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Last exit to nowhere: John Gray on the lost world of Stefan Zweig

The rise of Nazism ended Stefan Zweig’s career as a European writer and led him ultimately to take his own life. Now he is enjoying an unexpected revival.

The passenger: Zweig on a bus in New York, 1941, the year before he committed suicide. Photo: Kurt Severin, courtesty of David H Lowenherz

The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World
George Prochik
Other Press, 400pp, $27.95

In his memoir The World of Yesterday, which he finished revising not long before he took his own life, Stefan Zweig described the Europe that he and his generation had lost:

 

When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security. Everything in our almost thousand-year-old Austrian monarchy seemed based on permanency, and the State itself was the chief guarantor of this stability . . . In this vast empire everything stood firmly and immovably in its appointed place, and at its head was the aged emperor; and were he to die, one knew (or believed) another would come to take his place, and nothing would change in the well-regulated order. No one thought of wars, of revolutions, of revolts. All that was radical, all violence, seemed impossible in an age of reason.

 

Born in 1881 into a prosperous Jewish family and becoming one of the most successful writers of his time, widely travelled and acquainted with practically everyone who mattered in European culture and politics, Zweig saw the disaster that had befallen the continent from a standpoint of self-confessed privilege. The blemishes of the old order – entrenched inequalities, the dilapidated state of large parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the pervasive prejudice that allowed a virulent anti-Semite to become mayor of Vienna – are scarcely visible in the picture he conjured up thousands of miles away from anywhere he could call home. Yet Zweig was right in fearing that the ramshackle Habsburg realm embodied a kind of freedom that would not be seen again in much of Europe for generations.

The rise of Nazism ended his career as a European writer, destroyed most of his wealth and left him in a state of permanent flight. He began by moving to Britain, settling for a time in Bath, where he was baffled and infuriated by the stolid confidence that Hitler would not prevail. Fearing imminent invasion, he moved on to New York after the fall of France. Leaving America after Pearl Harbor, he ended up in Brazil, where he committed suicide in a pact with his second wife, Lotte, in February 1942, only days after he heard of the fall of Singapore.

Once dismissed by many as a second-rate author whose work hardly counts as literature, attacked for his lack of forthrightness in confronting the Nazi threat, a target of envy on account of his inherited wealth and popular acclaim, Zweig is enjoying an unexpected revival. In addition to the publication in English of many of his works by Pushkin Books and New York Review Books over the past several years, two films inspired by Zweig’s fiction have appeared in the past months. Wes Anderson’s dazzling Grand Budapest Hotel presents a Europe in which comic-opera political thuggery and a daily struggle for survival are intertwined, while Patrice Leconte’s A Promise (based on Zweig’s posthumously published novella Journey into the Past) explores desire, memory and separation in a romance derailed by the First World War.

Zweig is one of the most complex and problematic literary casualties of Europe’s descent into barbarism after the First World War. He evaded recognising the irreducible evil of Nazism, and then panicked too easily and too often. Capable of striking generosity, he could also be mean and petty. Complaining of the demands on his time made by other European refugees and refusing to make common cause with the struggles of his fellow Jews, he seems to have wanted to remain aloof from the human experience of which he could not help being a part. His work lacks the biting ferocity, as well as the tender lyricism, that infuses the writings of Joseph Roth – a friend whom Zweig supported financially for many years, surely knowing that Roth was by far the better writer. There was something contorted and unresolved in Zweig’s character, a kind of obliquity and impenetrable reserve that prevented him from being truly admired by his contemporaries, and which clouds his reputation to this day.

The peculiar mix of denial and foreboding with which he approached the catastrophe of his time may also be what draws us to Zweig today. Our leaders insist that nothing like the debacle that befell Europe between the wars could ever happen again, and every shade of respectable opinion echoes their denial. With all that we know of what it meant, how could anything like fascism return to power in Europe? How could there be war and dictatorship in Europe’s heartlands? The possibility of another European debacle is dismissed as unthinkable. But the renewed interest in Zweig tells a different story. Whether or not they realise or admit it, there are many who fear that Zweig’s fractured and de-civilised Europe belongs not only in the world of yesterday. There is a growing suspicion that the security we have come to take for granted may be passing away, and it may be this as much as the rediscovery of the merits of his work that is leading so many to turn to him.

Zweig’s recessive personality exposes some of the limitations of biography. Oliver Matuschek’s Three Lives: a Biography of Stefan Zweig (2006, published in English in 2011), translated from the German by Allan Blunden, is a clear and readable account of the three phases of Zweig’s life – his early years, his rise to fame as a European man of letters and his later life on the run. There are some faults in it. Lotte, the young Jewish refugee from Silesia who became his loving companion and was with him to the end, appears as little more than an amanuensis. At the same time Matuschek fails to capture the intense sense of dislocation that accompanied the writer wherever he went. It’s not easy to see how any biography of a conventional kind could track Zweig’s inner life as he made his wary way through the world.

A different approach to understanding Zweig has long been needed, and now at last we have it. George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile (out now in the US and published in the UK by Granta in November) is a departure not only in the study of Zweig, but in the art of telling a life. Combining memories of his own family’s experience of emigration with travels to places in which the novelist lived and conversations with some who knew him, Prochnik’s brilliantly accomplished and genre-bending book allows access to Zweig in a way that until now seemed impossible. At the heart of his life was an experience of exile all the more harrowing because it contradicted what he most deeply believed in: “absolute freedom to choose among nations, to feel oneself a guest everywhere”. This freedom to shape one’s identity was an attribute of humanity itself, he liked to think. But when the rise of Nazism drove him out of Europe, he discovered that human identity is more commonly fated than chosen – an unsettling realisation, as the consequences of being defined by others have rarely been benign and in Zweig’s time could very easily be lethal.

In the course of his wanderings Zweig’s image of himself was destroyed, and eventually he belonged nowhere on earth. The eclipse of his fame meant more than a material loss to him. He disdained celebrity; but popular success secured him a place in the world, without which he could hardly live. During a sojourn in London in 1937, he gave one of the BBC’s first television interviews, a deferential affair during which he let it be known that he had come to Britain – which later granted him citizenship – on account of its good libraries and because the people didn’t bother him much. By the time he arrived in New York, he had begun to suffer the fall into anonymity that is the exile’s normal condition. As Prochnik writes: “Now, with the advent of Hitler, success, his surprise guest, had begun making motions to leave. To New York City’s conductors, waiters and porters, Zweig was invisible. To women, he was an ageing unknown with fear in his eyes and a thick accent on his moustache-smudged lips. US authorities did not defer to his name, let alone the sight of his face. Who exactly was he now?”

One answer is that even when he had passed into what he thought had become a sort of posthumous existence, Zweig never stopped being a writer. Right to the end, he continued to produce work as good as any he had ever done. As well as revising his autobiography, he struggled to complete a study of Balzac that he thought might be his magnum opus. Praised by Freud for its penetrating insight into human motivation, his novella Schachnovelle (translated as A Chess Story or The Royal Game) was completed only days before he died. In all the controversy about why he ended his life, it is easy to forget how dedicated a writer he always continued to be. Published in 1939 and republished in 2012 by Pushkin Press in a brilliant translation by Anthea Bell, his novel Beware of Pity – a dark and daring exploration of how succumbing to the morally worthy emotion of compassion can bring ruin on all concerned – was the product of over ten years of intensive writing and rewriting. If a person’s identity, in the end, is a collection of habits, writing was the one habit Zweig never lost.

This all-consuming writerly engagement may be what makes his autobiography so unsatisfying. Despite what Prochnik describes as “its nostalgia, its flaws and its wilful illusions”, The World of Yesterday remains one of the canonical European testaments. The third chapter, which recounts the climate of sexual repression in which Zweig and his generation grew up, must be one of the most candid accounts of bourgeois mores ever written. Yet he reveals little of himself. There are lively vignettes of the literary greats he had met: Romain Rolland, H G Wells, Gorky and many others. The shock of the First World War is described with melancholy grandiloquence. But, except as an observer, Zweig barely figures in the story. It is as if he wanted to write himself out of his own life.

There may be circumstantial reasons for this reticence. There has long been speculation regarding Zweig’s sexuality, and during his lifetime it was rumoured that he may have been an exhibitionist. As Prochnik writes: “Zweig’s sexuality sometimes seems to operate in the realm of espionage more than the erotic. He drifted in and out of the sheets with any number of young women, and quite possibly a few young men as well. Yet the riddling clues left in his journal and correspondence give the impression of relations that often remained ethereal . . .” But it wasn’t only in his sexuality that he tended to drift into the ether. As Prochnik shows, by the time he settled in Brazil – a country he seems genuinely to have liked, not least for its distance from Europe – Zweig in his own right had become ethereal: “Europe had committed suicide, he repeatedly wrote. He could not overcome the sense that he no longer belonged anywhere, and there was nowhere left to travel. In everything he did there were overtones of the end of everything. The lure of nothingness. There was everything and nothing, and nothing any longer to choose between them.”

There is a certain irony in Zweig’s inner life being so resistant to deciphering. He spent many years producing studies of other writers in which he attempted a kind of dowsing of souls – an exercise in empathetic clairvoyance in which he hoped to plumb the mental world of Balzac, Dostoevsky, Kleist and Stendhal, among others. One of these studies, an essay on Nietzsche as “the Don Juan of knowledge”, was brought out last year by Hesperus Press as a separate volume in a new translation by Will Stone, and Pushkin Press has republished a number of others. Yet Zweig’s work as a sort of cultural medium has hardly featured in the recent revival of his work. This is a pity, because although they can be ponderous and overwritten, these books offer a way into his way of reading himself.

Writing of Nietzsche, he rhapsodised over the German prophet’s quest for freedom. “The history of his spiritual wayfaring, his sudden about-turns and upturns, that pursuit of the infinite, takes place wholly in a higher space, an inexhaustible spiritual place: like a captive balloon that continually loses ballast, Nietzsche renders himself ever more liberated through his separations and determination to cut adrift.” Unlike Nietzsche, Zweig had no choice but to lose his place in the world. For him as for others the destruction of the old order in Europe was a historical fate. Still, it is hard to avoid seeing a parallel between the pursuit of unearthly freedom that he attributed to Nietzsche and Zweig’s response to the challenge of his time.

Apart from its impact on Lotte, a woman nearly 30 years younger who could have lived on and found other fulfilments had she not been placed in such an impossible situation, Zweig’s suicide cannot be regarded as tragic. He put up too little of a fight to be seen as any kind of hero. But no one should underestimate the pressures under which he lived. Prone to bouts of depression, he recovered his energies again and again, until at the end he may simply have worn himself out. The valedictory letters he wrote to his friends in the days before he died show he had come to accept that he could not start his life again in Brazil as he had hoped. From the condition of their bodies, it seems Lotte may have taken the poison some while after he did. We can’t know what may have passed between the two, but in The Last Days (Pushkin Press, 2013) the French novelist Laurent Seksik has presented a sensitive and moving fictional account of how they may have spent their final six months together.

Zweig’s decision to end his life appears to confirm the narcissistic self-absorption of which he was so often accused. If the world will not accommodate my need for freedom, he seems to be saying, then I will find freedom in death – whatever the cost may be to others. At the same time, Zweig’s suicide reveals something he did not understand. Far from being a condition that makes us human, freedom is a highly fragile construction. When the artifice breaks down, as it did in Europe in Zweig’s lifetime, we cannot choose who or what we will be; we can only accept or resist what others try to make of us. Going against all he wanted to believe, this discomforting truth shaped his life and death.

According to Lotte’s niece Eva, an alert and thoughtful 83-year-old with whom Prochnik talked in her Hampstead garden, Zweig “believed he would be completely forgotten”. In this, as in other things, the unhappy Austrian writer was mistaken. His life and work tell of the perilous flimsiness of our world of security – a message that many insistently deny, but somehow need to hear.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Penguin (£9.99)