**Winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Biography**
Now in paperback, the biography of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, the inspiration behind The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s award-winning film
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 Petrópolis—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.
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.
Read an Excerpt
The artists and intellectuals in Vienna were grappling with many of the same problems and aspirations that fueled the violent passions of their archenemies. Just as Hitler’s agenda was dominated by pan-Europeanism in the Napoleonic sense—to be achieved through conquest and maintained through the hegemonic rule of one nationalist culture—Zweig’s program was inspired by the dream of pan-Europeanism on a humanist model, to be achieved through peaceful, transnational understanding and ruled over by an elite assembly of scholars and artists. People on both sides of the cataclysmic debates over Europe’s destiny were educated in the same stultifying school system, shaped by the same sinister admixture of sexual repression and jingoistic militarism. They’d passed through the same faith-obliterating war, and lived with the lingering socioeconomic devastation of that conflict. The inspiringly cultured Viennese shared more of their nemeses’ concerns about the future of Europe and the need for a profound spiritual rejuvenation than we have yet reckoned with.
Zweig himself had recognized—and even, momentarily, endorsed—the allure of National Socialism. After the September 1930 elections in Germany, when support for the National Socialists shot up from under a million votes two years before to more than six million, he blamed the stuffiness of the country’s old-fashioned democrats themselves for the Nazi victory, calling the results “a perhaps unwise but fundamentally sound and approvable revolt of youth against the slowness and irresolution of ‘high politics.’” Klaus Mann, twenty-five years Zweig’s junior, had to remind him that “not everything youth does and thinks is a priori good and pregnant with future. If German youth now turns radical should we not ask, above all, for the sake of which cause it rebels?”
1. Are there exile stories in your own family that resonate with the experience of Stefan and Lotte Zweig? What does exile mean to you?
2. How do you feel Stefan Zweig’s very privileged but very rigid upbringing affected his character and work?
3. How would you compare Friderike and Lotte’s characters? What did the two women respectively find captivating about Zweig and was Zweig capable of returning the love they offered him?
4. Stefan Zweig felt that he’d failed in the most important mission of his life: the obligation to nurture a pacifist, cosmopolitan humanism. In retrospect do you think he and other like-minded intellectuals failed as completely as Zweig thought they had? Or are there positive accomplishments of their cultural mission that outlasted the war?
5. How do you interpret the response of Stefan Zweig to New York and the United States in general? Why did so many of the Austrian and German refugees believe that the New World threatened the values they’d sought to champion in their lives and work?
6. The author says that Stefan Zweig believed education in racial tolerance and cross-cultural appreciation was the singlemost important step that could be taken toward fostering world peace. Do you agree and how do you feel that events since the Second World War support or refute this position?
7. Why did Stefan Zweig fall so passionately in love with France, calling that country his second homeland? What did he find there that he felt deprived of in Vienna, Berlin, London and New York?
8. Why did Stefan and Lotte choose to commit suicide in February 1942 when, in many ways, their lives were more stable and untroubled than they’d been in a long while? Friderike believed that Lotte’s passivity made her the worst possible companion for Stefan when he sank into his depressions, and further implied that if Stefan had stayed with her he would never have gotten to the point of killing himself, do you agree? Do you feel you understand why Lotte Zweig committed suicide with Stefan?
9. The author states that many of Zweig’s novellas and biographies depict individuals caught up in tides of emotion and history that are beyond their control. Why did the stories Zweig told, in which love and ambition were so often disastrously thwarted, prove so successful among readers? Why has Zweig’s popularity in much of Europe continued on unabated while in the United States he is still so marginalized?
10. How would you characterize Zweig’s relationship to his Jewish identity? Is it correct to view him as a stereotypically assimilated Central European Jew, or do you feel after reading the book that Jewishness was always a more pressing concern to Zweig, as he made it out to be in some public statements?
11. Are there lessons we can learn from Zweig’s story that might help us prevent a return to the sociopolitical conditions that led to his exile?
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