Last exit to nowhere: the lost world of Stefan Zweig
In his memoir The World of Yesterday, which he finished revising not long before he took his own life, Stefan Zweig described the Europe that he and his generation had lost:
When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security. Everything in our almost thousand-year-old Austrian monarchy seemed based on permanency, and the State itself was the chief guarantor of this stability . . . In this vast empire everything stood firmly and immovably in its appointed place, and at its head was the aged emperor; and were he to die, one knew (or believed) another would come to take his place, and nothing would change in the well-regulated order. No one thought of wars, of revolutions, of revolts. All that was radical, all violence, seemed impossible in an age of reason.
Born in 1881 into a prosperous Jewish family and becoming one of the most successful writers of his time, widely travelled and acquainted with practically everyone who mattered in European culture and politics, Zweig saw the disaster that had befallen the continent from a standpoint of self-confessed privilege. The blemishes of the old order – entrenched inequalities, the dilapidated state of large parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the pervasive prejudice that allowed a virulent anti-Semite to become mayor of Vienna – are scarcely visible in the picture he conjured up thousands of miles away from anywhere he could call home. Yet Zweig was right in fearing that the ramshackle Habsburg realm embodied a kind of freedom that would not be seen again in much of Europe for generations.
The rise of Nazism ended his career as a European writer, destroyed most of his wealth and left him in a state of permanent flight. He began by moving to Britain, settling for a time in Bath, where he was baffled and infuriated by the stolid confidence that Hitler would not prevail. Fearing imminent invasion, he moved on to New York after the fall of France. Leaving America after Pearl Harbor, he ended up in Brazil, where he committed suicide in a pact with his second wife, Lotte, in February 1942, only days after he heard of the fall of Singapore.
Once dismissed by many as a second-rate author whose work hardly counts as literature, attacked for his lack of forthrightness in confronting the Nazi threat, a target of envy on account of his inherited wealth and popular acclaim, Zweig is enjoying an unexpected revival. In addition to the publication in English of many of his works by Pushkin Books and New York Review Books over the past several years, two films inspired by Zweig’s fiction have appeared in the past months. Wes Anderson’s dazzling Grand Budapest Hotel presents a Europe in which comic-opera political thuggery and a daily struggle for survival are intertwined, while Patrice Leconte’s A Promise (based on Zweig’s posthumously published novella Journey into the Past) explores desire, memory and separation in a romance derailed by the First World War.
Zweig is one of the most complex and problematic literary casualties of Europe’s descent into barbarism after the First World War. He evaded recognising the irreducible evil of Nazism, and then panicked too easily and too often. Capable of striking generosity, he could also be mean and petty. Complaining of the demands on his time made by other European refugees and refusing to make common cause with the struggles of his fellow Jews, he seems to have wanted to remain aloof from the human experience of which he could not help being a part. His work lacks the biting ferocity, as well as the tender lyricism, that infuses the writings of Joseph Roth – a friend whom Zweig supported financially for many years, surely knowing that Roth was by far the better writer. There was something contorted and unresolved in Zweig’s character, a kind of obliquity and impenetrable reserve that prevented him from being truly admired by his contemporaries, and which clouds his reputation to this day.
The peculiar mix of denial and foreboding with which he approached the catastrophe of his time may also be what draws us to Zweig today. Our leaders insist that nothing like the debacle that befell Europe between the wars could ever happen again, and every shade of respectable opinion echoes their denial. With all that we know of what it meant, how could anything like fascism return to power in Europe? How could there be war and dictatorship in Europe’s heartlands? The possibility of another European debacle is dismissed as unthinkable. But the renewed interest in Zweig tells a different story. Whether or not they realise or admit it, there are many who fear that Zweig’s fractured and de-civilised Europe belongs not only in the world of yesterday. There is a growing suspicion that the security we have come to take for granted may be passing away, and it may be this as much as the rediscovery of the merits of his work that is leading so many to turn to him.
Zweig’s recessive personality exposes some of the limitations of biography. Oliver Matuschek’s Three Lives: aBiography of Stefan Zweig (2006, published in English in 2011), translated from the German by Allan Blunden, is a clear and readable account of the three phases of Zweig’s life – his early years, his rise to fame as a European man of letters and his later life on the run. There are some faults in it. Lotte, the young Jewish refugee from Silesia who became his loving companion and was with him to the end, appears as little more than an amanuensis. At the same time Matuschek fails to capture the intense sense of dislocation that accompanied the writer wherever he went. It’s not easy to see how any biography of a conventional kind could track Zweig’s inner life as he made his wary way through the world.
A different approach to understanding Zweig has long been needed, and now at last we have it. George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile (out now in the US and published in the UK by Granta in November) is a departure not only in the study of Zweig, but in the art of telling a life. Combining memories of his own family’s experience of emigration with travels to places in which the novelist lived and conversations with some who knew him, Prochnik’s brilliantly accomplished and genre-bending book allows access to Zweig in a way that until now seemed impossible. At the heart of his life was an experience of exile all the more harrowing because it contradicted what he most deeply believed in: “absolute freedom to choose among nations, to feel oneself a guest everywhere”. This freedom to shape one’s identity was an attribute of humanity itself, he liked to think. But when the rise of Nazism drove him out of Europe, he discovered that human identity is more commonly fated than chosen – an unsettling realisation, as the consequences of being defined by others have rarely been benign and in Zweig’s time could very easily be lethal.
In the course of his wanderings Zweig’s image of himself was destroyed, and eventually he belonged nowhere on earth. The eclipse of his fame meant more than a material loss to him. He disdained celebrity; but popular success secured him a place in the world, without which he could hardly live. During a sojourn in London in 1937, he gave one of the BBC’s first television interviews, a deferential affair during which he let it be known that he had come to Britain – which later granted him citizenship – on account of its good libraries and because the people didn’t bother him much. By the time he arrived in New York, he had begun to suffer the fall into anonymity that is the exile’s normal condition. As Prochnik writes: “Now, with the advent of Hitler, success, his surprise guest, had begun making motions to leave. To New York City’s conductors, waiters and porters, Zweig was invisible. To women, he was an ageing unknown with fear in his eyes and a thick accent on his moustache-smudged lips. US authorities did not defer to his name, let alone the sight of his face. Who exactly was he now?”