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on 1 December 2014
This is a strange book. Firstly, it is difficult to navigate, eschewing as it does, chronology, cohesive thematic organisation and (unpardonably) an index. Secondly, there are curious omissions: for example, although Zweig left his late relationship with Richard Strauss largely out of his autobiography (probably to avoid compromising Strauss who was still in Nazi Germany when it was publiched, their relationship having already landed Strauss in hot water with Goebbels), that is no reason for the author to have done so. (The author seems to be unfamiliar with the important Strauss / Zweig correspondence in the early 1930s (published in English translation 1977); if he is, he does not mention it.) Thirdly, to concentrate on the exile of this wonderful man skews and unduly blemishes his life. It is a matter of judgment, but many would doubt that it was self-imposed exile to a remote Brazilian town rather than, say, New York, that drove Zweig and his young wife to suicide; after all, few exiles killed themselves and nearly all were in a far worse predicament than the well-off Zweig. The author is far too quick to gloss over the fact that, while taking his own life was his own privilege, Zweig's apparent moral pressure on his wife to do the same, poorly though she was, is surely unforgivable.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 4 December 2014
This a book about exile. It's a long, discursive meditation on it, focusing on the peripatetic life of the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. It is a fine example of what might be termed 'the new biography' which eschews the linear narrative approach, the cradle-to-grave account, in favour of a series of linked chapters, which have the feel of essays. Each one of these have a sort of focus, eg friendship; New York, which he visited four times and lived for a while nearby; his love of books and autograph manuscripts; relations with his mother (who was deaf) and his need for silence; his Jewishness and relationship to Zionism - he rather favoured the diaspora; his ambiguous attitude to the language of his pen, which the Nazis were busy corrupting; the importance of the Viennese and Parisian cafes where artists, writers and thinkers could meet to exchange ideas (alas, no cafe culture in the USA or Brazil!); his stay in Bath and his thoughts on the English love of gardening, the calmness of the English in the face of war, their lack of a certain spiritual wildness; the new freedoms he found in Brazil, in terms of the inhabitants' freer attitudes to race and sex; living beside a jungle which took you into the heart of untamed nature. Prochnik roams freely over these and many other points of interest, linking them to the biographical facts and meditating on their possible meanings.

He sometimes puts the narrative in the context of his own family history, drawing parallels with his own father's emigre experience. This brings a personal element of quest into the story - a post-modern approach to biography which is increasingly common within the genre.

It's not always an easy read, though the style is clear and elegant. Not easy because it presumes a good working knowledge of its subject and his novels, stories, memoirs and biographies. Without this background knowledge, a good deal of the text might be obscure. However, for those 'in the know' and keen to know more, the book is a delight. It rises to the intelligence of its subject. Looking at the extensive bibliography and chapter notes, one can see that the author has immersed himself in every relevant text, of which there are hundreds; besides which he has visited the key sites, has spoken to those close to Zweig or his circle who are still alive, including Zweig's beloved niece Eva, now in her 80s, and has submitted successive drafts of his book to a circle of critical colleagues. It's an impressive labour of scholarship, of writing, of love.

At one level of this multileveled text is an acute study of exile. Not just physical exile (being separated from one's home, one's library, one's neighbourhood), but geographical (he moved restlessly from Austria to Switzerland to England, to the USA, ending in the wilds of Brazil), culturally (cut off from his Austrian roots, cut off from his German reading public); linguistically (he felt alienated from the Nazi use of German; he was forced to speak languages other than his own to survive); politically (all the liberal values he upheld were crumbling under fascism); psychologically (he was a man always in conflict with himself). Given these multiple pressures of exile, it's not hard to understand his periods of depression and his increasing despair as his life drew to an end. The suicide remains a mystery, though. There's a chapter on that, telling how it happened. At the end of the chapter one turns the page and there is a photograph of Zweig and his wife lying dead on the bed together. It was so unexpected and shocking, I gasped when I saw it. I could barely bring myself to look at it, it's so powerful, so chilling. Brilliantly placed by the picture editor.

A chronology of his life would have helped, and an index: but one has to accept that this is not a conventional biography. It is a brilliant mix of biography, comment, memoir, autobiography, literary criticism (not much of that, though), essay and cultural history. There is a general movement - or drift - in the larger narrative through to Zweig's later years (the early years, before 1934, are barely sketched in) towards his final resting place, but the narrative jumps from point or fact or event, weaving different perspectives and time periods into one rather dazzling tapestry. On the level of literary art, the text has its own appeal.

The last full, conventional biography of Zweig in the English-speaking world, was published over 40 years ago. We've had a recent one from Oliver Matuschek ('Three Lives' 2011) which I did not feel quite rose to the occasion. As I said in my review of that book, Zweig deserves the full biographical treatment, the kind one takes for granted when discussing, say, Henry James, Proust or Thomas Mann. I hope someone is working on that right now. In the meantime, Prochnik's book is the best one available on the subject.
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This is not a conventional chronological biography of Stefan Zweig, but something rather more complex and interesting. It focusses on the later stages of Zweig’s life – his wanderings to Britain, the US and finally Brazil, and his attempts to recreate the sort of intellectual life he had been so much part of in Vienna – and from a strictly biographical point of view is indeed interesting and illuminating. Any biography, of course, does at least that – tells of the life of its subject. But here George Prochnik breaks out of the bounds of an ordinary biography to look at the wider picture. He examines how emigration and exile impacted on Zweig and those around him, including his niece, but also discusses emigration and exile in more general terms. Some of the chapters feel more like essays than anything else – there is one particularly interesting one in which he talks about the coffee house culture of Vienna and Europe in general, as well as its importance to Zweig himself. Prochnik’s own family was very similar to the Zweigs and he refers to their experience of emigration to the US. This inclusion of his personal story is well integrated to the narrative of Zweig’s own odyssey and makes for a richer tale about those years of turmoil after the rise of Hitler. All in all I found this a compelling and extremely readable book and I very much enjoyed its multi-faceted approach.
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When does leaving one country for another become an "exile" as opposed to just plain "emigration"? It can't just be a matter of a forced leaving, because how many Jews who left Germany and other European countries in the 1930's felt they were going into exile? I'd assume most realised they were going to new lives in countries of safety. But for some - like famed author Stefan Zweig - leaving the land of their birth and of their family history, life outside Austria became an exile. Ultimately, in 1942, after living in England and the United States, he and his much-younger second wife committed suicide in their Brazilian village home.

Author George Prochnik's new book, "The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World", is not strictly a biography. It covers in depth the years from the 1930's to Zweig's death as he left all he loved and held dear - his life in Vienna - to live in England (London and Bath), then to the United States, and finally, to Brazil. (If you're not familiar with Stefan Zweig - and I wasn't - I'd advise reading the Wiki entry on him to acquaint yourself with the basics his life and works.)

Prochnik does an excellent job in detailing the emotional anguish Zweig felt as he left Austria for the last time. Although Vienna had been his home for most of his life, he had lived with his first wife and her daughters in a large house outside of Salzburg. But to leave Austria - even knowing the Nazis would make official the already rampant anti-Semitism embedded in Austrian society - to leave his German language, to leave what he knew and accepted, was, in the end, too much for Zweig.

Prochnik follows the Zweigs - Stefan and his first wife - to England, and then to New York. Even though his work was widely published and appreciated, Zweig found it difficult to adjust to life in the United States. As a literary lion, he was feted everywhere, but never seemed to feel settled. He went to Ossining, a small town north of New York City but finally fled to Petropolis, a mountain village north of Rio. It was there he ended his life, seemingly numbed by the terrible war news of late 1941 and early 1942. Would he have committed suicide - at the age of 60 - if he had any inkling that the war would be won by the Allies and that - possibly, he could have returned to his beloved Austria?

George Prochnik adds a bit of his own personal history to the book. His family, also Austrian Jewish immigrants during the 1930's, were similar to the Zweigs. I received the impression that Prochnik's family made lives for themselves in the United States. Clearly Stefan Zweig did not. And maybe that's the difference between "emigration" and "exile".

I didn't mind his putting his family in the book, but some readers don't like an author's intrusion into a book. Also, and I am not taking any stars away from my rating, but the publisher of the book did not label any of the pictures included in the text. Sometimes it's easy to know the identity of the figure is, but other times it's not. For instance, there's a picture of a young woman who was clearly Zweig's second wife, but a few pages on there's a picture of three women. I have no idea who the women were. Please - Mr Publisher - label the pictures in the next edition!!
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The subject of a recent revival of interest, for instance as author of the short story on which the Oscar-winning novel, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" was based ("Beware of Pity" or "The Post Office Girl" give a better idea of his talent), Stefan Zweig was for decades a phenomenally prolific and popular writer, mainly of novellas and biographies: he preferred to write about "the defeated" rather than successful people - "it is the task of the artist to picture those...who resisted the trend of their time and fell victim to their convictions". For him, literature was not an end in itself, but, to quote George Prochnik, "a bridge to some hazy higher mission on humanity's behalf".

This kaleidoscopic take on Zweig's life which often reads more like a novel than a biography, focuses mainly on the experience of exile, when the rise of Hitler forced him to leave the cultural hothouse of Vienna in search of a refuge which he always hoped might be temporary but which, whatever its advantages, never quite met his needs. In Bath he found the society too cliquey and suspected that British calmness denoted a lack of imagination- he was not confident that the UK could defeat Hitler. In New York, he deplored the commercialisation which pressed everyone to look and behave the same, the education system which emphasised learning facts rather than understanding them. At first, he loved Brazil for its racial tolerance (ironically overlooking some of its overt anti-semitism) and open attitudes to sex compared with his uptight Viennese upbringing before he became jaded by the monotony and isolation of his days, waiting for the mail to arrive. He was horrified by events in Europe, felt guilty over having survived, old at sixty with nothing more to give future generations. Zweig ended up improbably in the Brazilian tropical mountain winter resort of Petrópolis where he committed suicide with his much younger first wife Lotte who was devoted to him and his writing. Zweig's "work orginated in friendships.. and it was lack of personal contact with friends, homesickness for human companionship.. that brought him to his end."

His inability to cope with exile was continually evident in his writing: "We are just ghosts - or memories.....The abyss of despair in which, half-blinded, we grope about with distorted and broken souls.... .The predicaments of exile which aren't resolved when freedom is gained". This seems at odds with his view that the Jewish Diaspora was preferable to founding a Jewish homeland, and that Judaism had given him "the absolute freedom to choose among nations, to feel a guest everywhere, to be both participant mediator" - a highly rose-tinted view of what was the reality for the majority of the less privileged Jews.

Prochnik suggests that despite his privileged background, great success and outward urbane confidence, Zweig did not really know how to be himself. He was a product of the Viennese gaiety "always mistaken as the self-expression of a vivacious, life-loving people, while, in fact, it was but a mask behind which people were hiding in their Schwermut - hopelessness , despair, and a feeling of insecurity and abandonment - the true Austrian philosophy of fatalism."

An innate tendency to depression must have added to his problems. Lotte came to understand that "writers, owing to their imagination and on account of the fact that they are free to indulge in pessimism instead of their work, are more liable to be affected by these depressions than others." Yet she too was also eventually worn down by illness, isolation and his influence, although one can never know how much he might be blamed for this.

The author's own family history of enforced flight to the United States - his grandfather adapted well, but not his grandmother - has stimulated in him a strong interest in the nature and effects of exile. This book reminds me a great deal of Sebald's "The Emigrants", even down to the small, often amateurish black-and-white photos inserted into the text, which do not need captions, although a list of these is supplied at the end.

I admit that the lack of a chronological approach or an index may make it hard to grasp the sequence of events in Zweig's life, but the well-chosen quotations, often amusing anecdotes, sharp insights and sense of past time and place make this book far more informative than many traditional biographies which attempt a more systematic and comprehensive coverage.

On a positive note, the shock of Zweig's suicide "provoked a surge of life-affirming unity" amongst many of his friends in exile, whilst his philosophical biography "The World of Yesterday" on "what it meant to be alive between 1881 and 1942" was one of the few books about the past which slipped into the post-war Austrian school curriculum, ironically in a literature rather than a history class.
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I have to admit to being rather disappointed with this book after reading the very fulsome praise in the press. Perhaps there was a hint in the reviews when mention was made of the ‘unusual non-linear’ format.
It seems that neither of the two recently published biographies of Stefan Sweig has been entirely successful. The earlier, ‘Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Sweig’ by Oliver Matuschek has been criticised for failing to capture the essence of the man whilst dealing well with the facts of his life, whereas this present work deals with little more than the thought and philosophy of Sweig whilst omitting almost all the key biographical and literary details.
The book is divided into somewhat mysterious non-chronological chapter headings that often have little to do with their content, which possibly justifies the absence of a contents list, or even more serious, an index. The chapters vary greatly in relevance and interest with perhaps the best being that dealing with Viennese coffee house society. Others deal, somewhat repetitively, with Zweig’s feelings of alienation when in exile in England, the USA and finally Brazil; perversely always seeking peace and quiet and then when achieving it being totally dissatisfied with the absence of intellectual society. The book would, perhaps, have been better titled, ‘A Study in the Psychology of Exile’ as much of the content is given over to this question. Prochnik even indulges himself by bringing his own family history into the narrative although this has little relevance to the life of Zweig other than the shared experience of exile from Fascist Vienna.
The author omits any critical appraisal or timeframe of the literary work of Zweig other than to quote from his memoir, ‘The World of Yesterday’ and ‘Erasmus of Rotterdam’ the latter being invoked for its portrayal of character traits to be found in Zweig. Quite a serious omission when the vast and highly acclaimed literary output of Zweig is considered.
There is a troubling fault-line in the oft repeated portrayal of Zweig as a world humanist; promoting the mixing of peoples of different ethnicity and religion to forge a peaceful educated society. Zweig himself only sort the company of a very narrow intellectual, largely Jewish, section of society and was most uncomfortable when he found himself in less elite surroundings. Somewhat reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw who espoused the delights of the ‘working man’ but hated actually meeting them. Finally the author makes little of the fact that Zweig was determined in 1942 on suicide, probably as a result of depression, and in an act of supreme egotism was happy to take his secretary and much younger lover, Lotte Altmann, with him to the grave.
This is an altogether unsatisfactory book despite the widespread press acclaim. It does contain some very lyrical and interesting sections but these are far from constituting a serious biography.
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on 28 May 2015
Deeply fascinating account of the societal complexities of 1930s Vienna and the psyche of Stephan Zweig. The examination of the profoundly undermining effect of exile on him and other Jewish artists is both riveting and deeply moving. It is a brilliantly researched and profound book. People familiar with Zweig's work will find revelatory material here that will explain many aspects of his deeply emotional novellas.
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on 12 October 2015
Fascinating life in all parts of the world.
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on 8 October 2015
Interesting but drags a bit.
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on 9 November 2015
From a time so special
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