The Impossible Exile
Stefan Zweig at the End of the World
By George Prochnik
(Other Press (NY), Hardcover, 9781590516126, 390pp.)
Publication Date: May 6, 2014
List Price: $27.95*
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By the 1930s, Stefan Zweig had become the most widely translated living author in the world. His novels, short stories, and biographies were so compelling that they became instant best sellers. Zweig was also an intellectual and a lover of all the arts, high and low. Yet after Hitler's rise to power, this celebrated writer who had dedicated so much energy to promoting international humanism plummeted, in a matter of a few years, into an increasingly isolated exile--from London to Bath to New York City, then Ossining, Rio, and finally PetrOpolis--where, in 1942, in a cramped bungalow, he killed himself.
"The Impossible Exile" tells the tragic story of Zweig's extraordinary rise and fall while it also depicts, with great acumen, the gulf between the world of ideas in Europe and in America, and the consuming struggle of those forced to forsake one for the other. It also reveals how Zweig embodied, through his work, thoughts, and behavior, the end of an era--the implosion of Europe as an ideal of Western civilization.
The Viennese writer was once one of the world's most translated authors, but after his death he was forgotten â�� until now. Wes Anderson credits Zweig's writing at the end of his latest film. More at NPR.org
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“A terrific book...Prochnik focusses 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 émigré community took on him, especially at a time when millions of Jews who remained in Europe were dying.” —NewYorker.com
“Stefan Zweig stands in for Europe’s uprooted intellectuals in this elegiac portrait by Prochnik….[An] intelligent, reflective and deeply sad portrait of a man tragically cut adrift by history.” —Kirkus Reviews
“In his sensitive, emotionally astute and strikingly stylish account of Stefan Zweig’s exile, George Prochnik manages to convey, better than virtually any other book I’ve read on the subject, the awful intellectual and emotional costs of wartime displacement. Meticulously shadowing its subject’s poignantly improbable zigzagging—from pre-war Vienna to rural upstate New York, from the 1939 World’s Fair to the remote Brazilian village where Zweig finally ended his life—The Impossible Exile enacts the process of disintegration by which one of Europe’s greatest literary celebrities became one of the hopeless, culture-less emigrés whom Goebbels derided as a “cadavers on leave.” Not the least memorable aspect of this book is the remarkable way in which the author uses his own family’s wartime past as a means of gaining insight into what is, to most of us, an unimaginable kind of loss. A remarkable work of biographical empathy and imagination.” —Daniel Mendelsohn, author of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million
“In this learned and luminous volume, George Prochnik uses the last, tragic phase of Zweig’s career as a metaphor for the condition of exile itself. Part literary biography, part cultural history, part meditation on war, art and death, The Impossible Exile gives us the pulse and fever of Zweig’s desperate and fascinating days.” —David Laskin, author of The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the 20th Century
“A deeply moving study of one writer’s struggle to adapt to a life outside the European culture whose values he helped create. In The Impossible Exile, George Prochnik has illuminated the facts of Stefan Zweig’s life and work with his own family’s experience of exile, creating a remarkably rich, multi-dimensional portrait of loss, longing, and despair.” —Sherill Tippins, critically acclaimed author of February House and Inside the Dream Palace
“A thrilling blend of literature, cultural history, and biography, The Impossible Exile casts a compassionate and slyly contemporary light on what it means to be torn from one’s life and home. Prochnik teaches us as much about intellectual life in America in the 1930s and 1940s, as he does about Stefan Zweig’s beloved Vienna before the war. He is especially insightful on the psychological cost of exile, the loss of self, of fame, of relevance, that beset Zweig and his brilliant coterie of displaced Viennese and German artists, composers, and writers.” —Michael Greenberg, author of Hurry Down Sunshine and Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life
“The Impossible Exile is not only a riveting study of one of the major literary émigrés of the Nazi era, but also a profound meditation on the nature of fame, the intersection of politics and art, and the condition of exile itself. Tracing the final, tumultuous phase of Zweig’s career from cosmopolitan Vienna to the small city in Brazil where he met his melancholy end, Prochnik brings a sympathetic but unsparing eye to his subject and in the process makes the best case I’ve read for the continued importance of this cultured, humane, yet fascinatingly complicated figure.” —James Lasdun, author of Give Me Everything You Have
“This is a beautifully written, deeply felt and ultimately tragic love story about a deracinated Jewish writer wildly in love with European culture, who discovers, too late, that European culture does not love him back. What makes The Impossible Exile doubly tragic is the way that Zweig mistook his best self for Europe, just as Europe was mistaking its worst self for Zweig. The double suicide that resulted is, in Prochnik’s expert hands, as fascinating as it is unsettling.” —Jonathan Rosen, author of The Life of the Skies
“The Impossible Exile, a brilliant biographical meditation, operates with the hypnotic force of a mystery novel, suspensefully reconstructing an already committed crime. George Prochnik’s style is at once speedy and ruminative: he combines the risk-loving élan of a beatnik genius, and the majestic hauntedness of Walter Benjamin. I am wonderstruck by the erudition and tender feeling that underlie Prochnik’s masterful account of perpetual, tragic wandering.” —Wayne Koestenbaum, poet and critic
“Subtle-minded and unsentimental, Prochnik makes some sense out of the enigmatic Zweig. The sense is exile, which, though a genie’s lamp to some writers, has been a death-blow to others, notably Zweig, who, fleeing the Nazis, ended in a double suicide with his wife. The biography is nestled in excellent mini-essays on Zweig’s world: journalism, the coffee-house culture, Viennese snobbery, Jewish snobbery. In turn, that story is embraced by Prochnik’s own: growing up in America in a family that had escaped Austria after the Anschluss. The book is in the bloodline of W.G. Sebald.” —Joan Acocella of The New Yorker
“George Prochnik has taken the conventions of literary biography—usually, in fact, the last word in conventionality—and turned them inside out to create a fast-paced, tension-filled, almost novel-like exploration of a writer’s personality. That this writer is Stefan Zweig, strangest and most tortured of all German-speaking writers of his time, makes his book doubly gripping.” —Lawrence Osborne, author of The Forgiven
“When the Nazis invaded Austria, Zweig was exiled from his native country. In the course of the last century, he has been exiled from his rightful place in world literature. In this enthralling and meticulous biography, George Prochnik brings the exile home.” —Judith Thurman, author of Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, winner of the National Book Award for Non-Fiction
“This is an immensely dramatic book, in which the hero is dogged by enemies everywhere, from the jealous writers who crave his endorsement while insulting him to his face, to the Nazis, who drive him half-way round the world and out of life itself. True to Zweig’s vision, in this book women are often wiser than their husbands and sons. Thanks to their voices, a great biography becomes, as well, a brilliant study of exile’s impact on both young and old, women and men. Prochnik is always shrewd, always lyrical, but he outdoes himself in the book’s last pages. There is a final photo that could break your heart, but it is accompanied by even more stirring prose, evidence that words can still convey more than images, and that the childless Zweig has at last found a son.” —Anthony Heilbut, author of Exiled in Paradise, Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature, and The Fan Who Knew Too Much
“George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile is a deeply researched and beautifully written exploration of the life of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, once beloved around the world and now nearly forgotten. Rather than writing a straightforward biography, Prochnik brings in elements of his own family history of exile as well as his thoughts on the art of writing biography to create a work that is as sensitive and exquisite as Zweig’s novellas.” —Ruth Franklin, contributing editor at The New Republic
“Pitch perfect… [Prochnik’s] research is far-ranging, his occasional meditations on his own family’s history, to the point. Though it is a dirge he composes, he writes with the élan that distinguished Zweig’s own work. Absorbing.” —Flora Fraser, author of Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire
“Accessible, compelling, and thorough without being pedantic, this literary and cultural biography offers keen insight into Zweig’s life, particularly his final years. Readers interested in the evolution of literary and intellectual ideas in turn-of-the-century Europe or the biography of a largely forgotten literary force will appreciate Prochnik’s compassionate treatment.” —Library Journal
"An excellent intellectual and personal account which also serves as a convincing portrait of modern Europe’s darkest days.” —Patrice Higonnet, Goelet Professor of French History at Harvard University and author of the forthcoming The Four Centuries’ History of a French Protestant Village in Southern France