The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, by George Prochnik ****

 theimpossibleexile If you’re looking for a real-life horror story, this one is for you. It is the story of Stefan Zweig, a writer and collector of original musical scores, very well known in Vienna and throughout Europe prior to the rise of the Third Reich. It’s also a Holocaust survivor’s story, to a degree. When one surveys it objectively, his fate seems so much more sanguine than so many others who were unable to escape, or who suffered terrible physical and material misfortune before doing so. And yet it isn’t. Zweig makes it out of Vienna in time…and yet, he doesn’t.

My thanks go to Net Galley for the ARC.

Prochnik is an able writer, and he balances Zweig’s perspective with world events well in most instances; it is a highly literate, well documented biography. It is hard to rate a book like this, because while the writer is proficient, I finished the book not knowing why Zweig’s story was important. The man cut himself off from political resistance, and while he initially helped other Jews who needed to escape, eventually he was so overwhelmed by their need that he not only turned them away, but spoke of them in contempt as “schnorrers” (Yiddish which literally means ‘beggars’) who had not had the prescience to get out in time.

At one point, he is said to have thrown one giant party in order to discharge all of his social obligations in one extravagant evening. He supposedly embraced “all classes”, but the single “working class poet” is the only member of the working class ever mentioned as a guest or friend, and the poetry arguably inches that man toward the intelligentsia and professional crowd that Zweig embraced, when he was embracing anyone.

Depression and mental illness were not understood well in that time, and that had to be the key to his terrible end, which otherwise seems so unnecessary. Without it, the reader may have a difficult time sympathizing with a man who was able to travel the world after his escape and afford servants upon his arrival. I had a hard time liking this protagonist.

Before reading The Impossible Exile, I had never heard of Zweig, but I have read hundreds of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs, and often they are by or about strangers (or both). Often I find myself seeking out the protagonist’s work after I have read about them, because they have endeared themselves to me as I read their stories. Not so with Zweig. But again, those who have spent any amount of time with a depressed individual know that depression doesn’t merely imbue sorrow; depressives are often angry, moody, or appear lazy when they just won’t get out of bed. Thus, I can understand his difficult nature to that degree (and Prochnik also recognizes it).

My recommendation, then, is for a niche audience only. If you are interested specifically in Stefan Zweig, read Prochnik’s book; I cannot imagine the subject in better hands. If you seek a wide cross section of Holocaust refugee stories, this one is likely atypical enough that it should be included.

If you are looking for a story in which a survivor rises triumphant against adversity, or dedicates himself to helping others after a narrow escape, this is not your story. It is instead, almost unbearably tragic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s