Mark's Reviews > The World of Yesterday

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
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's review
Jun 21, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: history, autobiography, memoir
Read in August, 2009

SPOILER ALERT: This review reveals details about the end of Zweig's life.

This wonderful, heartwrenching, elegiac memoir recreates the world of late 19th century and early 20th century Europe through the eyes of Stefan Zweig, virtually unremembered today, but in the period between the world wars, one of the most widely read and translated authors in the world.

It is not an entirely depressive memoir, but Zweig wrote much of it after he had exiled himself in England before the start of WWII, as he neared his 60th year, and after Hitler had banned all of his books. He was apolitical throughout his literary life, writing mostly biographies and criticism, but as a Jew who had campaigned his entire life for peace and a pan-European spirit, and as a celebrated author in Vienna, which had spurned Hitler when he was young, Zweig was persona non grata in Hitler's Germany. The final straw: he wrote the libretto for Richard Strauss' last opera, and because Hitler wanted Strauss as a symbol of an artist who was willing to join the Reich, he was forced to permit some early performances of the opera, despite having words written by a Jew.

Relying almost entirely on his memory, since he had to leave behind most of his important papers and personal documents in Salzburg when he fled Europe, Zweig tells a detailed yet fast moving story of growing up in another time, in an Austria dominated by convention, complacency and status, and about how he and his fellow literary aficionados read as many of the newest, least-known authors whose books they could get their hands on, including a young poet named Rainer Maria Rilke, who later became a close friend of Zweig's.

Zweig went on to become close friends with many of the important literary and scientific figures of his era (many forgotten today), including especially the French pacifist and essayist Romain Rolland, the French poet Paul Valery, the composer Alban Berg, and a young, acerbic James Joyce, among many others.

His chief preoccupation, though, is the way that war shattered and reshaped his generation and his beloved continental Europe. As one of many highly educated Jews whose families had done their utmost to assimilate into the dominant culture, he was keenly aware of how evil Hitler's persecution of the Jews was, even though it isn't clear if he himself knew how many were being killed in the concentration camps.

He understood the terrible irony of what Hitler had done, uniting Jews as victims who had long since grown apart.

"Only now," he wrote, "since they were swept up like dirt in the streets and heaped together, the bankers from their Berlin palaces and sextons from the synagogues of orthodox congregations, the philosophy professors from Paris and Rumanian cabbies, the undertaker's helpers and Nobel Prize winners, the concert singers and hired mourners, the authors and distillers, the haves and the have-nots, the great and the small, the devout and the liberals, the usurers and the sages, the Zionists and the assimilated, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, the just and the unjust besides which the confused horde who thought they had long since eluded the curse, the baptized and the semi-Jews -- only now, for the first time in hundreds of years, the Jews were forced into a community of interest to which they had long ceased to be sensitive, the ever-recurring -- since Egypt -- community of expulsion."

And Stefan Zweig became part of this harried and hounded community, too. While he escaped the death camps, his heart was broken. Not long after completing these memoirs, he tried to start a new life with his second wife in Brazil, but then, in a calm letter in which he said "I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth," he and his wife committed suicide.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Martine (new) - added it

Martine I've heard great things about this, so thank you for reminding me of its existence! I look forward to hearing what you make of it.

Have you read Zweig's Chess Story? Great, haunting little novella -- one of the forgotten gems of World War II literature.

Mark I haven't read any of his stuff, but added this piece above because of a nice article on him in this weekend's Wall Street Journal. Apparently there is a new English translation out of his final novel.

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