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The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World [Hardcover]

George Prochnik
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

6 Nov 2014
By the 1930s Stefan Zweig, born to an affluent Jewish family in Vienna, had become the most widely translated living author in the world - his novels, short stories, and biographies were instant bestsellers. Zweig was also an intellectual, and a patron of the arts. In 1934, following Hitler's rise to power, Zweig left Vienna for England, then New York, and, finally, Petropolis, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. His life in exile became increasingly isolated, and in 1942 he and his wife, Lotte Altmann, were found dead. They had committed suicide, just after Zweig had completed his famous autobiography, The World of Yesterday. The Impossible Exile tells the tragic story of Zweig's extraordinary rise and fall, the gulf between the world of ideas in Europe and in America, and the struggle of the refugees forced into exile. It reveals how Zweig embodied, through his work, thoughts, and behaviour, the end of an era - he witnessed, and embodied, the implosion of Central Europe as an ideal of Western civilization.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books (6 Nov 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 1783781149
  • ISBN-13: 978-1783781140
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.6 x 3.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 385,348 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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"[A] superbly lyrical study..."The Impossible Exile" is not really--or not just--a biography of Zweig's final years. It is a case study of dislocation, of people who had not only lost a home but who were no longer able to define the meaning of home...Mr. Prochnik gives a very rich sense of what so many exiles experienced during the war...[his] words could not be more resonant." --Andre Aciman, "The "Wall Street Journal"" "Poignant, insightful."" --The New Yorker" "[A]n intriguing...meditation on Zweig's last years. ...an intellectual feast served as a series of canapes. " --"The New York Times Book Review ""Subtle, prodigiously researched and enduringly human throughout, The Impossible Exile is a portrait of a man and of his endless flight." --"The Economist" ""The Impossible Exile "[is] a gripping, unusually subtle, poignant, and honest study. Prochnik attempts, on the basis of an uncompromising investigation, to clarify the motives that might have driven to suicide an author who still enjoyed a rare popularity." --Anka Muhlstein, "New York Review of Books " "[Wes] Anderson told Fresh Air's Terry Gross that until a few years ago, he had never heard of Zweig -- and he's not alone. Many moviegoers share Anderson's past ignorance of the man who was once one of the world's most famous and most translated authors. George Prochnik is out to change that." --"NPR," ""All Things Considered"" "A terrific book...Prochnik focuses on Zweig's later years, discussing in detail his wanderings in the nineteen-thirties and forties--to Great Britain, the United States, and his last stop, Brazil. Zweig lived in New York for a while, and Prochnik movingly documents the toll that the author's peculiar prominence among the Jewish emigre community took on him, especially at a time when millions of Jews who remained in Europe were dying." --"NewYorker.com" "[A] fascinating study of the author who escaped the Nazis only to take his ow

About the Author

GEORGE PROCHNIK's essays, poetry, and fiction have appeared in numerous journals. He has taught English and American literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine, and is the author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise and Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology. He lives in New York City.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling and accomplished 5 Sep 2014
By Amanda Jenkinson TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition
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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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What makes an "exile"? 21 Jun 2014
By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition
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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  28 reviews
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not simply a biography 18 May 2014
By Houseboat dweller - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a stunning book. It is beautifully written. The breadth of the author's knowledge about all things related to 20th century European intellectual history is breath-taking. But this is not a traditional narrative biography of Stefan Zweig.
If you are looking for a definitive recalling of Zweig's life and works please consider Oliver Matuschek's Three Lives- an engaging and scholarly read.
But Prochnik has much more in my mind that simply recounting the life of a great writer. His real topic is alienation and the inability to adapt to a life in exile- the platform for this most fascinating discourse is Stefan Zweig's life in exile in the Americas. Could there be a more appropriate archetypical theme for a discussion of this deeply flawed but ever so talented and fascinating 20th century writer? If this sounds slightly neurotic and off putting rest assured the resulting book is riveting.
There are fascinating asides by the author about his own Jewish family's experiences in anti-Semitic Vienna, philosophical considerations of how one attempts to integrate into circumstances where one is not comfortable and numerous delicious details about Zweig's life and trials. What emerges are challenging and thought-provoking proposals about Zweig. For example,
1. Zweig only took up writing to fit into Vienna's cultural scene dominated by literature of many forms.
2. Zweig self-imposed exile predates his exile in the Americas.
3. Despite his apparent social skills Zweig was profoundly asocial at an early age.
This makes for a most exciting and engaging read- a true intellectual page-turner.
But the bottom line here is not Stefan Zweig but rather George Prochnik. Prochnik is a unique talent- one of those rare writers who is so compelling that one would consider reading anything he wrote. He has much in common with the always informative Daniel Mendelsohn. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Zweig's End 1 Jun 2014
By Philip Brantingham - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"The Impossible Exile" is a narrative of the last years of exiled Austrian author Stefan Zweig. An exile from his homeland, which Nazi forces had invaded in 1938, Zweig had wisely foreseen this coming calamity and had already fled from Austria to England in 1934. Then, after several years or so of residence there, during which he became a British citizen, he managed to reach the USA, accompanied by his second wife Lotte (nee Altmann). At the time, Zweig was a world-famous author, known chiefly for his popular biographies, such as those of Marie Antoinette and Erasmus. His excellent fiction was less well known.
Once settled in New York, Zweig became unhappy with the city's ambience, especially with the crowds of refugees who applied to him for help. Well-to-do, Zweig helped them when he could, but wearied of his role of savior. Eventually, he and Lotte moved to Brazil, where he thought he could find peace and continue his work. Extremely neurotic and prey to periods of black depression, Zweig worried that the world he knew, the "World of Yesterday" (the title by the way of his autobiography) was finished, that the world to come had no place for him. In addition, he felt cut off from his friends and colleagues, even though Brazil had welcomed his presence. In the end, his depressions turned suicidal, and he made a suicide pact with his poor wife Lotte, and the two died of an overdose of Veronal.
Prochnik's story of Zweig's years of exile mixes personal reminiscences of his own family's background with the tale of Zweig's unhappy end. Somewhat overwritten.and full of personal asides, the narrative explores Zweig's past and his foibles with a jaundiced eye. Neverthelss, it is one of the best biographies of Zweig in recent years, and well worth reading. It is a tragic story indeed. Perhaps because it reveals the popular writer as a man who had no faith in the power of the free West to defeat the Nazi forces. In fact, after his death many called him a defeatist and his suicide a cowardly act.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stefan Zweig — elusive writer, haunting figure and, ultimately, tragic hero 6 May 2014
By Dr. Miguel Faria - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A Review of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World (2014) by George Prochnik

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was an Austrian journalist, biographer, novelist and thinker. During the 1920s and 30s, this Jewish writer was on top of the world; in fact he was (and remains) one of the most translated writers in the globe. His passionate biographies included the lives of tragic figures: Erasmus of Rotterdam, Mary Queen of Scotland, and Queen Marie-Antoinette (which was made into the classic Hollywood movie with Norma Shearer in the leading role).

Unlike his friend Theodor Herzl, who was a dedicated Jewish nationalist, Zweig was an urbane European internationalist. Zweig a passionate pacifist was also an ardent believer in the need of European union safeguarding Western civilization. Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany lurked in the shadows. In 1934 with Hitler on the march, Zweig and his second wife left the continent, moved to England, and then the United States. In Germany the composer Richard Strauss had collaborated with Zweig in writing opera, and when Strauss defied the Nazis in 1935 and refused to remove Zweig's name from the repertoire in "The Silent Woman" opera, Goebbels refused to attend the opera in Dresden and the opera was soon banned. Restless, in 1940 Zweig and his wife moved once again, this time to a remote settlement near the colonial and quaint city of Petrópolis in Brazil, where in despair over the imminent world war and the future of European civilization, Zweig and his wife committed suicide with barbiturates. This book fills a gap in knowledge of this gifted writer and thinker, an elusive literary figure that continues to haunt us more than two generations after his tragic death. An enchanting literary biography of a re-discovered hero, this excellent tome is recommended to dreamers and all who enjoy biographies of great men, men of ideas who led remarkable lives and lived in dire times. This book unravels the enigma of how (and less clearly, why) real heroes, like Zweig, follow their dreams and let their idealism and existential despondency in physical and spiritual exile sometimes lead them to their tragic and fatal ends.

The reviewer Dr. Miguel Faria is a retired Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery, medical historian, and an Associate Editor in Chief and World Affairs Editor of Surgical Neurology International (SNI). He is the author numerous articles on political history, including "Stalin's Mysterious Death" (2011)
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Lost Philosopher and a Lost Time 7 Jun 2014
By Grey Wolffe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Zweig was a member of the Viennese intelligensia, who before World War 1 spent their time on philosophical and intellectual pursuits. Everything was to be looked at from all sides and debated, nothing was sacrosanct except for the Empire. After the war with Vienna, no longer the capital of a mighty Empire, was the home to a hodge-podge of people left over from the Hapsburg administrative machinery with nowhere to go. Many were unemployable because the Republic of Austria was too small to need so many bureaucrats.

The coffee houses, where the intelligensia lived out their lives and dreams could no longer cover up the morass that was left of the “Austrian” culture. Zweig and his compatriots now began to look to create a pan-European humanistic community where pacifism and ‘good deeds’ would be the driving force. Nationalism was to be put into the trash can of history. Unfortunately for Zweig, unemployment in Austria after the war and exacerbated by the Crash in 1929, did not lead to a more social society.
Fascism was making headway in most of Central Europe and in Germany and Austria. When the attempted coup d’etat by the left in Austria in 1934 was harshly put down, it left no one to stand against the onslaught from Nazi Germany. Zweig was accused by many of having his head in the clouds and living in an ivory tower where he looked down at society with rose colored glasses. He had little understanding of the plight of the average man and spent his time on the outside of society’s problems looking in like a scientist observing bacteria through a microscope.

Like many exiles, Zweig could not get passed his cultural upbringing and was a ship cut loose from its’ mooring when he had to leave the Germanic culture behind when he went into exile. Like many, Zweig couldn’t reason in any language but German and this prevented him from understanding American, English and Brazilian society. Zweig was so acculturated to Vienna that he couldn’t understand how Americans could be so provincial and ignorant of what was happening in Europe. The propensity of Americans to be happy with their society and the ‘protection’ of its’ two oceans, left most with little reason to worry about what went on ‘over there’.

This left Zweig with the dilemma that he no place in this ‘happy’ society. He was like a specter wandering around this country of plenty but not part of it. As he had left England because he feared a German invasion, he left the US because he feared being an alien enemy citizen. He saw the irony in that he was a stateless person, not a citizen of his native country but seen as an enemy citizen by his country of refuge.

In Brazil he lived in a far suburb of Rio de Janiero where he could live and almost European life. But he never felt comfortable even there. Just after his sixtieth birthday and the day after having sent the final revised copy of his autobiography “The World of Yesterday”, Zweig and his second wife Lotte, committed suicide. The title of his autobiography says exactly how he felt from being an exile, he no longer belonged to this world.

This is an odd type of biography. The author, who is the child of an exile himself, puts in many anecdotes from his own family of being uprooted from his/her home and forced to go to a ‘new’ society. The book is in no way chronological (though it does end with Zweig’s suicide) and bounces from one era in Vienna to another. Zweig is shown in an anecdotal style in which each scenario is analyzed for its’ psychological meaning. For me I found this to be off-putting. I felt that much of Zweig’s life an accomplishments were missed by this style of biography.

Zeb Kantrowitz
zworstblog.blogspot.com
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This volume will satisfy the curiosity of some readers while serving as an introduction to deeper study for others. 29 May 2014
By Bookreporter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
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