The Life and Death of Austrian-Jewish Writer Stefan Zweig

In his new biography of Zweig, George Prochnik deals less with literary criticism than with the political aloofness of the fabulously successful writer, even after he was forced into an exile and eventually took his own life.

Arquivo Casa Stefan Zweig / courtesy Alberto Dines

“The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World,” by George Prochnik Other Press, 400 pages, $27.95

The tragedy of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig – and the source of its abiding fascination – lies elsewhere than in the bruising indignities of his fall from literary celebrity into anonymity and exile. The tragedy also attaches to the spectacle of a man clinging to his ideals at the very moment the world betrayed them.

In recounting a double suicide – Zweig’s and Europe’s – “The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World,” a superb new biography by George Prochnik, portrays Zweig as a doubly representative figure: On the one hand, says the author, Zweig embodies a freewheeling, cosmopolitan, polyglot, pre-Anschluss Vienna, one of those men “who incarnate the enchantments and corruptions of their environment.” But Prochnik also takes Zweig as an archetypal exile, a quintessential victim of disequilibrium and loss.

Born in 1881 into an affluent and assimilated Jewish family, Stefan Zweig seemed blessed from a precocious age with prolific and unslackening success. At his feted prime, in the 1920s, his best-selling books of fiction, biography, drama and essays, published in editions of millions, were translated into 50 languages. Eighteen of his novellas were made into movies, by directors including Roberto Rossellini and Max Ophuls. (The trend continues with Wes Anderson’s 2014 film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which the director says was inspired by Zweig’s books “Beware of Pity” and “The Post Office Girl.”)

A connoisseur of fame and its social atmosphere, Zweig surrounded himself with illustrious friends like James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Joseph Roth and Theodor Herzl; he spent time with Rilke, Rodin, Dalí and Yeats.

Indeed, he sought out “great men” both present and past. In a series of admiring and admired biographies, Zweig painted a gallery of humanists with whom he identified, writers like Montaigne, Goethe, Dostoyevsky and French theologian Sebastian Castellio. He regarded his book on Erasmus of Rotterdam – a man Zweig called “the first conscious European” – as “a thinly veiled self-portrait.” As in his most well-known play, “Jeremiah,” Zweig seemed especially drawn to figures he considered ennobled by loss.

“I do not like the victors, the triumphant,” he said, “but the defeated, and I believe that it is the task of the artist to picture those characters who resisted the trend of their time and who fell victim to their convictions.”

Zweig’s own convictions would prove perilously out of joint with – and inadequate to – his time. But this is precisely what makes him representative of his time. One gets the impression from Prochnik that Zweig strained to look at the 20th century through the fractured lens of the 19th. He believed in the unity of Europe – a fact “as self-evident as my own breathing,” he said in 1922 – even as the continent disintegrated. He was a radical pacifist and committed internationalist at a time of world war and rising nationalist fever. He believed in the German language at the very moment it ebbed into the grotesque.

“We writers of the German language,” he said in 1941, “feel a secret and tormenting shame because these decrees of oppression are conceived and drafted in the German language, the same language in which we write and think.”

As a result of those decrees, Zweig’s own books were banned and then, in May 1933, consigned to the flames. Zweig remarked that it was more “an honor than a disgrace to be permitted to share this fate of the complete destruction of literary existence in Germany with such eminent contemporaries as Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel ... and many others whose work I consider incomparably more important than my own.”

But the auto-da-fé had left the urbane bibliophile shaken. He had always found refuge in books – “handfuls of silence,” as he called them, “assuaging torment and unrest.” Yet the next year he left a large part of his library to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and fled Austria for England. After being designated an “enemy alien” in September 1939, he moved again, this time to Ossining, New York, and then to the Wyndham Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Throughout, he showed unstinting generosity, to the point of exhaustion, to less fortunate refugees.

Spiritual vertigo

Harried by hordes of these displaced petitioners, in 1941 Zweig and his second wife moved to Petrópolis, in the forested hills above Rio de Janeiro. For a time he breathed easier, comforted by the colorful heterogeneity of the Brazilians. He wrote to Franz and Alma Werfel that the place offered “a countryside that seems to be translated from the Austrian into a tropical language.”

Before long, however, he complained of his “complete isolation.” His uncertain ghost-like wanderings were characterized by what Prochnik calls “Lot’s wife syndrome,” a condition of compulsively looking back at the destruction of one’s former life. The glance back induced a spiritual vertigo. “Never,” Zweig wrote, “has any generation experienced such a moral retrogression from such a spiritual height as our generation has.”

Zweig became a pariah from his own time. And from himself. Zweig’s restless self-probing, Prochnik suggests, was “symptomatic of someone who has no idea how to be himself.” Zweig and his wife took their own lives in February 1942, five months after having moved to Brazil. In his suicide note (now kept at Israel’s National Library), he wrote: “The world of my own language sank and was lost to me, and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself.”

Prochnik’s is not a straightforward biography. For all its erudition, it is attractively novelistic in its digressive design, selective in its emphasis on Zweig’s final, haunted years of exile, and personal in the way it weaves in the story of Prochnik’s father, who escaped Vienna in 1938.

Nor does Prochnik offer a critical appraisal of Zweig’s work, which was controversial even in its heyday. Some critics, not perhaps without envy, regarded Zweig’s plots as melodramatic, his prose mannered, and his technique conventional and untouched by modernism and therefore dated. Karl Kraus thought Zweig a shallow popularizer, a charming raconteur who offered his devoted, middle-class readers the illusion that they had tasted high-brow literature. Prochnik, aiming neither to read the man through the work nor the work through the man, does not take up such charges.

There were deeper criticisms, however, concerning Zweig’s aloofness from politics and obliviousness to the darker forces of history, and these Prochnik cannot ignore. There is, above all, the matter of Zweig’s reluctance (even after he’d left Europe for good) to speak out against the Nazi crimes against European Jewry, a reticence that many regarded as an evasion of duty. When the Nazis sought to ban an opera on which he collaborated with Richard Strauss, Zweig had bragged that “all imaginable files of the Gestapo and all my earlier books were combed through, [but] here also nothing could be found to show that I ever had said a detrimental word about Germany (or about any other nation of the earth) or that I had been politically active.” (Shortly after its successful opening in Dresden, the opera was banned anyway.)

Hannah Arendt, for instance, saw in Zweig the self-delusions of a Jew insulated by privilege, who imagined he could become a “European” safety beyond politics. In a 1943 review of his posthumously published memoir, “The World of Yesterday,” she writes: “Naturally, the world that Zweig depicts was anything but the world of yesterday; naturally, the author of this book did not actually live in the world, only on its rim. The gilded trellises of this peculiar sanctuary were very thick, depriving the inmates of every view and every insight that could disturb their enjoyment.”

Zweig’s friend Irmgard Keunlives similarly observed that he “lives in an immaculate glass world of the spirit.”

Part of the explanation, Prochnik argues, lies in Zweig’s innate caution, of which he was well aware. “Everything I do I try to do quietly ... There is nothing of the so-called heroic in me.” Zweig regarded this as a matter of principle. “In wars of ideas,” he wrote, “the best combatants are not those who thrust themselves lightly but passionately into battle, but those who hesitate a long time before committing themselves.”

Prochnik’s defense of the writer’s silence runs along the same lines: “Essentially, what Zweig sought to communicate was that when intellectuals deliver topical diatribes against state policies, the main beneficiary of these objections is just the public standing and narcissistic self-regard of the intellectuals themselves.”

But Zweig’s vexed relation to Jewishness unearths deeper roots for his reticence. From age 19, Zweig had put himself under the wing of Herzl, his editor at the Neue Freie Presse (“the first man of international stature I met in my life”). Despite this mentorship, Prochnik shows that Zweig, drenched in an ideal of political powerlessness, could allow himself no refuge in Zionism. “I never wanted the Jews to become a nation again,” he wrote to Martin Buber in 1917, “and thus to lower itself to taking part with the others in the rivalry of reality. I love the Diaspora, and affirm it as the meaning of Jewish idealism, as Jewry’s cosmopolitan human mission.”

A Europe so sunk in barbarism, so ruthlessly inhospitable to the powerless, could no longer serve as a spiritual homeland to Stefan Zweig, and in the end he could find no other. Thrown off-kilter by reveries of a vanished world, Zweig had lost the ballast that had given his writing its steady course and his convictions their compass.

Benjamin Balint, author of “Running Commentary” (2010), teaches at the Bard College humanities program at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.