George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World* is an amalgam of forms, combining elements of biography, family history, intellectual and cultural history, and literary criticism.
Its subject is Stephan Zweig, an Austrian writer of prolific output who was one of the best-known cultural figures of his day. Zweig was a proponent of international humanism, a cosmopolitan in every sense of the word, a stalwart supporter of all the arts, a music aficionado, and mentor to many aspiring writers. His books — fiction and nonfiction — were the most widely translated of the 1930s and were more often than not bestsellers.
When the Nazis rose to power, however, Zweig (who was Jewish) found himself exiled from his beloved Austria, drifting from country to country, increasingly demoralized and depressed. In 1942, he and his wife killed themselves in a small Brazilian town.
On the surface, this was an inexplicable act. Zweig was only sixty. had just published two books (his memoir and a study of Brazil, a country he loved), was, by all accounts, deeply in love with his much-younger second wife, and was still one of the most popular authors in the world. The Impossible Exile seeks to understand his situation by exploring Zweig’s life, shifting cultural milieu, and his work.
As you can tell from the photo above, I found this book utterly fascinating. I read Zweig’s biography of Marie Antoinette when I was a teenager, but at that time had no idea of the reach of his influence (or that he wrote with purple ink); The Impossible Exile was an education. Mr. Prochnik takes pains to provide a rounded portrait of Zweig that includes his many foibles and failures, as well as his brilliant successes. As Mr. Prochnik writes,
Zweig’s life illuminates abiding questions of the artist’s responsibilities 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. (8)
For Mr. Prochnik, investigating Zweig’s life in exile has personal resonance, since his own father and grandparents fled Austria in 1938 to escape the Nazis. Too often, he writes, the successful escape is the story; we don’t read or hear about the particular experience of exile with its concomitant losses.
The Impossible Exile is a thoughtful, sensitive work, and highly recommended. I also recommend this excellent long review in the New York Review of Books, which also includes a brief discussion of Wes Anderson’s recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel, which inspired in many ways by Zweig and his ouevre. (it’s an excellent movie; I love Wes Anderson movies, and The Grand Budapest Hotel represents real branching out for him).
If you’d like to read some of Zweig’s own work, I can recommend from personal reading experience his biography of Marie Antoinette; New York Review Books is also re-issuing some of his works in new translations.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.