Morten Høi Jensen reviews George Prochnik's The Impossible Exile : Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, in the LA Review of Books:
WRITING from his American exile in the late 1940s, the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch composed a bitter indictment of the Viennese society in which he grew up, and whose exalted golden age he now viewed as little more than a dubious facade. Vienna, he wrote in his book-length essay Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time, was the center of a kind of post-1848 European value vacuum. “It was really far less a city of art than a city of decoration par excellence […] A minimum of ethical values was to be masked by a maximum of aesthetic values.” Broch, who narrowly escaped the concentration camps thanks to a campaign led by James Joyce, had witnessed firsthand a decline of civilized society so steep that it forced him to question whether that society had ever really existed in the first place. Or if it did, why it had been so easily disfigured? What good were all the books and paintings and scientific advances, the sculptures and symphonies and psychiatric paradigms, when it could be toppled so easily by the same society that had nourished it? How could 200,000 residents of a city whose shining stars included names like Mahler, Freud, Schnitzler, and Zweig, converge on Heldenplatz to applaud their invasion by Nazi Germany?
Few writers pondered these questions more intimately, and with greater personal consequence than Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer currently enjoying a wave of popularity in England and America. In the opening pages of his celebrated memoir The World of Yesterday (1941), which describes his own experience of leaving the world he had loved, Zweig considered the rationalistic faith in progress that characterized his parents’ generation — the same generation Broch now held in such scorn. It was, Zweig wrote, “[an] idealistically blinded generation,” duped by the notion that great advances in science and technology necessarily spelled great moral advancement. He credited Freud with having anticipated what the First World War brutally affirmed: that culture and civilization “were merely a thin layer liable at any moment to be pierced by the destructive forces of the ‘underworld.’”
But where Hermann Broch ultimately saw “one of the most wretched” facades in human history, Zweig recognized “a wonderful and noble delusion.”