Stefan Zweig, Man without a Country

By Scott, Ao | International New York Times, June 14, 2014 | Go to article overview

Stefan Zweig, Man without a Country


Scott, Ao, International New York Times


For the celebrated Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, Europe's descent into war in the 1930s was too much to bear.

CORRECTION APPENDED

The Impossible Exile. Stefan Zweig at the End of the World. By George Prochnik.Illustrated. 390 pages. Other Press. $27.95.

The last book Stefan Zweig wrote was a memoir called "The World of Yesterday," an elegy for the Viennese culture that had nurtured his literary talent and was, in 1941, in the process of being wiped out by fascism and world war. The book was completed in Brazil, where Zweig and his second wife, Lotte, had settled after years of expatriate hopscotching and where they would commit suicide on Feb. 22, 1942.

Zweig's death was a grim, real-world recapitulation of the book's valedictory theme, and it has helped to make him the focus and embodiment of a special flavor of nostalgia. Other German-speaking writers and artists -- Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt and Bertolt Brecht are three well-known, contrasting examples -- turned survival into a form of resistance.

They were determined, in the face of moral and political catastrophe, to press ahead into the world of tomorrow. Zweig, who left behind an almost absurdly various and voluminous body of work, saw himself, at 60, as someone who belonged irrevocably to the past. He decided to stay there, and to those who seek him he can still be found, in an atmosphere of hedonistic refinement and intellectual passion, haunting the cafes and strolling the boulevards of a vanished city.

In much of Europe, Zweig has remained a familiar and popular figure: an agreeable, eclectic, unabashedly minor writer who is easy to embrace when more imposing Great Authors (like Mann, say) become exhausted or exhausting. In Britain and North America he has been more obscure, a name floating in the penumbra of more famous contemporaries rather than a robust literary presence in his own right.

That may be changing, though. Over the past decade, Pushkin Press and New York Review of Books have been steadily increasing the quantity of Zweig's works available to Anglophone readers, emphasizing the short stories and novellas that were his strength. (His "Collected Stories," a bright-orange, 700-page clothbound paving stone, appeared last year.)

Wes Anderson drew inspiration from some of that work in "The Grand Budapest Hotel," a bittersweet confection set in an imaginary Central European republic in the 1930s. The movie's hero, a hotel concierge with a handsome mustache and impeccable manners (played by Ralph Fiennes), bears an unmistakable physical and temperamental resemblance to Zweig. The world he inhabits, of literary refinement, sexual adventure, aristocratic luxury and excellent pastry, is impeccably Zweigian, as are the upwellings of emotion and danger that intermittently disrupt the decorum.

And now George Prochnik, whose essays accompanied some of the "Grand Budapest" publicity material, has delivered "The Impossible Exile," an intriguing, at times puzzling meditation on Zweig's last years. We seem to be in the midst of a Zweig revival.

So who was he, anyway? In tackling this question, Mr. Prochnik blessedly forgoes the plodding literalism of conventional biography in favor of a more impressionistic and atmospheric approach. (A perfectly serviceable Life, by the German literary scholar Oliver Matuschek, has been available in English since 2011.) Mr. Prochnik reads Zweig's prose -- letters and speeches as well as fiction -- with a tactful critic's eye, and also seeks out clues, existential and empirical, in some of the places where his subject lived.

Himself the son of an Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis, Mr. Prochnik travels to Brazil, Vienna and Westchester County, as though hoping to surprise Zweig's ghost. What he finds is more haunting: empty houses and fading recollections that suggest the vast and widening distance between Zweig's enchanted yesterday -- which overlaps with Mr. …

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