July 2014

Lucia Cowles

nonfiction

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

Never heard of venerated, wildly prolific, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig? For the longest time neither had Zweig's now-biographer, George Prochnik. And he wasn't the only one. "When I asked friends about him," Prochnik writes, "I found almost no one who'd even heard his name." Zweig's absence from collective memory inspires the question that launches Prochnik's new book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World: "what made Stefan Zweig fall quite so far out of sight?"

Zweig, who wrote primarily in the 1920s and '30s, was one of the most acclaimed, and popular, writers of his time. Both friends and critics remember him as a man who praised and practiced fervor, who flitted from scene to scene with a chameleon-like grace -- generous, vain, effusive of a maternal and erotically charged care -- and who possessed a "genius for friendship." The onslaught of World War II meant that Zweig lived much of his adult life in transit, estranged from the city (Vienna) and the aristocratic, art-steeped culture that had defined him. An empathic party-giver and friend, Stefan Zweig nonetheless ended his own life in suicide, along with his young second wife, Lotte, while they were living in Brazil.

First and foremost, The Impossible Exile is a labor of love, meant to reintroduce Stefan Zweig -- the writer and the persona -- to a contemporary audience. But Prochnik doesn't mean only to venerate or canonize his subject. The book's introduction frames Zweig as an ideal candidate for study, because he "falls into the category of those who incarnate the enchantments and corruptions of their environment." Zweig's slow march into depression -- his slow death, really -- remains a testament and archive to the layered estrangements that weighed on the lives of European refugees during World War II. Prochnik means to restore not only Zweig's story, but also to rewrite the story of exile itself, away from the neat resolution of easy escape.

To do so The Impossible Exile covers a wide swath of Zweig's life, from the scene of his early twenties, where he learns to write novels in Vienna, to his last days spent writing and playing chess in Brazil. Prochnik brings many versions of Zweig to life. There is Zweig the young man, confiding to a friend: "You know, fundamentally I have terribly strong passions and am full of every kind of violence." There is Zweig in his element, playing the host at a party in Wyndham in 1941.

His hands, eyes, and ears appear attentive in all directions simultaneously. Zweig looks the very definition of the social animal, as though, through all his senses, he's taking the impression of those around him the way heated clay absorbs the imprint of whatever it touches.

And there is the Zweig who has grown lost from his past enthusiasms. Who, in the middle of dinner with Lotte and friend Joachim Maass, pushes back his chair and declares: "None of it's worth it!"

The image seared itself into Maass's memory: Stefan Zweig, that paragon of epicurean courtesy, perched on a lonely chair in the middle of an Austrian restaurant in Manhattan, legs crossed, nodding incessantly to himself, tapping his foot and pounding his hands together -- those beautiful, elegant, immaculate hands -- while his malcontent stare roved the room.

But The Impossible Exile sees more than just Zweig's decline. The book gathers a collage of voices, contemporaneous to Zweig's, to give a full-bodied, multifaceted view of exiled life. Goebbels refers to the pack of exiled authors -- of whom Zweig was a part and which included Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and Carl Zuckmayer -- as "'cadavers on leave.'" In and amidst Zweig's grappling with the enormity of the European exodus, Hannah Arendt looks at the Jewish-European refugees in Manhattan and writes of "the desperate confusion of these Ulysses-wanderers who, unlike their great prototype, don't know who they are." In bringing such an array of voices to the fore, Prochnik makes the story of Jewish-European exile feel fresh and strange. This is a reparative history. The Impossible Exile captures the intractable, persistent violence wrought upon those who escaped the physical trap of Nazism, but were nonetheless held captive by fear, and displacement from self and home.           

Rather than follow an easy progression through the years, the book's chapters tie together by theme, and move back and forth in time and place -- both within themselves, and in relation to each other. This structural choice allows the story to move away from a rote timeline of events, and instead to an exploration of the abstract wounds nursed by European exiles. Chapters range in their topics from Zweig's and other émigrés' wonderment or discontent with America, Zweig's reluctance to publicly denounce the Nazi regime, and his struggle to balance the needs of his work with the needs of an émigré population without financial or networking resources.

Despite this, I have some resistance to how the book handles time. Prochnik has chosen to narrate Zweig's ceaseless movement, from one country to the next, via a structure equally flighty, one which bounces back and forth across time and space, without slowing to establish each moment and residence as coordinate with a grounding mood or conflict. This fractured telling obscures the clarity of Zweig's character and his transformations. Too often, I found myself wondering, "How is this Zweig related to that one, from the last chapter?" or "Which year is this, again?" And because each chapter covers a wide swath of time, many share a similar narrative arc, in which Zweig moves, with increasing predictability, from enthusiasm and philosophical idealism to a dark, depressive state.

I did trust -- and deeply appreciate -- Prochnik as a reader of Zweig himself, and as a restorative and resoundingly fair guide into history. Long descriptive passages meant to grasp the feeling of Zweig -- his enthusiasm and emotional breadth -- stand next to honest descriptions of manipulative acts and ignorance that do not condemn. Zweig harbored a "contempt for people... who sought to better their lot in a strictly material sense," that could "rankle even those closest to him." And, though Prochnik shies away from a direct condemnation, his sentences ("Friderike watched Lotte straining every nerve to match Stefan's brutal tempo") express unease with Zweig's demands on his wife's health and time.

George Prochnik is a close reader and nuanced writer. He prefers to ask questions and to explore their many possible answers, rather than to constrain the truth by putting an easy or neat resolution on exiles', or Zweig's, story. Prochnik would prefer to leave Zweig's legacy as Zweig himself imagined it: to pare down the value of his narrative to the latent potential still remaining in Zweig's ideas. If not logistically useful in his time, Zweig's stubborn belief in the power of education, art, and in building community, outside and beyond political borders, continues to resonate. Ideas likes these present a version of utopia that we might want to look for, still, on the horizon.

The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World by George Prochnik
Other Press
ISBN: 978-1590516126
408 pages