Stefan Zweig: the tragedy of a great bad writer

A review of The Impossible Exile by George Prochnik. Contemporaries sniped at his success, but for a Jewish novelist in Austria in the 1930s, the possibilities of remaining a comic figure were few

22 November 2014

9:00 AM

22 November 2014

9:00 AM

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

Grants, pp.300, £19.99, ISBN: 9781590516126

Stefan Zweig wasn’t, to be honest, a very good writer. This delicious fact was hugged to themselves by most of the intellectuals of the German speaking world during the decades before 1940, in which Zweig gathered a colossal and adoring public both in German and in multiple translations. It was like a password among the sophisticated. Zweig might please the simple reader; but a true intellectual would recognise his own peers by a shared contempt for this middlebrow bestseller. The novelist Kurt Tucholsky has a devastating sketch of a German equivalent of E.F. Benson’s Lucia:

Mrs Steiner was from Frankfurt, not terribly young, alone and with black hair. She wore a different dress each night and sat quietly to read cultured books. She was a devoted follower of Stefan Zweig. With that, everything has been said.

Some modern-day readers might find themselves agreeing with Zweig’s sniggering colleagues. His prose is apt to sink into the embarrassing commonplace. In his autobiography about the outbreak of war, he writes that the room

was suddenly deathly quiet…carefree birdsong came in from outside…and the trees swayed in the golden light…Our ancient Mother Nature, as usual, knew nothing of her children’s troubles.

Elsewhere, ‘the soft, silken blue sky was like God’s blessing over us; once again warm sunlight shone on the woods and meadows’. The odd thing was that, despite his immense success among readers who couldn’t hear enough about golden light in gardens and Mother Nature and silken skies like God’s blessing, Zweig was under no misapprehension about his own merits.

Talking about his art, Zweig had always denigrated it in a way much more like masochism than the sort of self-deprecation that invites contradictory praise. At the outset of his career, he had admitted that ‘at best my talent is a small one’. He was very much like Max Beerbohm’s Walter Ledgett: a bustling, friendly operator in the world of letters. His engagement with brilliant, original writers from the apparently safe standpoint of his luxurious schloss in Salzburg is untiring, despite their open jeering at their patron and host.

His relationship with the great, difficult writer Joseph Roth is a perfect example: there were almost no insults that Roth didn’t offer Zweig in exchange for his charitable support. Michael Hofmann, in his edition of Roth’s letters, says that ‘Eventually there is nothing that Roth will not write; a letter, in his hands, is an instrument of necessary terror.’ And Zweig took it all. He was heartbreakingly proud that when the Nazis burnt books in the Bebelplatz in 1933, he had the honour to be

permitted to share this fate of the complete destruction of literary existence in German with such eminent contemporaries as Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel and many others whose work I consider incomparably more important than my own.

In other circumstances, he would have been a comic figure, all mouth and trousers, in love with the orotund paragraph.With some amusement Carl Zuckmayer said that Zweig ‘loved women, revered women, liked talking about women, but he rather avoided them in the flesh’. But for a Jewish writer in Austria in the 1930s, the possibilities of remaining a comic figure were few.

The flight from Austria that followed, and Zweig’s painful attempts to make sense of his own fate, are the subjects of George Prochnik’s study. The photograph on the cover (reproduced above) sets the tone: Zweig, the product of Viennese ‘Jewish bourgeoisie of the first rank throughout’, is exquisitely dressed and groomed, and looks simply terrified: he had received an uncompromising rejoinder to his plea that ‘all we ask is that we may not be bothered by politics’.

So the acclaimed cosmopolitan, whose books had gained an international readership, and who had enjoyed many successful press trips abroad, now prepared for exile, in another world of fame and respect, in Britain.

But it did not turn out quite as easy as that. Moving to Bath, Zweig found the English taciturnity at first enchanting. ‘Bath…soothes the eye more reliably than any other city in England, giving the illusion of reflecting another and more peaceful age, the 18th century.’ That feeling soon wore off, however. Was not this country, in fact, rather infuriating? Zweig clung to the renowned English love of gardening, as though afraid to venture into less charted areas of national behaviour. And there was always the terrifying thought that the Nazis were just across the Channel: invasion seemed inevitable, and escape would soon become impossible.

From The Last Days of Stefan Zweig by Laurent Seksik and Guillaume Sorel (Salammbo, £13.99)
From The Last Days of Stefan Zweig by Laurent Seksik and Guillaume Sorel (Salammbo, £13.99)

And eventually, like so many of them, he started to think that Freud might have been right when he said that ‘America is a mistake — a gigantic mistake, it’s true, but still a mistake.’ ‘You cannot imagine how I hate New York now, with its luxury shops, its “glamour” and splendour,’ Zweig said. But there was no possibility of returning to England, with U-boats targeting passenger ships. On a previous visit, Zweig had observed lightly: ‘Ice cream is really the best thing to be had in America.’ Soon he seemed to reach the limits of his endurance, and would have echoed another German writer, Martin Gumpert, who satirised the exile’s standard response as:So he proceeded to America. But in New York he found himself among thousands of other refugees. Though he was lionised and listened to as he had been on former visits, he now found himself cast as a spokesman for a whole group of people he regarded with contempt, as beggars and spongers. The dismissive word Schnorrer enters his letters when he writes of his fellow exiles.

There are no trees…there are no cafés here…there are no villages, no inns, no meadows, no crooked little streets…no Alpine valleys, no real mountains, no real seashore.

Furthermore, his views, eagerly sought out by pundits, started to seem pathetically inadequate. Was a national Jewish homeland necessary? No, he thought: the Jew was ‘the gadfly that plagues the mangy beast of nationalism’. Zweig claimed that he

never wanted the Jews to become a nation again and thus to lower themselves to taking part with the others in the rivalry of reality. I love the Diaspora and affirm it as the meaning of Jewish idealism, as Jewry’s cosmopolitan human mission.

That response may have been noble and idealistic but it was wholly out of touch with reality, and would find no followers in the 1940s.

Zweig moved again to the (then dreary) New York suburb of Ossining, and in 1941 finally retreated to Petró-polis, in the mountains near Rio de Janeiro. There he wrote a desperately sad, banal autobiography which he considered calling Europe Was My Life, and a lamentable book about Brazil, Land of the Future, in which he seriously described Rio as a ‘city of contrasts’. One day he lay down with his young wife and committed suicide. Whether that was out of despair, or partly because he felt that it would be a romantic gesture, readers may speculate.

Prochnik’s rambling biography is oddly structured, circling round the facts of Zweig’s exile in a way that requires one to untangle the events chronologically for oneself. He also discusses his own family’s experiences, without confronting the obvious truth that the elegant Zweig would not have considered Prochnik’s own father — had they ever met — as an equal compatriot. The book would have benefited from a proper account of the brilliant period of Zweig’s career, which is quickly passed over for the poignant details of a literary man of limited resources trying to make sense of Ossining.

Still, the story is a touching one; and Zweig appears to be becoming fashionable and popular again. Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Babylon Hotel is inspired by the general style of his work. (A genuinely original writer in exile, like Joseph Roth or Thomas Mann, would never be able to command this sense of shared sentiment.) With his ordinariness, his shrug, his land-of-contrasts clichés and his beautiful jackets, Zweig may always provide something to which most people can easily respond.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £17.99 Tel: 08430 600033

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Dr. Heath

    Any author who wrote as much as Zweig is bound to produce a few lines like the quote from his autobiography reproduced above. We live in a world of ‘must do’, ‘must visit’ and ‘must read’ lists. Zweig fails to appear in the invariably bonkers and patronising Hundred Books You Must Read Before You Die lists that pollute the ‘culture’ pages of our quality newspapers. Among the authors who regularly do feature in these guides to being trendy are D. H. Lawrence and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Zweig is eminently preferable to either of these over-hyped, embarrassing bores, twee comments about the outbreak of war notwithstanding.

    • post_x_it

      You forgot Milan Kundera.

    • mattmark

      Even back in high school days, while I had no problem with writers as diverse as Jane Austen, the Brontes, Shakespeare, Dickens, Golding, Cather, etc., I found Lawrence unreadable. Not only were his metaphors laboured and obvious (big, red, snorting stallions were typical), his verbs sometimes oscillated between present and past tense within a single paragraph. There was no discernible literary or grammatical reason for these arbitrary and distracting shifts; it wasn’t the case that he was describing both present and past events, for example. They were simply impediments to reading, and
      seemingly evidence of the kind of slipshod writing that would have gained any student essayist reprimands for carelessness and inconsistency.

      • Absolutely. Most of my English teachers had done their degrees in the late sixties and thought Lawrence was less than half a step down from Shakespeare. Even though I was a credulous child, who respected my teachers, by my fifth year I’d realised he was a pretentious hack. I had a friend, Kevin Raistrick, who could ‘do’ Lawrence, in the same way the comics on that improvisation programme did Shakespeare: “…the furroughs were turgid; turgid ridges of furroughed turgidity, turgid in their frozen furrowhood…”

        Apparently, when he was starting to write, he was paid by the word, like a lot of writers of the time and had to string out his stories. The perfect example, in my opinion, is The Prussian Officer, whose story finishes half way through the telling.

    • I agree with your general sentiment and you’re spot on about Lawrence, but Marquez? Really?

      • Also, I did buy a couple of Zweig’s books from Nook, (translated-I can’t read German) after seeing Grand Budapest Hotel, and was surprised by how clunky they were. However, I’m a science Fiction reader, and thus extremely tolerant of awkward writing, if the writer is a competent world builder-Zweig was-or has a pleasant narrative manner, which Zweig seemed, to my humble ear, to have.

        In other words, I do think this review was a little cruel.

  • Hegelman

    His autobiography is powerful and moving.

    He produced a few good books, and that his a hell of a lot.

  • avi15

    Actually, Stefan Zweig’s German prose is often thrilling, as in ‘Sternstunde der Menschheit’ and commensurately difficult to translate. The same goes for his brilliantly original autobiography, ‘Die Welt von Gestern’ , which was a bestseller in the English-speaking world, even in translation. I don’t regard him as a bad writer at all.

    • post_x_it

      My first contact with Zweig was reading “Schachnovelle” at school, which I thought was engaging and very well written.

  • Geoff Geoff

    Just to echo other comments, Zweig is far better than this review (or the hilariously clumsy piece by Hofmann a couple of years ago) suggests. One wonders just how many books by Zweig this reviewer has read in the original. Not that many, perhaps.

    • Philip Hensher

      Well, I couldn’t tell you the exact number, but I think you’re wrong to conclude that if someone doesn’t much admire your favourite writer, they can’t have read him.

      Or does your claim extend to Joseph Roth and Tucholsky as well as to me?

      • Geoff Geoff

        I didn’t suggest you hadn’t read Zweig, rather that you may not have read all that much except in translation. If I’m wrong, good for you. Anglo-Saxon critics often have difficulty appreciating Austrian-inflected German, one reason for the low (non-existent?) regard for Nestroy in this country or the long delay before Musil came to be seen for what he is.

        • Philip Hensher

          As I said, I couldn’t tell you the exact number. If you’re under the impression that Zweig is as great a writer in German as Stifter or Musil, then good for you, too.

          • Hamburger

            Mr Hensher, I thing that you are avoiding the question.

          • Philip Hensher

            Sorry. Yes, I have read some of Zweig’s books in German. I was answering the question as put when I said I couldn’t tell you the exact number.

          • Hamburger

            I read your answer again. I could infer from your answer that the number was 0.

          • mattmark

            I see that you and Geoff have also been Henshered. Perhaps it’s dear H.’s sophomoric desire to prove that his keyboard is longer than his readers’ that’s caused him to lose sight of the quill pens of Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, etc., and of the fact that readers, too, have access not only to the output of those pens but to what currently flows from keyboards infinitely longer and more original than his own. Even without the aid of such comparators, the unintentionally comical posturing would still make you wonder if he’s ever read Stephen Leacock.

            We can safely assume Shakespeare’s been tuned out (pre-1860!); so we’re in good company. 😉

          • Hamburger

            I am only thankful that he did not attempt a homo erotic angle in his piece. He usually does.

          • Philip Hensher

            The last time I made a reference to any gay angle in a book review was in May, 2013, in a review of a new translation of Cavafy. I don’t think that was an unreasonable occasion to mention the subject. Since then, I’ve written 18 book reviews here without attempting the “angle” that so obsesses this anonymously closeted contributor.

          • Hamburger

            So long ago? It stuck in my mind. I rarely read your reviews now.

          • Philip Hensher

            Of course, there’s nothing like making large claims about what a writer usually does or doesn’t do, before going on to say that you never read his work. I’ve enjoyed this curious series of exchanges with anonymous Canadian retired librarians, obsessed closet cases, and so on, but I’m going to leave the discussion now. Feel free to go on talking to each other across the oceans.

          • Hamburger

            How kind.

      • Hamburger

        You did not clarify the question. Have you read him in German? You merely wrote that you read him.

  • Michael Rawls

    “All mouth and trousers”? I thought the expression, similar to the Texan “all hat and no cattle”, was “all mouth and no trousers”, as Miss Brahms once described Mr. Lucas.

    • Philip Hensher

      No. The version “all mouth and no trousers” is a relatively recent corruption, produced by erroneous analogy with idioms like the Texan one or the Enlish “fur coat and no knickers”. The idiom as I used it is much older and (I think) much more amusing.

      This expert went into the question very thoroughly.

      • Michael Rawls

        I stand corrected and thanks for the most entertaining language hat link.”All mouth and trousers” is superior to the Brahmsian Variant. “Fur Coat and No Knickers” would have been a good title for a show at Raymond’s Revue Bar (You may smoke and drink in the auditorium).

        • 1bar1

          I kind of like “all vine and no taters”.

    • Seldom Seen

      Try ‘all gong and no dinner’. Works better.

  • Anhalt_Zerbst

    Babylon?!! Budapest!

    • mattmark

      Yes, the research is a little weak. A short stroll through a thesaurus might also have spared us ‘ordinariness’ (‘blandness,’ ‘triteness,’ ‘banality,’ or even
      ‘want of originality’–if the idea was to contrast Zweig’s writing with Thomas
      Mann’s–might have worked). And… is an essayist who begins a sentence with ‘and’ not once, not twice, but thrice in a short article in any position excoriate other writers for their stylistic shortcomings?

      • Philip Hensher

        Ah ha ha ha ha.

        • mattmark

          It isn’t a grammatical error to begin a sentence with ‘and,’ ‘for,’ ‘but,’ or ‘so,’ and many writers do it. So do I. But there’s such a thing as overkill, and the needless repetition here gives too many of your thoughts the appearance of afterthoughts. It contributes to a stylistic tone that errs on the side of the overly-casual and condescending, as if you were slumming in this forum for a readership that merits only an offhand effort.

          • Philip Hensher

            Thanks, I’ll take stylistic advice from someone who says “thrice” when I’m a nonagenarian. And living in the year 1860.

          • mattmark

            Ah! The early 1860s! The Mill on the Floss, Great Expectations, Fathers and Sons, Salammbo, War and Peace, Essays in Criticism, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Crime and Punishment… But, stop! What could George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Ivan Turgenev, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Matthew Arnold, Lewis Carroll or Fyodor Dostoyevsky possibly contribute to Philip Hensher’s mastery of style?

            You might be surprised (perhaps, one day, even alarmed)
            by the historical breadth of reading informing the stylistic and other sensibilities of your humble readers, some of whom venture well beyond the downstream barrier of 1860 in their quests for inspiration. During my own very humble career as a reference librarian I read widely enough, in a sufficient diversity of subject areas, to be able to distinguish between writers who profit from the good advice of others and those too defensive about their manifest limitations to do so.

          • Philip Hensher

            I think you mean ‘But stay!’

          • mattmark

            Let’s see… which hopelessly superannuated style to adopt? My Dear Sir, Thank you for bringing to my attention this admirably concise, contemporary version of rapier, dismissive wit. That I don’t feel skewered is, I know, attributable to my own obtuseness and incapacity, failings which most certainly owe nothing to any desperate, forlorn attempt on your part to maintain an Olympian distance between yourself and your readers, or to any Hensherian predilection for making enemies instead of friends. I remain your humble, obedient servant, etc.


            By all means, write off the doubtless carefully cultivated posturing that suffuses your writing and the reflex polemicism that disfigures your posts as harmless eccentricities. They’re you–and we wouldn’t want to change anything about sweet, lovable you. They’re also, alas, virtual guarantees that no library or database equivalent, circa 2060, will ever be asked (or able) to retrieve the musings of one Philip Hensher, though there may yet be requests for text authored by the banal but unaccountably enduring Stefan Zweig.

            You’re welcome.

  • Richard Epstein

    Tucholsky need not gloat. He may be right, but a good writer would have omitted the last sentence of that paragraph.

  • mattmark

    While I understand the impulse to create aesthetic hierarchies that would give some
    kind of generalizable meaning to the claim that writer X is better than writer Y, I’ve never grasped why a critic would sneer at a writer for failing to be Plato, Shakespeare or, in this case, Joseph Roth or Thomas Mann. The sole purpose of this essay seems to be to take someone who wasn’t prone to exaggerating his merits to begin with down a peg or two, to undercut a reputation that’s getting too big for its britches. Who are the supposed beneficiaries of this seemingly purposeless, bizarrely venomous motive? Why would the simple fact that a writer’s popularity with the general public often diverges from the preferences of critics engender such hostility? How can any competent critic find it surprising, never mind an occasion for slighting fellow readers, that what many people seek in books isn’t necessarily the sort of originality that critics regard as useful in situating a writer in the literary Pantheon?

  • thomasaikenhead

    Stefan Zweig, the Norman Mailer of his day (minus the misogyny)?

  • adrian kola

    so basically what you’re saying is that everyone who likes Zweig is a simpleton?
    Fair enough, I always liked his book Chess, but then again I am a simpleton!

  • Bertrand Marotte

    Author has Anderson film as “Grand Babylon Hotel”! It’s “Budapest” not “Babylon.”

  • DonPhil

    Neither Prochnik’s biography nor Hensher’s judgment is clarified by the critical
    mines scattered through this review. The “desperately sad, banal autobiography”
    Zweig wrote in 1941 is still in print because so many people simply enjoy it,
    besides those who find it a valuable historical source about the transition from
    prewar to postwar culture in Mitteleuropa. Readers cannot see how Zweig’s
    saying Mann’s and other books banned by the Nazis were “incomparably more
    important than my own” makes him a figure “all mouth and trousers.”

  • And I suppose in the reviewer’s opinion John Keats is just a “cockney poet”, and Jean Rhys is just an *awful* writer, only fit for simpletons. Also, Dorothy Parker was pulp novel trash, Djuna Barnes a non-existent blip in letters, Anna Kavan not worth the googling, Anaïs Nin merely an oversexed diarist, and Harry Crosby a delusional, surrealist fop who killed himself over his failure as a writer. (Well, he may have a point with Harry but the man had panache. I’m also a descendent so I can badmouth him a little, right?) Really though, what I’ve read of Zweig (not in German, and only two of his books) was passionate, interesting, alive. It had a power in its observation of the human psyche and the emotional qualities of love and self deprecation. Zweig was a Romantic who was not a romantic figure and I love him a little for it. I need a little blood mixed in with the esoteric.

  • FW Nietzsche

    A most curious and tragic case to be sure. Zweig apes Kleist in taking his wife with him. It’s ” Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel”, he did go to my h.s.

  • Scarlet Red

    Rubbish, he was an excellent writer. Even a short novella like Journey into the past is flowing, moving and erudite, great writer.