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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
Granta, 416pp, £20

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 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)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Photo; Getty
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How Jean-Luc Mélenchon built a resistance

Like Jeremy Corbyn, France's leftist candidate for the presidency has been caricatured by the media. Nonetheless, he has succeeded in building a movement. 

After months of indifference, the rise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the French presidential race has finally caught the attention of the British media. Still, it is frequently misrepresented and reduced to familiar categories: populism, Euroscepticism and spendthriftedness, with commentators quick to draw parallels with Jeremy Corbyn. However, to boil down the Mélenchon phenomenon to such clichés is to fundamentally misunderstand it. 

The authors of this article propose taking a closer look at a highly innovative manifesto and campaign. Cambridge University lecturer Olivier Tonneau is involved with La France Insoumise (France Defiant) and co-authored the cartoon version of Mélenchon’s programme. He runs a blog dedicated to exposing its policies and addressing the many rumours and falsehoods floated about the candidate. Nick Jones is a student who was in Paris at the time of Nuit Debout, and experienced first-hand the energy and thirst for radical change in France.

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Given the deep wound that Brexit has inflicted upon British society, perhaps the most urgent clarification is that Mélenchon does not wish to leave the EU, although he does have a radical strategy to reform it. France and Britain have different relations to the EU. Whilst Britain’s austerity policies were self-inflicted, the same is not true of France. The French people voted “no” to the European constitution in 2005 only to see its vote overturned in Parliament by a coalition of the center-left and center-right parties. This event marked a tectonic shift in French politics, and incidentally determined Mélenchon’s break from the Socialist Party. In 2012, François Hollande was elected on the promise of renegotiating the Lisbon treaty, a promise he failed to hold, and proceeded to impose austerity measures in France (cutting down public spending and corporate taxes, flexibilising the labour market), constantly justifying these measures by the necessity to abide by European norms. He has thus fuelled a deep resentment against both the center-left and the EU. Meanwhile, Mélenchon has campaigned for a showdown with the EU: reform it or leave it (“plan A, plan B”).

His strategy, designed by his chief economist Jacques Généreux, consists of unilaterally disobeying European Treatises: disregarding budgetary norms to implement a Keynesian stimulus package, creating a public investment bank, and ending privatisation policies. His prognosis is that the EU will not dare exclude France because such an exclusion would signal the end of the European project altogether. The EU will thus have to inscribe French exceptions to the treatises (just as it had done for UK). Such exceptions could prove highly desirable to other austerity-stricken countries such as the infamous PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), with enormous pressure placed on the most intransigent promoters of austerity, the chief of which is Germany.

Far from being anti-European, this strategy is aimed to save the European project which, according to Généreux, is doomed to implode if unreformed. Généreux had reached this conclusion as early as 2012: Brexit and the European-wide rise of the far-right has confirmed his diagnosis. Unencumbered by a reluctant party, Mélenchon has been able to forcefully defend a position that Corbyn was unable to hold, thus shattering the “in/out, good/bad” dichotomy of the Remain and Leave campaigns in the UK.

Already, by 2012, Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche (co-founded with the Green MP Martine Billard) had published an eco-socialist manifesto which advanced on the Left’s historical bend towards productivism. This time round, Mélenchon’s program is an environmentally focused Keynesian plan. Its aim is to turn France into using 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050 – ending the country’s heavy dependence on nuclear power – by implementing the “negawatt scenario” elaborated by a collective of scientists and engineers.

Mélenchon is especially determined to make the most of France’s maritime territory – the second largest in the world. His program also addresses in detail matters of public health: for instance, schools should serve organically sourced products exclusively, securing a market for organic producers. The turn to organic production, for instance, is expected to create 300,000 jobs. Mélenchon’s environmental plans tie in neatly with forensic budgeting and a clear plan for job-growth, in line with the “One Million Climate Jobs Now” campaign in the UK.

Another aspect of Mélenchon’s Keynesian plan is its redistributive policies. Low and middle wages are spent within the economy on essential goods such as food and clothing, whereas high wages are lost in the speculative bubble: by raising the minimum wage, pensions, and social benefits, Mélenchon intends to boost demand and help small and medium businesses prosper. He also acknowledges the need to reduce working time, without necessarily cutting the length of the working week. Instead, he wishes to return the retirement age to 60 – a measure that is acutely urgent given the high unemployment rate among senior citizens – and impose a strict adherence to the current, 35-hour week.

Impossible to fund? Not at all. More than hundred economists from 17 countries – including Ha-Joon Chang – published a column supporting Mélenchon’s program. His policies were presented in details by economists and high-ranking public servants in a 5-hour budget program broadcasted on YouTube, whose last hour was a discussion with economic journalists from liberal news outlets. Ghilaine Ottenheimer from Challenge praised the broadcast as “modern” and “bold”; Hedwige Chevrillon (BFM Business) compared the approach to that of the ‘slow food movement’ and deemed it a rare opportunity to think things through; Marc Landré (Le Figaro) was impressed by the openness with which La France Insoumise was laying itself open to criticism.

The broadcast has already been viewed more than half a million times. On every aspect of its program, from the environment to counter-terrorism via culture and international relations, La France Insoumise has taken the same care to involve experts. Who, then, are the ‘Insoumis’? How did such an extraordinary campaign get off the ground? This question takes us back to 2012.

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After Mélenchon’s remarkable 2012 campaign, the Front de Gauche fell apart because of strategic disagreements: the Communist Party wanted to maintain alliances with the Socialist Party whereas Mélenchon was convinced that any association with the now hugely-unpopular party of Hollande could only drag them with its fall. When Mélenchon claimed in 2015 that he did not aim to ‘unite the left’ but to ‘federate the people’, it was widely perceived as the desperate gambit of an isolated figure. And yet the gambit paid off: there was indeed a people to answer his call. With the massive demonstrations against Macron’s labour laws and the grassroots movement Nuit Debout, the writing was on the wall. Mélenchon was careful not to lay claims to these movements which were profoundly suspicious of established politicians and parties, but he has nevertheless been able to tap into their energy by creating La France Insoumise, a loose structure within which everybody contributes freely.

The Insoumis have shown ebullient creativity: some created a board game, others a computer game (Fiscal Kombat), and one of the authors of the present article wrote a comic book adaptation of the manifesto. Alongside quirky stunts such as appearing at meetings via hologram, the Insoumis have brought a vitally seductive and energetic edge to Mélenchon’s campaign. Crucially, they have brought to fruition another aspect of Mélenchon’s strategy: his struggle against the press.

In 2012, Mélenchon often claimed that the media was the “second skin of the system”. The only way to break the neoliberal hegemony was to subvert its own logic: that of audience and profit. Thus was created the colourful figure who claimed to incarnate “the sound and the fury of his time”. Yet, having become a celebrity, Mélenchon had to avoid being pigeon-holed into a caricature. The media, he claims, are “not a mirror but an arena”, so he adopted a confrontational strategy aimed at exposing the biases of journalists and interviewers.

Yet there is only so much one can say in the constraining format of TV and radio interviews; all one could achieve was to fire “bullet words” that would open cracks in the listeners’ preconceptions. In response, listeners had to be provided with alternative sources of information. In 2012, Mélenchon’s blog was the most read of any French politician; in 2013, a galaxy of “6th Republic blogs” was created; in 2016 Mélenchon’s extremely successful YouTube channel was launched; it has so far has over 22 million views. The book detailing his manifesto, L’Avenir en commun (A Shared Future) has found its way into bestseller lists, shifting well over 250,000 copies. If such independently-made material is inaccessible to non-French speakers, international viewers should not be tricked into seeing it as Trump-style, anti-system fake news. For example, a host of global NGOs including Oxfam and ActionAid have backed key aspects of Mélenchon’s campaign, with Amnesty and Greenpeace ranking him highest overall in their breakdown of all the candidate’s policies. Leading economists have also signed a pledge backing his candidacy will be published this week.

The communication machine of Defiant France is firing on all cylinders. It is remarkable that the fear-mongering of the mainstream media has failed to halt Mélenchon’s surge in the polls – remarkable, but not surprising given that his latest meeting, in Toulouse, was attended by 70,000 people, and had attracted 320,000 views on YouTube in under 24 hours. 

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Do not be mistaken: something astonishing is happening. This is about much more than meeting attendance. To be sure, Mélenchon is not simply preaching to the choir: bucking all recent trends, recent polls have shown that he is denting Marine Le Pen’s share of the working-class vote, and has overtaken her as the most favoured candidate of the youth. People are flocking from all across the political spectrum: recently, an entrepreneur from the Silicon Valley published a piece titled If Mélenchon is elected, I return to France.

He is not an isolated case, and a petition of the entrepreneurs with Mélenchon has just been launched. Even the ‘Gaullists’, disillusioned with the Fillon scandals, are now seduced by Mélenchon’s cultural style, his integrity, and his vision of France’s place in the world which is in line with the tradition of the General himself. What seemed like a fanciful vision is thus coming true: the French people is being transformed. One of the most striking signs of the campaign’s success is the change in people’s priorities: whilst employment had always ranked first, it has now been displaced by institutional reform. This, of course, is intrinsically tied to the centrepiece of Mélenchon’s program, which aims to accomplish no less than a Révolution citoyenne: creating the 6th Republic by means of a Constituent Assembly.

Under the Nazi Occupation of France, resistance networks sought not only to liberate the country, but also to bring about a better world. At great peril, they formed the National Resistance Council and drafted a program which was circulated under the cover of a novel titled Les Jours Heureux. It is no coincidence that the crowds at Mélenchon’s meetings do not chant his name but the word “resistance”, and that Melenchon himself synthetizes his aim with the phrase “let us bring forth the happy days”. The perils are undoubtedly lesser but with a deeply dysfunctional economic system preventing us from addressing climate change and fuelling the rise of the far-right, the stakes may be even higher.

Olivier Tonneau is lecturer in Modern and Medieval Languages at Homerton College, Cambridge. He participates in La France Insoumise, the movement supporting Jean-Luc mélenchon's presidential campaign. He writes a blog on French politics. Nick Jones is in the final year of his undergraduate degree studying French at Homerton. During his year abroad in Paris, he was a participant in, and keen observer of, the grassroots movement Nuit Debout. 

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