In the footsteps of Stefan Zweig

My Indy review of George Prochnik’s superb biography “The Impossible Exile”:

A New York intellectual whose own family fled Austria in the 1930s, he embarks on a journey retracing Zweig’s fretful search for a refuge, from London to Bath to Manhattan, and ending in Petropolis, the restful city in the hills above Rio de Janeiro where the 60-year-old Zweig and his much younger second wife, Lotte, spent days writing farewell letters before taking their fatal overdose.

It’s not a conventional chronological narrative. Prochnik is more interested in interweaving themes and obsessions, from Zweig’s passion for order and silence – he once described his books as “handfuls of silence, assuaging torment and unrest” – to his ambivalent sense of Jewishness and his exploration of society’s erotic codes and hypocrisies. In public, Zweig seemed the most urbane and self-assured of authors, the mirror image of his friend Joseph Roth. Without spending much time on the books themselves, Prochnik demonstrates how passions stirred just below the surface. He’s particularly acute on how exiles in America struggled to adjust to a democratic society in which they rubbed shoulders with the common man rather than members of the romantic underworld of Vienna or Berlin.

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