The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig is enjoying something of a zeitgeist of late. This past week, Other Press published George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, a probing and personal biography that follows the exiled novelist’s journeys from his home in Vienna to a tiny Rio suburb. The book comes only a couple months after the release of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson’s film, a comic caper shot through with melancholy and shades of the impending storm that will soon engulf the continent, included the credit, “Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig,” that was probably more of a head-scratcher here in America than abroad.
Though Zweig was the most translated German author writing during the ascendancy of Nazi Germany (and, hence, the most hated and burned by Nazi brass), he has never achieved an American popularity equal to his worldwide critical acclaim. So, with Anderson’s film inspiring reissues of Zweig’s many books by the always reliable Pushkin Press, it’s as great a time as any for Prochnik’s volume, which deftly synthesizes a vast array of sources to create a portrait of the exile in despair, one fraught with mortal weariness in the face of global chaos.
Stefan Zweig had already completed the written story of his life by the time he committed suicide. Disturbed by the rise of National Socialism in Germany and anti-semitism in his home city of Vienna, he started writing his memoir, The World Of Yesterday, in 1934. Concurrently, he began the perpetual migration that took him from Austria and Salzburg to London and Bath, pushing on to Manhattan and Ossining in upstate New York before finally ending up in Rio and Persepolis in 1941. The day after finishing the last draft and posting it to his publisher, Zweig and his second wife took an overdose of barbiturates and fell asleep next to each other. In their final letters, the couple pleaded with friends to accept the books they left behind, and to understand how tired they were of “homeless wandering” while they waited for the Nazi power to wane. The war wouldn’t end for another four years.
It is this story of Zweig and his “wilderness years” that is covered here in extraordinary detail. Prochnik, a professor, essayist, and author, most recently of In Pursuit Of Silence, explains that Zweig’s own memoir is dismissed in critical circles because of a lack of personal detail and honest introspection; his second marriage is barely touched upon and anti-semitism is discussed without Zweig’s fully exploring his Jewish identity. Prochnik’s volume takes up that slack. His biography is a meticulously researched and constructed psychological picture of that period in Zweig’s life, showing how world-weary and un-rooted the Austrian felt as he shuffled from country to country. Though the writer himself was reticent about including too many intimate details about his feuds and failures, his biographer argues that: “the emotion in Zweig’s tone is often so immediate and unguarded as to be revelatory about his character and mental state.” Prochnik is aided with this reading-between-the-lines by the seemingly endless treasure trove of correspondence, journals, and personal essays from the vaulted man of letters, his friends, family, and lovers. It is rare that a biography is able to provide so candid a portrait of someone who died before his every success and mistake was digitally cataloged.
There are few qualitative statements on Zweig’s written output, comprising, as it does, short stories, novellas, biographies, essays, a play, and a novel. That Prochnik does all this work without going into detail about Zweig as a writer is probably wise; from the back matter, it is evident that there are no shortage of works about the writer originating in many of the places he lived in exile. Perhaps that is the subtle cue for America to delve into Zweig’s shelf and see what the rest of the world was so in love with.
Reviewed by Andrew Wetzel