NAW Interview with George Prochnik

George ProchnikGeorge Prochnik is the author of The Impossible Exile (Other Press, 2014). He has taught English and American literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is editor-at-large for Cabinet magazine, and is the author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise and Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology. Visit him here.

The Impossible Exile is a biography of Stefan Zweig. Stefan Zweig was a popular novelist and biographer whose work was more widely translated than any other living author in the 1930s. Yet after Hitler’s rise to power, this celebrated and best selling writer who had dedicated so much energy to promoting international humanism plummeted, in a matter of a few years, into an increasingly isolated exile—from London to Bath to New York City, then Ossining, Rio, and finally Petrópolis—where, in 1942, in a cramped bungalow, he ended his life.

NAW- Tell us about your latest book, The Impossible Exile? What is it about? How did you get the idea for it?

The Impossible Exile is a meditation on the catastrophic exile of one of the most famous writers of the first half of the 20th Century—the Viennese cosmopolitan author Stefan Zweig. Zweig’s immense popularity, affluence, constellation of friendships with leading intellectuals of the era, and dedication to promoting humanist causes, such as Pan-Europeanism and pacifism, make his story especially resonant. He was not only someone who felt absolutely at home all across the Continent, he was also among the signal architects of European culture at a critical juncture before Hitler’s ascendancy. Zweig thus understood that he’d shaped aspects of the very culture that repudiated him. This made the betrayal of the values he’d sought to promote all the more anguishing—while also raising questions about his unintentional complicity in some of the intellectual currents that turned dark. I came to realize that in trying to understand Zweig’s exile one could also investigate the roots of a larger transformation of values that continues to unfold around us today.

My own interest in the themes treated in the book predates my discovery in adulthood of Zweig’s writing. My father was born in Vienna, and his own family’s narrow escape from the Nazis after the Anschluss was very much part of the conversation in my home during the years I was growing up. There was one fairly neat story of this flight, with a clear arc that began with my grandfather’s belated recognition that it would be impossible to remain in Austria after Hitler swept into Vienna. Learning that the family was on a Gestapo list to be picked up in less than 24 hours, my grandfather rushed the family into a hiding place at the apartment of gentile friends. Soon afterward they fled to Switzerland, and from there to Italy, where at last, after a series of near disasters and lucky breaks, they got on a ship to the United States. Despite years of material hardship in New York and then Boston, my grandfather eventually earned his license to practice medicine in America as he’d done in Vienna, after which life settled down into something like normalcy. I think many stories of exile originating in a wide variety of conflicts—when they don’t end in annihilation—take something like this form: gathering darkness; abrupt crisis; harrowing escape; slow recovery on distant shores that at last acquire the character of home. But I was aware even as a child of how much suffering and loss lingered in the family as an undertow beneath this relatively straightforward narrative. Writers are attracted to the enigmas lurking behind the stereotypical happy ending, and I always wondered about those stories that weren’t told openly; but which continued to be expressed in the subtler psychological languages of my family’s interactions.

When I began learning about Zweig’s story, I found that his own hugely complex character and range of experiences afforded me scope to examine some of these puzzles of exile that my own family had lived through, and that I think other families touched by exile find themselves grappling with as well. Such puzzles assume a special magnitude in Zweig’s case because his physical banishment from his native home in Austria had a strange counterpart in his disappearance from the literary landscape of the United States. Once I began to understand just how famous and prolific Zweig had been, the fact that he’d all but vanished in North America until a few years ago seemed a mystery worth exploring in its own right.

NAW- Your book is not really a biography of Zweig per se, right? But more of a study of exile. Did you intend to write it that way from the beginning or did the idea take root during the course of writing the book? I mean you also mention your own roots and how your father came to settle down in Boston.

I was never interested in writing a straight biography of Zweig—partly because there are already a couple of perfectly good conventional biographies of the writer available in English—and partly because, in all honesty, the form bores me. When I open a typical biography and read some version of “So and so was born on a cloudy-sunny day in some year or other in the land of somewhere,” the thought of all those years of childhood and adolescence and first forays into the world that must be ploughed through just to get to reach the point at which the subject’s life takes off weigh like lead on my reading brain. More importantly, psychologically all of us live anti-linear lives—jumping different directions moment to moment, like a class of schoolchildren playing hopscotch. And I feel that a work of literature needs to recognize this temporal multidimensionality rather than approaching a character in the manner of a biological study describing the life-cycle of a cell. In Zweig’s case, the chronological structure of a straightforward biography seemed particularly inappropriate since his experience of exile radically displaced him in time as well as space. (He couldn’t stop thinking about and slipping back into the past in his final years.) I wanted to convey something of Zweig’s sense of vertigo to the reader through the actual structure of what I wrote rather than just stating the bald fact of it. Only in this way, I felt could the hybrid portrait of Zweig also serve as a study of the psychology of exile going beyond his individual story.

NAW- What made you choose Stefan Zweig for your study? Tell us about the research you carried out for it. His works are voluminous and must have taken a lot of time. How long did you take to finish the book?

I was a bit aghast in the immediate aftermath of my book’s publication when someone sent me a link to a radio interview I’d done about Stefan Zweig seven years ago in which I announced that I was already working on a book about the author. The Impossible Exile had a very long gestation period—or perhaps that’s not even the right word since I completed an entire draft of a fictional version of the book, then decided that I couldn’t really justify the decisions I’d made to fictionalize certain elements of Zweig’s exile experience when there was such an abundance of primary source material to work with and went back to begin the book again from scratch. Since I’d in fact fictionalized so little of his story in the historical novel version I thought it would be a relatively simple matter to strip back the imaginary material and work with the bones of Zweig’s actual story. But I discovered that the translation didn’t work at all, and I had to reconceive the entire story I was telling to accomplish the switch of genre. The existence of this first iteration of the book may actually have made the writing of The Impossible Exile more difficult than it would have been had I started from nothing; but what it did mean positively was that I’d been immersed in Zweig’sown writing and writing about him by others for such a long time that I had a huge volume of source material almost memorized that I could draw on reflexively. My research was, indeed, extensive both because Zweig touched so many different movements and lives and because Zweig himself was so overwhelmingly prolific. (Apart from novellas, histories, biographies, libretti, poems, plays, a novel and scores of essays he wrote almost 30,000 letters.)

NAW- Zweig was something of an enigma, wasn’t he? I mean the remarkable life that he led, the works that he produced and even his death. But how did you become interested in his work initially?

My introduction to Zweig came late and by accident. I was working on a project about Brazil and wanted to be exposed to as many different perspectives on the country as possible. So I went to the New York Public Library one day and more or less yanked every book on Brazil I could find off the shelves. When I began reading Zweig’s book on the country, Brazil: Land of the Future, I was captivated by something jaunty and quixotic in the tone. I liked the way that he combined different genres—history, biographical anecdotes, travel reporting and philosophical reflection. And I appreciated the humility with which Zweig opened the book by announcing that he’d first come to Brazil with all the prejudices typical of an arrogant European, imagining that he would find himself in a swampy backwater most suitablefor gold-digging adventurers—only to have all his preconceptions overturned. When I then began to realize just how well-known Zweig was when he wrote this book in the mid-1930s, this humility he manifested became all the more impressive. The mix of infectious exuberance and urbane self-deprecation intrigued me and I wanted to learn more about who this man was.

NAW- If you had to choose a favourite from Zweig’s works, which one would you select?

I think that Zweig’s memoir, The World of Yesterday, remains a singular, unbelievably rich portrait both of a fascinating era and of Zweig’s own rise and fall. Because Zweig witnessed firsthand or nearly firsthand such a remarkable array of major historical upheavals—and responded with such strong emotions and interpretative opinions to everything he saw—the book reads like a biography of momentous times tattooed across the author’s own hypersensitive flesh.

But I would also mention his last novella, The Royal Game, as a haunting, beautiful work of fiction that may provide a better introduction to Zweig’s gift than does the memoir. It’s the only one of Zweig’s fictions in which he directly addresses events after the ascendancy of Hitler. The book manages to create a poignant allegory about the contest between brute force and hypertrophied imagination that was playing out so horrifically even as he was composing the story.

NAW- Tell us about your other works.

The last book I published before The Impossible Exile was In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise.  The book is really a cultural history of the agon between noise and silence that tries to analyze why the world sounds the way it does today, and to offer some reflections on what we can do as a society to create a more balanced sonic landscape. I’ve also written about the friendship between Sigmund Freud and my great-grandfather, a pioneering Boston psychologist who was one of Freud’s earliest champions in the United States. Their relationship helps illuminate the evolution of psychoanalysis in this country.The book allowed me to explore some of the therapeutic paths not taken, which merit at the least a reexamination in thinking about the dilemma of psychological practice today.

I also write essays and reviews for a wide range of journals.

NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?

Unfortunately, when I’m not writing I’m often moping. I spend time with my rather large family and friends, and take long walks, and swim in the ocean when I can. I’m always trying to deepen my experience of the world through travel, conversation and reading. But when I’m not at the same time working on some writing project I feel a bit like an astronaut who’s had the cord to the capsule cut. I would like to have hobbies and other pastimes at which I became surprisingly skilled. I’d like to have a sport. Or at least a sport I followed. I’d like to spend a few months in the countryside every year and raise things. Thus far I seem to be only becoming more and more a creature of the book.

NAW- Who are your favourite writers?

Proust first and foremost. I’m always, howsoever slowly, rereading Remembrance of Things Past. Who else has so perfectly captured character through conversation or nature through impassioned, exacting observation or the experience of biology colliding with psychology through lyrical philosophical reflection?  But after Proust the list gets enormous. In no particular order four books that jump to mind are The Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt,  George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Osip Mandelstam’s poetry.

NAW- What will you be working on next?

I’m working on two and a half books, one and a half of which might be considered extensions ofthe lines of inquiry opened in the Zweig book concerning the yearning for home in relationship to national/ethnic/historical identity (charting the charged triangle between the individual, the state and nature)and one of which involves a plunge into scenes deeper in the past. But at this point they’re  all in the magma phase and I’m hesitant to be more specific. I’ve found before that I can’t say what I’m writing about until the writing has reached the stage of telling me what it is, regardless of what I might once have thought and planned. That element of the unknown is a bit terrifying—but it’s also the thrill of wondering what will happen that keeps me writing and reading both.

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