A Story Told in Twilight

THE CITY OF PETRÓPOLIS, in the mountains above Rio de Janeiro, is a suggestive place. It suggests, first of all, a benevolent nature, not the wild, threatening mass found elsewhere in Brazil, with its disease-bearing insects and its swarms of cannibalistic fish, but a carefully tended tropical nature of the kind found in the better Hawaiian or Balinese resorts. Here, nature means gentle streams lined with colorful, bushy impatiens. It means broad sheltering trees, and cute little monkeys playing in them. In Petrópolis, the weather is cooler, the breezes are softer, than in Rio de Janeiro, the heaving port below. Petrópolis is a harmonious place for people: Especially compared with the alternative that immediately presents itself—Rio, with its stifling traffic jams, its ugly cement apartment blocks, its drug barons, and its stray bullets—Petrópolis seems an ideal place to live. Here reigns an almost Bavarian tidiness, and a welfare and tranquillity virtually unknown elsewhere in Brazil.

Named for the bookish, self-effacing Emperor Pedro II, the city was built around his summer residence, a pink palace that is now the Imperial Museum. To walk through its rooms, to see the beautiful old furniture, to read about the marquises who once strolled through the gardens, is to enter a romantic world unimaginably far removed from the modern Brazil of the coast. Among the palms and bougainvillea, this place of great tall windows and wide polished floorboards, strikingly modest for an imperial residence, suggests the difference between what this country might have been and what it turned out to be—between aspiration and achievement, between hopes and reality.

But human prosperity and natural harmony are not the predominant suggestions of Petrópolis. Petrópolis, like no other place I know, is heavy with suicides and exiles and defeats. The lives of the famous people who, lured by the trees and the flowers, have sought refuge here have been disappointing and bitter. The gay millionaire Alberto Santos-Dumont, who invented manned flight in the hopes of creating universal brotherhood and then saw his invention, in World War I, used to bomb and smash innocent lives, came here, only to die by his own hand. In the splendor of her modernist mansion, the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (“Oh, tourist / is this how this country is going to answer you / and your immodest demands for a different world”) lost her great love and turned bitterly alcoholic.

Perhaps the most famous exile, certainly in his day, was Stefan Zweig. Born in 1881 into the first rank of the Viennese Jewish bourgeoisie (his father owned a large textile corporation; his mother descended from an Austrian-Italian banking family), Zweig was subjected to the chilly upbringing and the rigorous classical training of a man of his time and rank. He studied philosophy at the University of Vienna, receiving his doctorate in 1904. His interest in art prevailed over this unsentimental education, and he declined to enter the family business, though he showed himself, while still very young, a worthy heir to his rich, energetic father. His first book, a volume of poetry called Silberne Saiten (Silver Chords), was published when he was just nineteen. Though he never allowed it to be reprinted in his lifetime, the little book heralded the beginning of a great career that included poetry and drama and journalism but is best remembered for biographies and novellas. His work—particularly novellas such as Fear (1920), Amok (1922), and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1922)—earned the praise of many of the leading figures in Europe, from Auguste Rodin to Sigmund Freud, who was also a friend and a subject (Zweig devoted an essay to the psychoanalyst in his 1932 book Mental Healers). By the 1920s, millions of copies of his books had been published in Europe and America, and he became the most translated author in the world. His books are charming, in the best sense of the word: They cast a spell. And though his subjects are never less than lofty, what one feels, when picking up his books, is only secondarily the interest of their subjects: The charm of the author himself comes first, and explains his enduring popularity. I have seen his books alongside the celebrity magazines and diet books in provincial French train stations, and in dozens of countries he is still, more than seven decades after his death, more popular than perhaps any writer of his generation. In the United States, his works have most recently been revived by the New York Review Books Classics series.

Part of Zweig’s charm is his dramatic and glamorous life. If he sometimes gives the impression of a melancholy existence—given the date and place of his birth it could hardly have been otherwise—in many ways his life was extraordinarily well spent. He was there when the first German troops rumbled into Belgium and started the First World War; he was there at the war’s end, when the last King-Emperor abandoned the ancient throne of the Hapsburgs. His political commitments—his loathing of racism and nationalism, his dedication to a cosmopolitan ideal that would transcend borders—make him seem ahead of his time: Only a few years after his death, a kind of Zweigianism became the basis for the reconstruction of Europe. It is a life so successful that, by most measures, it might fairly be described as triumphant.

Except, of course, as in so many less exciting lives, for the rise of Hitler. When the war broke out, Zweig was luckier than many: He was rich and famous and had left Vienna for England in 1934, and later moved on to New York. He had written a warm book about Brazil, that flattered the Brazilian government, and that government, so stingy in allowing Europe’s persecuted Jews refuge, rewarded him with a visa. He went to Petrópolis. But that city, and the Brazil he saw as a new possibility for civilization, was not enough. After watching his world collapse in an unimaginable carnage, Zweig and his wife, Lotte, took their own lives during the Carnival of 1942.

HIS SUICIDE—COUPLED WITH DARK SUGGESTIONS of a depressive, sexually unstable personality—has cast a shadow over much writing about Zweig. In many tellings, his short stay in Petrópolis gives his story a bizarre coda. A symbol of European culture, dispatched, inconsolable, to the ends of the earth, killing himself in despair: Zweig’s death almost immediately rose above private torment and acquired a political, “symbolic” meaning it has never quite shaken. Thomas Mann, speaking for many, reproached him: “Was he conscious of no obligation toward the hundreds of thousands for whom his name was great and upon whom his abdication was bound to have a profoundly depressing effect? Toward the many fellow refugees throughout the world for whom the bread of exile is incomparably harder than it was for him, celebrated as he was and without material anxieties?” As European culture was being murdered—the argument seems to go—the very least that the leading exponents of that culture could do was not murder themselves.

This symbolic baggage, along with Zweig’s picturesque life, has attracted swarms of biographers. The first problem they face is that Zweig himself wrote an autobiography, The World of Yesterday, that ranks among the finest memoirs of the twentieth century, and in which all the strengths of Zweig’s style are on display. His eye for the telling detail, his acquaintance with so many countries, and his memories of the great cultural figures of the day are underlain by a powerful emotional undercurrent that helps the reader imagine the unimaginable despair of a generation forced to watch their entire society be swept away by fanaticism and war.

Written mostly in just a few months in the Westchester town of Ossining, the book remembers a continent to which its author would never return, with a concentration so intense that his wife feared for his health. Though described in great detail, Zweig’s lost world is only partly lamented: No reader will mourn, for example, the passing of the terrifying sexual repression of pre-Freudian Vienna. But perhaps surprisingly, given its subject, the book is never grim: It is the record of a beloved world and a well-lived life, and makes such a deep impression that one almost pities his biographers. How to tell this story better than Zweig already has? One recent attempt, Oliver Matuschek’s Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig, published in Germany in 2006 and recently released in English by the Pushkin Press, is exhaustively researched but lacks either the narrative or the emotional power of Zweig’s own memoir—and, one should add, of Zweig’s own biographies. Alongside his fiction, poetry, and plays, this unstintingly industrious man produced an amazing number of lives, a zoology of people as apparently disparate as Marie Antoinette and Erasmus, Balzac and Magellan, Mary Baker Eddy and Napoleon.

What attracted Zweig to them, what united them, was that they all in some sense resisted history, and found themselves entrapped by it; their stories, when read with the knowledge of what would happen to their biographer, gain a layer of eerie foreboding. Marie Antoinette, the pleasure-loving Austrian teenager assigned a role she could never play, in a place and a time she could never understand; Erasmus, patiently, tragically devoted to a universality rent by the corruption, ill will, and ambition of both its proponents and its enemies; Balzac’s Olympian imagination subjected to and destroyed by a new age in which petty financial concerns triumphed over even the greatest artistic genius: These biographical subjects, when taken together, form a portrait of Zweig as powerful as The World of Yesterday.

There is a similar sense of foreboding in his novellas, and a hint of doom in his only full-length novel published during his lifetime, Beware of Pity (1939), for that work, too, was composed in the shadow of Hitler. But such foreboding has not always been fair to Zweig. When his turn has come to be the subject of a biography—and it often has: few twentieth-century writers can be as biographized—not only is his own work as a biographer often ignored, but almost all of his massive corpus is shunted aside in favor of The World of Yesterday. The tendency to read his life backward seems irresistible. All is refracted through the Petropolitan prism. This is a perfectly legitimate procedure—taken, most notably, in the classic account of Zweig in Brazil, Alberto Dines’s Death in Paradise, still lamentably unavailable in English—but it risks doing what Zweig’s own biographies, what Zweig’s own writings, did not: taking a short view of a man whose life was devoted to broadening, rather than contracting, the vision of his readers.

Stefan Zweig in New York City, ca. 1938.
Stefan Zweig in New York City, ca. 1938.

THOUGH PRESENTED AS A BIOGRAPHY, George Prochnik’s new book, The Impossible Exile, bears the mark of heterogeneous origins. It might as fairly be described as a travel memoir (of Austria, of Brazil), a novel (its tone might jar in an orthodox biography, but this book is something else), or a reflection on the author’s own family origins (like Zweig’s, Jewish and Viennese). As the title suggests, it emphasizes the exiled Zweig—primarily in New York City, where he lived for several fateful months in 1940 and 1941. There, he was harried by the city’s desperate, impoverished refugees as he was describing the collapse of their civilization in a book composed at a rented house in Westchester, in the shadow of Sing Sing prison.

For several reasons, this is a bold place for Prochnik to set his meditation on exile. Zweig’s time in America is far less documented than his time in Austria, France, England, or Brazil. But America is where he wrote his famous memoir, the last stop on the journey that took him to his death. Prochnik evocatively portrays the city Zweig knew, its crime rate, its weather, and Zweig’s annoyance at how people read their libretti at the opera with little flashlights. These details show just how disorienting the place was even for this most cosmopolitan of refugees. Here, as perhaps nowhere else, he was confronted with the condition of the exile. “In photographs taken up until the war,” Prochnik writes, “Zweig revealed a chameleon-like capacity to blend into any setting he was posed against.”

Putting aside the question of how one of the most famous writers in the world could seem to shape-shift into any setting, what was most notable about Zweig in New York is that there he found a place into which—however he had behaved before the war—he could no longer blend. Prochnik shows us what it meant for Zweig to be there—how hard it was to be one of the “lucky” ones. Jewish refugees who got to America were by definition luckier than those under the sway of the Hitler barbarism. And Zweig, who had earlier taken the precaution of securing a British passport, was perhaps the luckiest of them all.

But precisely because he was rich and famous, Zweig was constantly besieged by the less fortunate. If Jewish refugees in America were lucky in one sense, in many other senses, of course, they were not: alive, to be sure, but stateless, impoverished, unemployed, and—because they usually didn’t speak English—unemployable. It was only natural that they should look to Zweig as a savior—as natural as it was that Zweig found the pressure they put on him unbearable. Prochnik is particularly empathetic in writing about this dilemma, describing the hordes of petitioners buzzing endlessly around Zweig’s hotel room, where the writer was forever aware that anything he could do was but the tiniest fraction of everything he could not.

But here the view from Petrópolis distorts Prochnik’s work, as it does in so many writings on Zweig. To focus on Zweig’s mounting despair—in Austria, in Britain, in America, in Brazil—is to read his life as an annunciation of his suicide, and to look precisely at the least interesting aspects of that life. The situation of the European Jews was anything but individual, and to emphasize a situation that devastated millions emphasizes Zweig’s weaknesses instead of seeking to understand his strengths.

It would not be worth pointing out these shortcomings in Prochnik’s otherwise fine book if they did not seem to be so widespread, or have such an illustrious provenance: Thomas Mann claimed Zweig had set a bad example; Hannah Arendt condemned him for being hypersensitive. By emphasizing what Zweig was not rather than what he was, much of the Zweigography portrays a characterless drip, a panicky ditherer, and hardly bothers to explain why, all these decades after his death, his figure has exercised such an enduring fascination.

When Zweig is at ease socially, Prochnik refers to “the artificiality endemic to Viennese character” or “inevitable clichés about the Jewish appetite for assimilation.” Zweig’s “immodest demands for a different world”—his principled rejection of Zionism, despite his profound admiration for Herzl, as just another nationalism; his dogged commitment to avoid injurious language, even when directed toward Hitler—are likewise portrayed as naive. Perhaps they were, perhaps they were not; but why must this internationally admired writer be described as an “itinerant wisdom-teacher of pacifism,” the scantest step above an airport Hare Krishna? When Zweig writes that his “aim would be one day to become not a great critic or a literary celebrity but a moral authority,” Prochnik is baffled: “The ambition may sound perplexing, but Zweig was entirely serious.” What is so perplexing about this? (Is aspiring to celebrity to be preferred?)

This impression is not lessened by Prochnik’s inclusion of little sexual details that suggest Zweig was something of a pervert: “Rumors persist,” we learn, for example, “about Zweig’s own forays into the realm of Rio’s inviting young male seducers.” Another rumor finds Zweig hiding “in the bushes by the monkey cage at the Schönbrunn Zoo waiting for young girls he could pop out and flash.” Why, absent the slightest evidence or corroboration, are we being served these distasteful murmurings? (Especially when, on the next page, Prochnik refers to another friend as “more reliable” than the purveyor of the above.) Zweig was world famous; people said all kinds of things about him.

If, all these decades after Zweig and his wife were found dead in Petrópolis, he has any relevance whatsoever, that surely resides in his work—still living, still read, still translated—more than in the details of his sad denouement. Though he was as modest as he was generous—“Zweig never outgrew an endearing humility about the stature of his work,” Prochnik writes, “ever quick to label other authors greater than himself”—it was nonetheless no small thing to become the most translated author in the world. To read his books, to read about most chapters of his life, is to get an impression not of weakness but of Balzacian strength. All those books! All those travels! All those women! Even suicide, as psychoanalysis posited long ago, is not the choice of the weak but of the strong—of those who do not wait for fate but who venture forth, on their own terms, to meet it.

What did Zweig have that brought him the fanatical devotion of millions of readers, the admiration of Hermann Hesse, the invitation to give the eulogy at the funeral of Sigmund Freud? To learn that, we would have to have a biography that illuminated all aspects of his work, that read all his books, and that challenged, rather than accepted, the apparent modesty of his statements about his life and work. A full reevaluation of Stefan Zweig is long overdue. This would go beyond the critical writing that has emerged in the last few years as his books have been retranslated. It would also go beyond the statement of another refugee suicide, Klaus Mann—“His sole ambition is to mitigate the bitterness of human suffering by amplifying our awareness of its roots and causes”—and ask: Was that not ambition enough?

Benjamin Moser is the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (Oxford University Press, 2009). He is currently working on a biography of Susan Sontag.