On February 23, 1942, Stefan Zweig and his young wife committed suicide together in Petrópolis, Brazil. The following day, the Brazilian government held a state funeral, attended by President Getulio Vargas. The news spread rapidly around the world, and the couple’s deaths were reported on the front page of The New York Times. Zweig had been one of the most renowned authors of his time, and his work had been translated into almost fifty languages. In the eyes of one of his friends, the novelist Irmgard Keun, “he belonged to those that suffered but who would not and could not hate. And he was one of those noble Jewish types who, thinskinned and open to harm, lives in an immaculate glass world of the spirit and lacks the capacity themselves to do harm.”1
The suicide set off a surge of emotion and a variety of reactions. Thomas Mann, the unquestioned leader of German-language writers in exile, made no secret of his indignation at what he considered an act of cowardice. In a telegram to the New York daily PM, he certainly paid tribute to his fellow writer’s talent, but he underscored the “painful breach torn in the ranks of European literary emigrants by so regrettable a weakness.” He made his point even clearer in a letter to a writer friend: “He should never have granted the Nazis this triumph, and had he had a more powerful hatred and contempt for them, he would never have done it.” Why had Zweig been unable to rebuild his life? It wasn’t for lack of means, as Mann pointed out to his daughter Erika.
This is the subject of Georges Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile, a gripping, unusually subtle, poignant, and honest study. Prochnik attempts, on the basis of an uncompromising investigation, to clarify the motives that might have driven to suicide an author who still enjoyed a rare popularity, an author who had just completed two major works, his memoir, The World of Yesterday, and Brazil: Land of the Future. He had also finished one of his most startling novellas, Chess Story, in which he finally addressed the horrors of his own time, proving that his creative verve hadn’t been in the least undermined by his ordeals. Recently he had married a loving woman, nearly thirty years his junior. And he had chosen of his own free will to leave the United States and take refuge in Brazil, a hospitable nation that had fired his imagination.
Why had exile proved so intolerable to Stefan Zweig when other artists drew a new vigor and inspiration from it? Prochnik notes that Claude Levi-Strauss,
walking New York’s streets for the first time in 1941, described the city as a place where anything seemed possible…. What made [its charm], he wrote, was the way the city was at once “charged with the stale odors of Central Europe”—the residue of a world that was already finished—and injected with the new American dynamism.
Zweig never experienced moments of terror or the life-and-death decisions to be made in the course of a few hours, nor was he forced to slog through the long and challenging reconstruction of a professional career. He always seemed to get out well before the wave broke, with plenty of time to pack his bags, sort through his possessions, and, most important of all, pick his destination. He left Austria and his beautiful home in Salzburg as early as 1933. A police search on the false pretext of unearthing a cache of illegal weapons led him to depart for Great Britain, leaving his wife, Friderike, and his two stepdaughters behind. Unlike his German colleagues, including Thomas Mann, who had left Germany upon Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 with no hope of returning home until there was a change of regime, Zweig was able to travel freely between London, Vienna, and Salzburg for another five years. An Austrian passport, valid until theAnschluss in March 1938, allowed him to make trips to the United States and South America.
Read more >>