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Stefan Zweig's New Life
Stefan Zweig is experiencing a major comeback in the English-speaking world. The works of fiction of this Austrian Jewish writer (1881-1942) are being reissued in new translations, including his novels such as Beware of Pity and The Post-Office Girl; and director Wes Anderson says that his delightful new film, Grand Budapest Hotel, was "inspired" by Zweig's writings. And now a new biography, by George Prochnik, is appearing: The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World. This biography, which examines Zweig's last years, is the subject of a "LIVE from the NYPL" conversation on May 6 between George Prochnik and the Director of LIVE, Paul Holdengraber; this event is also the 2014 Joy Gottesman Ungerleider Lecture, with support from the Dorot Jewish Division.
Zweig grew up in turn of the century Vienna, a unique time and place. It was the capital of the Habsburg empire, that most ethnically mixed and jumbled of the old European empires. It seemed to provide a special home for the acculturated Jewish bourgeoisie, of which Zweig was a member. Even after the collapse of the empire at the end of World War I, Vienna retained to some degree a culturally Jewish character. It was only with the rise of European fascism and Nazism in the 1930s, and the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, that this world finally and fully disappeared. By this time Zweig had been in exile for several years, moving to England and subsequently to the United States and eventually, Brazil.
Zweig was an enormously popular writer in the interwar years. He remembered of the 1920s, that despite all of Europe's difficulties, "Once more one could work, concentrate inwardly, apply oneself to things of the spirit. One might even dream again and hope for a united Europe." In his moving autobiography, World of Yesterday, he comments that he had learned, from a League of Nations report, "that I was then [in the 1930s] the most-translated author in the world (but true to my disposition I doubted the correctness of the report.)"
But Zweig's last years were difficult ones, years of wandering among places of exile. Through this time, he felt a deep isolation and depression. In his last home, in Brazil, he and his wife took their own lives. These last years are the ones that Impossible Exile focuses on.
In his last letter, he expressed "heartfelt thanks to this wonderful land of Brazil which afforded me and my work such kind and hospitable repose… nowhere else would I have preferred to build up a new existence, the world of my own language having disappeared for me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself.
"But after one's sixtieth year unusual powers are needed in order to make a wholly new beginning. Those that I possess have been exhausted by long years of homeless wandering. So I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth."
The Europe he had loved and worked in was now gone; he was in despair at its self destruction, and he was weary of exile. In George Prochnik's words (in an interview with National Public Radio), "It's critical… to realize how deeply he identified himself with Europe… When Zweig began to feel that the Europe that he had known was gone for good, he lost a lot of his motivation to keep going…
"This Europe that was so invested in aesthetics, in beauty, in civilized tolerance was very much gone by the time of his suicide. But he knew that, in letting that dream go, he was going to be also relinquishing his will to live." He adds that Zweig would be "astonished" to see the revival of interest in his work. But that is exactly what is happening in the United States, and we have LIVE and its Director, and George Prochnik, to thank for what will certainly be a wonderful program on May 6.