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A dazzling example of the new biographical approach to a great life, and a study in exile
on 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.