Among the authors enjoying a renaissance under President Trump is Stefan Zweig, who over the last 100 years seems to have gone through wilder swings of popularity and obscurity than any other author. His newfound popularity is harder to explain than George Orwell’s, centred as it is on Zweig’s life, rather than any of his books, but in a way the life story is more profound than the fiction, a greater lesson in the derailing forces of history. I am reading George Prochnik’s biography of Zweig at the moment, and it is desperately sad: the story of a man who, after leaving Austria in the lead-up to the second world war, bounced around the world being gradually stripped of the trappings of his identity – more than that, of his celebrity.
The book asks what the difference might be between those who thrive in exile and those who don’t; and, in Zweig’s case, age and status were surely part of it. In his 50s, when he left Austria and still the toast of Vienna, Zweig went first to England, then to America. As he joked to a friend a few years later, his occupation could be described as “formerly writer, now expert in visas”.
Before washing up in Brazil, where he took his own life in 1942, Zweig lived for six months in Ossining, a town in the Hudson Valley just north of New York, a stultifyingly conventional small town which, 70 years later, would be the setting for Don and Betty’s house in the television series Mad Men. It was here that he wrote a large chunk of his memoir, The World of Yesterday, and a line that returns us to Trump: “Never has any generation experienced such a moral retrogression from such a spiritual height as our generation has.” One takes his point. No progress is made that can’t be undone.
What a creep looks like
Beware men wearing This Is What A Feminist Looks Like T-shirts. It feels churlish to say this, but I had it in mind in the runup to International Women’s Day, a time of year when game men sport accessories bearing women’s rights slogans and references to “male feminists” abound. These gestures are usually nobly motivated, but they still give me the creeps, like the neighbour ingratiating himself with the press after a murder, or a politician trying to talk about football.
I should clarify what I mean by creepy. It’s not the involvement of men in feminist political action: it’s the performance of that involvement in ways that can sometimes feel like the prelude to a particularly high-concept campaign to get women to go out on a date with them.
It’s a form of political flattery some women do too. “As we mark International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate the boys and men in our lives who encourage us to be who we truly are, who treat girls & women with respect,” wrote Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, on her Instagram account this week, posting it beneath a photo of the couple looking as if they have just been beamed down from a planet where gender is no longer an issue because everyone is made out of plastic. Then she asked followers to post a picture of themselves holding hands with their “male ally”. The term “male feminist”, meanwhile, inverts a linguistic paradigm usually applied to women – “lady doctor”, “career woman,” – and assumes a certain perversity in the attitude of its subject. This isn’t the fault of the men in question, but it does carry about it an air of mortification and the slight whiff of protesting too much.
By their acts they are known
Acts of Congress in the US go by a number of names. The full title of H.R.3162 – otherwise known as the Patriot Act – for instance, is “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001” (U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T – geddit?). House bill H.R.5140, popularly known as the stimulus bill, which kickstarted the economy in 2008, is properly known as “An Act to Provide Economic Stimulus Through Recovery Rebates to Individuals, Incentives for Business Investment, and an Increase in Conforming and FHA Loan Limits”. And then there is H.R.1275, put forward this week by Pete Sessions, a Republican Congressman from Texas, with a title clearly inspired to catch the ear of his leader. According to official records, H.R.1275, written by adults for adults, is called “World’s Greatest Healthcare Plan of 2017”.