” – a highly rose-tinted view of what was the reality for the majority of the less privileged Jews.

Prochnik suggests that despite his privileged background, great success and outward urbane confidence, Zweig did not really know how to be himself. He was a product of the Viennese gaiety “always mistaken as the self-expression of a vivacious, life-loving people, while, in fact, it was but a mask behind which people were hiding in their Schwermut – hopelessness , despair, and a feeling of insecurity and abandonment – the true Austrian philosophy of fatalism.”

An innate tendency to depression must have added to his problems. Lotte came to understand that “writers, owing to their imagination and on account of the fact that they are free to indulge in pessimism instead of their work, are more liable to be affected by these depressions than others.” Yet she too was also eventually worn down by illness, isolation and his influence, although one can never know how much he might be blamed for this.

The author’s own family history of enforced flight to the United States – his grandfather adapted well, but not his grandmother – has stimulated in him a strong interest in the nature and effects of exile. This book reminds me a great deal of Sebald’s “The Emigrants”, even down to the small, often amateurish black-and-white photos inserted into the text, which do not need captions, although a list of these is supplied at the end.

I admit that the lack of a chronological approach or an index may make it hard to grasp the sequence of events in Zweig’s life, but the well-chosen quotations, often amusing anecdotes, sharp insights and sense of past time and place make this book far more informative than many traditional biographies which attempt a more systematic and comprehensive coverage.

On a positive note, the shock of Zweig’s suicide “provoked a surge of life-affirming unity” amongst many of his friends in exile, whilst his philosophical biography “The World of Yesterday” on “what it meant to be alive between 1881 and 1942” was one of the few books about the past which slipped into the post-war Austrian school curriculum, ironically in a literature rather than a history class.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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