If you’ve seen The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s latest movie, you may not have realized that no fewer than three of its characters were based in part on Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer and public intellectual who is the subject of George Prochnik’s lucid, impressionistic character study. Zweig’s nomadic existence that began in 1934 and saw him wander from London to New York to the Brazilian town of Petrópolis, where he took his own life in 1942, represents what Prochnik calls a “formula for toxic migration.” It’s a melancholy story of a man who tumbled from the height of literary fame to the misery of isolation in the Brazilian jungle.
Zweig was born into a well-to-do Viennese Jewish family in 1881. Though his literary output included every form, he was best known for his novellas and biographies that included ones of Erasmus (an intellectual role model) and Marie Antoinette, “fast-moving studies of hapless individuals ravaged by the spinning gears of world-historical events.” At the height of his fame, in the 1920s, Prochnik reports that millions of copies of Zweig’s books were in circulation. Freud, Trotsky and Joyce were only three of the major historical and cultural figures whose paths crossed Zweig’s.
But by 1934, with Hitler’s rapid rise to power in Germany, Zweig went into “preemptive exile” in England. The Nazis’ rabid nationalism and aggression were antithetical to Zweig’s humanist vision. Zweig saw himself, as Prochnik describes it, as “a kind of itinerant wisdom-teacher of pacifism, high cultural ideals, and other tenets of pan-Europeanism.” Though he returned to Vienna and his home in Salzburg frequently after that, from then to the end of his life he was an alien in his own land.
Zweig, “an extrovert who liked to fantasize about being an introvert,” was anything but a recluse during much of his exile. In 1938, he launched a lecture tour to more than two-dozen American cities with an appearance before an audience of 2,400 people at Carnegie Hall. But Zweig’s prominence brought with it the pressure of a constant importuning for assistance, financial and otherwise, from members of the exile community. Zweig “could not strike a balance between giving to others and the writing, reading, and conversation with friends that nurtured his inner life --- between the labors of compassion and creation,” and the longer he remained in America, the more that pressure grew.
Prochnik devotes considerable attention to Zweig’s relationships with his first wife, Friderike, to whom he was married for nearly 20 years, and his secretary and second wife, Lotte. The latter, ironically introduced to him by Friderike, accompanied him in the final years of his exile, which included several months in Ossining, New York, before the departure for Brazil, where she joined him in committing suicide the day after he mailed his autobiography, THE WORLD OF YESTERDAY, to his publisher.
Early in his book, Prochnik reveals one explanation of his affinity for Zweig’s story. In 1938, Prochnik’s father and his family were tipped by a Nazi ex-patient of his grandfather, a successful doctor, that the family was about to be rounded up by the Gestapo. They fled Vienna and eventually made their way to Boston. Though his own family’s journey was much less wide-ranging than Zweig’s, it clearly conditioned Prochnik to take a sympathetic view of his subject. He acknowledges that Zweig’s story “draws me in in part for the way it presents, as in a tableau vivant, archetypal stages of refugee experience shared by others fleeing a state turned murderous.”
For readers who aren’t already familiar with Zweig’s life and work, Prochnik’s book has its challenges. Rather than presenting a chronological narrative, each chapter is a sort of self-contained essay. One deals with his fraught relationship to Theodor Herzl and the Zionist movement (he was consistent in strongly opposing the nationalistic impulse for a Jewish homeland), while another discusses the importance of the coffeehouse in the world of the European intellectual. Given Zweig’s peripatetic life, this is a book that could have benefitted from a chronology and an index.
The tragic final years of Stefan Zweig, once “one of the most lionized writers in the world,” make for an engrossing story. For some readers, this volume likely will satisfy their curiosity for information about his life and career. But for many others, Prochnik’s biography will serve as an introduction to deeper study, and deservedly so.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg.