The story of Stefan Zweig’s exile years is compellingly told in George Prochnik’s literary biography

In spite of his fame, Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig was never comfortable with his public role. At a New York press conference in 1935, he repeatedly evaded questions about political developments under the Nazis, refusing to “speak badly about Germany,” although his own work had fallen prey to the book burnings of 1933.

“I am not a politician,” he insisted; “I am only a writer!” And by 1935, a writer in permanent exile, who, in spite of his wealth and gift for friendship, would never again feel at home. It is a tale of tragic dislocation and growing despair, movingly told in George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, which follows the writer through his struggles to brave the New World and his preoccupation with the role of the artist in exile.

Radical reticence

Zweig’s categorical refusal to speak out was considered controversial in his own time and may seem particularly alienating today, with celebrities regularly taking to Twitter and Facebook on far less world-shaking issues. Prochnik defends Zweig, however, setting the author’s political reticence within his humanist values and what writer Joseph Brainin called his “incurable Europeanism.” His silence was political in itself, Prochnik argues: “Zweig believed that silent withdrawal could render a form of moral judgment,” creating a stronghold of radical gentleness against the “fetish of the notions of hardness and strength” propagated by Hitler.

It was a philosophical altruism that also found its expression in deeds, as the author provided ongoing financial support to a number of Jewish refugees and friends during his exile years.

Stefan Zweig
The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World.
Granta (Oct 2014)
416 pp.
€23,00 // Cover courtesy of publisher

Silence, exile and punning

Exile was a condition of loss – of language, of place, of culture. Like Joyce, whom he admired for having “all the words of every idiom,” Zweig had mixed feelings about his mother tongue. He considered it “a curse to have to think, live, write” in German after it had been “hijacked” for dishonest ends. Still, he thought it an artist’s duty to “make some lasting work that will stand as irrefutable evidence” of his integrity and talent. This was to become The World of Yesterday.

But language was just the beginning. The once convivial writer, who hosted garden parties and held audiences in Viennese coffee houses, grew world-weary in exile. In the U.S., he bemoaned the “impoliteness, rudeness, the arrogant way” of the locals, seeing the increasing “Americanization” of the world as a sign of demoralization. While in Brazil, he missed the “nourishment of intelligent talk and friendly discussions.” A farewell letter before commiting suicide with his spouse reveals Zweig’s exhaustion after “long years of homeless wandering.”

Melancholy and nostalgia

Throughout the book, Prochnik relates Zweig’s World of Yesterday to our own times, interweaving his biography with a personal narrative surrounding the turbulent emigration of his own family. While this lends a universal dimension to the experience of exile, the execution is awkward, with transitions that often feel too sudden, interrupting the otherwise so smoothly flowing prose. The book’s impressionistic, anti-chronological structure similarly leaves the reader disoriented. Still, the setup allows for an impressive range of subjects and topics –the 12 individual scenes, devoted to “key junctures” in Zweig’s career, provide vital glimpses into the author’s personality.

One such example is Zweig’s encounters with his family members, in which he is once again cast as a silent “voyeur.” Other sections are devoted to important themes like Zweig’s high regard for education, his love of nature and his conversations with fellow artists, and the important role of the Viennese coffee houses.

In The Impossible Exile, Prochnik masterfully sets the scene for Zweig’s aphoristic quips (“Ice cream is really the best thing to be had in America” is a personal favorite) and melancholy musings, tainted with nostalgia for a peaceful world of yesterday. The book invites us to see Zweig in his complexity: a restless, wandering Jew, an aestheticist “in the no-man’s-land between the trenches,” an artist in silent but – at least in his own eyes – effective protest.