Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) stands in for Europe’s uprooted intellectuals in this elegiac portrait by Prochnik (In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, 2010, etc.).
Zweig was one of the most famous and successful authors in the world in the 1920s and early ’30s, best known for his novellas and breezy biographies of historical figures like Erasmus and Marie Antoinette. His fellow Viennese intellectuals might have slightly disdained his wild popularity—except that everyone loved this slight, dapper man with his “genius for friendship.” When the Nazis came to power, Zweig was in a much better position that most, with plenty of money to fund his travels as he roamed from Switzerland to southern France to England and the United States in search of a refuge from the fascist madness. His relative comfort, however, could not make up for the trauma of being ejected from the culture that he, like many other German-speaking Jews, had believed belonged to them as well. “The world we loved has gone beyond recall,” he gloomily told a fellow refugee in Manhattan in 1941. “We shall be homeless in all countries. We have no present and no future.” Prochnik, himself a polymath writer with European Jewish roots, was prompted by the story of his own family, which also fled Nazi-occupied Vienna, to investigate Zweig’s experience of exile. Unable to envision himself settled in America despite four stays in New York, Zweig finally moved to a small village in Brazil in 1941, hoping for peace in which to write. Prochnik sensitively considers his final books—the poignant memoir The World of Yesterday (1942) and Brazil: Land of the Future (1941), which determinedly celebrated his adopted country’s embrace of “the humanist values his native Europe had so wretchedly betrayed.” In the end, accumulating losses and dwindling hopes of a better tomorrow drove Zweig to commit suicide not long after his 60th birthday.
Intelligent, reflective and deeply sad portrait of a man tragically cut adrift by history.