*The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World*

by on May 22, 2014 at 1:51 am in Books, History, Philosophy | Permalink

That is the new and truly excellent book by George Prochnik, think of it as a selective biography focused on themes of exile, perversion, Brazil, and suicide.  Excerpt:

Martin Gumpert shared Zweig’s sense of depletion amid New York’s incessant activity, likening the exhaustion that befell almost every newcomer to a “magic spell.”  When Bruno Walter first arrived in New York, the heat of his hotel room drove him out onto the street though it was still before dawn.  On his initial promenade down Manhattan’s avenues, he imagined “wit a shudder of horror” that he was “walking at the bottom of immensely deep rocky canyons.”  As the sun rose, his eyes caught sight of an enormous billboard on top of a building displaying the words “U.S. Tires.”  In a daze he thought to himself, “Yes, it does — true enough — but why is this fact being advertised to me from the rooftops?”


Even New York rain, Camus observed after his own first encounter with the city in the mid-1940s, was “a rain of exile.  Abundant, viscous, and dense; it pours down tirelessly between the high cubes of cement into avenues plunged suddenly into the darkness of a well…I am out of my depth when I think of New York,” he acknowledged.  Camus wrote of wrestling with “the excessive luxury and bad taste” of New York, but also with “the subway that reminds you of Sing Sing prison” and “ads filled with clouds of smiles proclaiming from every wall that life is not tragic.”

This is one of my favorite books of the year so far.  (You will find here an interesting review.)  And Zweig’s own The World of Yesterday is one of my favorite books period.

1 Ray Lopez May 22, 2014 at 1:58 am

Is it a coincidence that S. Zweig wrote about the royal game, and TC is a former state chess champion? I think not. TC claims that economics is more interesting than chess…but, as a chess addict myself, I can spot a lie.

The Royal Game (or Chess Story; Schachnovelle in the original German) is a novella by Austrian author Stefan Zweig first published in 1942…

2 So Much For Subtlety May 22, 2014 at 4:23 am

On his initial promenade down Manhattan’s avenues, he imagined “wit a shudder of horror” that he was “walking at the bottom of immensely deep rocky canyons.” As the sun rose, his eyes caught sight of an enormous billboard on top of a building displaying the words “U.S. Tires.” In a daze he thought to himself, “Yes, it does — true enough — but why is this fact being advertised to me from the rooftops?”

Talk about f*cking useless First World Problems. I thought better of Camus.

I read someone writing once about the specious moral preening of modern intellectuals who claim to be “in exile”. As if a tenured position at Columbia is remotely comparable to sitting in a refugee camp in the Jordanian desert.

If Manhattan causes shudders of horror, what the hell did Auschwitz do for him?

3 Roy May 22, 2014 at 5:21 am

Well any city will feel of exile when you are from a country that is in a state of ruin as France, and Algeria, was in 1946. Camus was suffering from TB, and still suffering from the war. He barely spoke any English at all. I suspect we would all feel this way. New York in the 40s was a place of exile, and you can hardly fault foreigners, who were not going to be Americans, for feeling alienated there.

Ask Americans after six months to a year in a foreign city how they feel about it. Paris is often oppressive to the foreigner there longer than a week, as is London or any city anywhere.

4 So Much For Subtlety May 22, 2014 at 9:19 am

Camus was in America on a paid speaking tour of the United States. Those idiotic yokels were forking out their hard earned cash so he could lecture them on the impossibility of real feelings or whatever.

That is not exile.

You would think that if France was in ruins, and it wasn’t except for pockets, Camus would have been happy to see a prosperous city – and take some of that prosperity home.

Paris is a beautiful city. Except for the French. Paris is not alienating. The Parisians are.

Still, if Camus hated America so much, so much he went back to France and set up an association opposed to the twin evils of American consumerism and Soviet Communism, I hope he was consistent and rejected streptomycin for his TB. Given it was those evil Americans who discovered a cure. Oh wait, he didn’t. He lived to die in a stupid car accident in the 60s.

Anyone who can’t tell the difference between Madison Avenue and Auschwitz, especially if they are Jewish, is at best a fool.

5 J May 22, 2014 at 8:55 am

Well, existentialism is pretty much one big philosophy devoted to First World Problems, no?

My problem with existentialism is that as far as I can tell it’s not a body of opinions regarding facts like, say, physicalism is (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/physicalism/). Rather it’s more just an intelligent-sounding way of making a statement about ones own mood or mental temperament. I realize that “existence precedes essence” may have been a big deal against the prevailing religious attitudes of the 19th century, but it sounds like a basic implication of modern science to me.

Perhaps existentialism’s defenders can correct me on that, but to shamelessly use business lingo, I don’t see the value-add there.

6 Das May 23, 2014 at 5:20 am

Saying that existentialism is “making a statement about ones own mood or mental temperament” is like saying that economics is about “making as much profit as possible” – both typical interpretations by teenage girls.

7 J May 25, 2014 at 7:23 pm

Congratulations on deducing my love of Justin Bieber (kidding of course), but could you elaborate a bit? My point is that so far as I can tell, existentialism does not really provide much in the way of metaphysics or epistemology (e.g. by suggesting a framework for how we might come to know things) or other areas of philosophy. What are some examples of situations where one might say, “I used to think X, but now because of existentialism I think Y instead.” I can think of plenty of examples from various ancient and modern schools of thought; even if they are mostly incorrect, they are at least statements of something concrete.

8 P May 22, 2014 at 9:31 am

You’re quoting Bruno Walter, not Camus.

9 wiki May 22, 2014 at 6:55 pm

Correct. It was Walter not Camus. And unlike Camus, Bruno Walter lived and worked the last few decades of his life mostly in the US although he did conduct in Berlin after the war. He left us an amazing series of studio recordings for Columbia Records made in his last years. I guess the US didn’t tire him all that much.

10 So Much For Subtlety May 22, 2014 at 10:11 pm

Well yes I know. But the section quoted both of them. And I did not think better of Walter.

It is fairly obvious. Camus was not Jewish after all.

Wiki, Walter was so appalled by the lack of culture in New York he moved to that center of sophisticated intellectual life – Beverley Hills.

11 Scout May 23, 2014 at 1:32 am

LA has more weirdos than NYC

12 Michael G. Heller May 22, 2014 at 5:32 am

I’ve only read a few of Zweig’s stories but I’m hooked already. Selectively though, I didn’t have stamina to finish some about Jewishness and religious ceremony. But ‘Compulsion’, ‘Amok’, ‘Fantastic Night’, ‘Letter From Unknown Woman’… stunning. The review at BF is rightly skeptical about the perversion tales. There are flashes of intense eroticism in the stories which might have sent the prudes hunting round zoos for monkey cage gossip.

For example, the penetrating sexuality of the sick doctor’s feeling for his beautiful patient in Amok, or the cocky Baron mentally undressing the lady at the races in Fantastic Night, they could have shocked. The writing is extraordinary.

Later on in Fantastic Night there were passages reeled off with less literary grace, like this one:

“I watched the servant girls, skirts flying, getting themselves pushed up in the air on the swings with loud cries of glee that might have issued from their sexual orifices”

You get the picture.

13 Larry Siegel May 26, 2014 at 1:41 am

I hope that is a poorly crafted translation.

14 Will May 22, 2014 at 9:17 am

Anyone interested in Vienna might like the books by Frederic Morton – Thunder at Twilight and A Nervous Splendor.

15 Vanya May 23, 2014 at 6:23 am

I second that.

16 Keith May 22, 2014 at 9:25 am

Yes, The World of Yesterday is a great book. I wish every book about a time period was as thoughtful and candid as this one. His descriptions of how pervasive prostitution was in pre-war Europe and what the early Nazi events were like was really interesting.

17 Gil Roth May 26, 2014 at 12:33 pm

I just posted a podcast conversation with Mr. Prochnik all about The Impossible Exile. If you’d like to check it out, please visit http://www.vmspod.com/george-prochnik-bildung-stories/ or http://chimeraobscura.com/vm/podcast-bildung-stories

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