A month ago I wrote about the art of the memoir ….listing some of the more memorable examples for me of that genre of writing. In the past fortnight a book has been keeping me company which must rate as one of the greatest of the 20th century – Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday which was first published in 1942 after his suicide the previous year but then languished for decades before being reissued recently as part of a revival of his work. Zweig’s memoir is less an autobiography than an intensely perceptive historical account of fin-de siècle Europe-up to the start of the Second World War. It may also be the longest suicide note in history.
Most of the (long) reviews have been ecstatic – with the exception of an exceedingly intemperate one in the London Review of Books from Michael Hoffman.
This review will hopefully whet the appetite
In the Introduction to his book Stefan Zweig rightly says that no generation in recent times had undergone such a series of cataclysms, each breaking bridges with an earlier period, as had his own. He had lived not only in one world of yesterday, but in several, and it is these worlds he sets out to describe.
He was born, a Jew, in 1881 into a cosmopolitan and tolerant Vienna and into a world of utter political and economic security, confident in steady progress in society and in science. It knew the douceur de vivre (except that unmarried young men and especially young women led a sexual life which could find an outlet only in prostitution), and where culture - no longer under the patronage of the Court, but under that of the Jewish bourgeoisie - was more honoured throughout society than was wealth.
The culture of the older generation was challenged by the avant-garde, with which Zweig and his fellow-students, even while still schoolboys in a stultifying educational system, were knowledgeably, passionately and actively engaged. Hugo von Hoffmansthal and Rilke were their lodestars. The universities were little better: Zweig was only a nominal student at the universities of Vienna and Berlin: his real intellectual life lay elsewhere.
Already at the age of 19 he had the first of several articles accepted for the feuilleton section of the prestigious Neue Freie Presse in Vienna (of whose editor, Theodore Herzl, he gives a wonderful account). In Berlin he was looking for (and found) a wider circle - socially and intellectually - than in the somewhat inbred bourgeois and mainly Jewish milieu in which he had moved in Vienna. He drank in influences of every kind, from the sophisticated to the louche, exposing himself to `real life' as opposed to the purely literal and to some extent derivative life he had led so far.
In his travels in Belgium and his beloved Paris, he sought out the great artists and poets of his time. His descriptions of them - their physical appearance, their character and their psychology - are always masterful. His worshipful admiration of their work and of their personalities extends to reverence for the manuscripts or other memorabilia which he collected all his life. Though an Austrian, he identified himself first and foremost as a European.
The pivotal chapter, entitled “Brightness and Shadows over Europe”, describes the first decade of the 20th century: what a wonderfully optimistic, vigorous, progressive, prosperous, and confidence-inspiring decade that was, and yet how that very energy was used in greedy competition, how states who had plenty wanted yet more and clashed with others who wanted the same, so that in the end that very vigour brought about the cataclysm of the First World War.
Written with tremendous verve, these few pages surpass many an analysis of the causes of that disaster. And he observed with horror how overnight not only the masses but his so sophisticated and sensitive intellectual friends were swept along by the hysterical and bombastic enthusiasm for war. The sole exceptions among his friends were the Austrian Rilke and the Frenchman Romain Rolland. Only when Zweig visited Switzerland did he meet other opponents of the war who, like Rolland, had moved there because they could not bear or dare to live in their own countries. (Not all of these, of course, were lovers of peace: they included communists who would unleash their own slaughter in the coming years.)
He then describes the immediate post-war years: the terrifying inflation in Austria, which however seemed moderate when compared by the even more horrific inflation which followed in Germany; the collapse of and contempt for all pre-war cultural and social norms and forms, especially among the young.
These four or five terrible years then gave way to a decade of relative normality. It was then that Zweig's fame reached its apogee and he became the world's most widely-translated living author. He has some fascinating pages analyzing what might be the cause of this success which he found both intoxicating and disturbing because - so he says - he had ever been beset by self-doubt, by a desire to avoid personal publicity and to feel under obligation to nobody.
He presents some wonderful vignettes relating to that decade: of a visit to the Soviet Union in 1928 in which he is overwhelmed by the naive warmth of the people and only just made aware that he was being manipulated; his encounters with Gorky and with Croce; or of how Salzburg, the town he had made his home, had become, through its Festivals which began in 1920, a place of cultural pilgrimage from all over the world which brought to his home the most famous literary and artistic figures.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they burnt and banned all his works, eventually, after tortuous discussions involving Hitler himself, forbidding their revered composer Richard Strauss (of whom Zweig again gives a superb pen-portrait) to stage his opera `Die schweigsame Frau' because its libretto had been written by Zweig. The pressure of the Nazis on Austria became ever greater, and in 1934 Zweig left, initially for England (later for Brazil). In helpless despair he saw from afar more clearly than his friends in Austria that his homeland was doomed. And when Austria fell to the Nazis and he lost his passport, he became a refugee, subject to constant bureaucratic form-filling.
There is an eloquent lament for the world before the first world war when one was free to travel the world without a passport, and free from so many of the humiliating restrictions and regulations which now control innumerable aspects of our lives. The man, who as a cosmopolitan had felt at home everywhere, as a refugee now felt anchored nowhere. Tortured by the collapse of civilization in Europe, demeaned, deprived and unconfident, he poured out this masterpiece. He sent it off to a Swedish publisher in 1942, and took his life on the following day.