The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Memoires often make the best travel books. I began this book in preparation for a short trip to Vienna, and quickly discovered that I had chosen well. Whatever your opinion of Zweig, The World of Yesterday is worth reading simply for the wealth of information it contains. Few history books paint so rich and full a picture of European culture during these transformative years—above all, in Paris, Berlin, and Zweig’s original home of Vienna—from the peaceful span preceding the First World War, to the Indian Summer of the interwar years, to the terrible hardships that led to the second great conflagration.
The last two autobiographies I read were of Benvenuto Cellini (whose beautiful salt-cellar is on display at the Vienna Art History Museum) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, two very different men alike in their narcissism. Whatever faults Zweig may have had, he was not a narcissist. This is the least personal of autobiographies, almost never mentioning Zweig’s so-called “personal life”—his marriages, private disappointments, and intimate friendships. Instead Zweig focuses his gaze outward, at the world around him, the cultural milieu, the slowly shifting tides of history.
By being so self-effacing, Zweig succeeds in producing a surprisingly insightful look at his world. A delicate, sensitive, and intelligent man, Zweig was extremely well-read, and knew virtually everybody—every famous European, at least—and so was in a uniquely advantageous position to write the history of his times. To give you some idea of his social circle, Zweig knew Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dalí (he even facilitated a meeting between the two when Freud was in London), he met Auguste Rodin, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and was friends with Richard Strauss, Benedetto Croce, Rainer Marie Rilke, Romain Rolland, and Maxim Gorky, just to name the names that come to mind.
Zweig’s history is largely one of tragic loss, as he repeats again and again. He begins his life in an affluent home, the son of a successful industrialist, in a period of calm stability and cultural efflorescence in Europe. He hones his writing skill, quickly gains success, meets several famous contemporaries, travels and sees the world, and then witnesses the body of European civilization tear itself apart for the flimsiest and most fatuous of reasons during the First World War. The war eventually comes to its bloody end, Austria and then Germany suffer terribly, Zweig meanwhile becomes one of the world’s most famous and most translated authors (although the English never liked him), and then Hitler’s rise begins, forcing Zweig to flee. The book ends just as the Second World War is commencing.
Despite the tragedy that Zweig lived through (and committed suicide during), it is impossible for me not to have life-envy. Here was have a man born into wealth, who had the time and resources to dedicate his whole self to his art, who could travel wherever he pleased whenever he pleased, who achieved instantaneous success seemingly without effort, who was able to meet and befriend all of his contemporary heroes, and who was even wealthy enough to collect manuscripts of his deceased idols—in short, it would be hard to imagine circumstances more favorable to the creation of a writer than those Zweig enjoyed. If you had asked me, before reading this book, to give my prescription for creating a first-class writer, I don’t think the result would be far off.
Yet for all his cultural capital, Zweig does not come across as pretentious or pompous. He is timid, uncharismatic, and even mundane. It is easy to imagine bumping into him on the street. (Though, as Hermann Kesten wrote, the Zweig of reality was far more eccentric than than Zweig of this book.) As a writer, he is skilled, consistent, and accessible. In a word, his prose is fluent: easy to read and digest, even in large doses. He is always interesting and never overpowering, like an excellent dinner guest. The one quality he lacks is humor—a serious deficiency, but not a fatal one. Perhaps the best way to describe Zweig is that he is a sophisticated middle-brow author, which might be why the high-brow world has had trouble accepting him; unlike Milton, Zweig intended to soar a middle flight.
It is hard to criticize Zweig—the champion of European solidarity, whose message is especially important now—who asks so little and never imposes his views. But I must say that he had several blindspots.
First, I think that his narrative of events is deeply colored by his affluence. Zweig—a rich, successful, cosmopolitan intellectual—simply cannot imagine why anyone would do something so insane as to start a war. How is he to travel to Paris or to attend the theater festival in Brussels if men are fighting? His explanation of the conflict—which comes down to thoughtless stupidity—is historically unsatisfactory. And even though I, of course, agree with his anti-war ideals, I couldn’t help thinking that his social status prevented him from understanding why less fortunate people might be dissatisfied with his wonderful world.
More generally, I think that Zweig’s life demonstrates why art should not be made into a religion. Zweig did not only love art, he worshipped it. His intense focus on the objects that artistic geniuses have touched—their manuscripts and notebooks and even their furniture—reminded me of the reliquaries of Catholicism. Every time he introduces one of his famous acquaintances, he writes a mini-hagiography, obsequiously describing even his subject’s face, manners, and expressions, as if artistic skill sanctified one’s mortal frame.
I personally found it all very distasteful—how, for example, Zweig fetishized every item that was in Beethoven’s room when he died. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, of course; but it makes it very easy to confuse aesthetic with ethical values. This confusion leads to the kind of political apathy Zweig succumbed to. When the beautiful is all that matters, why worry about tawdry things like social welfare?
Zweig had the attractive, but ultimately vain, notion that he could live aloof from politics. He never mentions anything even remotely political in his fiction; he didn’t even vote. Then he is surprised and dismayed that politics follows him everywhere. Granted, he does have a political stance: he is a pacifist, a humanist, and an internationalist. But this stance is not the product of reasoned consideration; it is the stance that allows him to continue his life as a traveling author unmolested. To steal a phrase from Michael Hoffman’s scorchingly hostile review, he is more a passivist than a pacifist. What Zweig wants from politics, in other words, is what would be necessary for him not to bother with politics.
Now, it is worth asking whether we ought to live in a world where we have no choice but to pay attention to the dreary doings of politicians. Be that as it may, Zweig certainly didn’t have a choice, which led to the irony of this most apolitical of authors structuring his autobiography according to political events.
All these criticisms notwithstanding, I think most people will find here a fundamentally sane, humane, and liberal book. For my part, Zweig supported the right causes, if not always for the right reasons. One thing, however, is left unclear: the relation of this book to Zweig’s suicide. Zweig, along with his wife, ended his own life not long after finishing this book. One might expect this to be his final message to the world; but as the translator notes, it is difficult to read this as a long suicide note. Zweig talks of a future, his future, with more books to write and years to live. The book even ends with a paean to life.
Whatever reason Zweig ended his life, one thing was certain: the Vienna of his youth, the Vienna he so lovingly describes here, is mostly vanished. If I can judge from my short visit, the city is entirely changed: Vienna nowadays is a city of tourism. Instead of the music-loving, critical, and discerning audiences Zweig describes in theaters and concerts, the city is now full of tourists who will pay periwigged salesmen to attend generic Mozart concerts, which run identical programs of greatest-hits that tireless musicians perform nightly. In the streets, English and Chinese are more commonly heard than German. Of course, Vienna is still lovely and full of cultural treasures; but these cultural treasures are of the past now, not the living present.
Did Zweig sense this change coming? Maybe not in so many words, but I think he knew that his world had forever passed into memory. There was no putting Europe back into the same postwar shape after so much destruction and death. That past now exists only in museums, grand old buildings, and books like this.
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