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The World of Yesterday
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Group Reads Archive > August 2014- The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

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message 1: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 1002 comments Mod
Welcome to August's group read of The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig.


Susan | 774 comments I LOVED this book. So evocative, so moving and wonderfully written. After reading it, I feverishly downloaded more by the wonderful Stefan Zweig. A great choice.

Nigeyb ^ Hurrah. I'm delighted Susan. I have just started this book and the early sections auger very well. I'll report back as I work through the book.

message 4: by Barbara (last edited Aug 04, 2014 09:20PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Barbara I loved this book! Stefan Zweig knew everyone and had such an interesting life.

Beginning in the safe, and perhaps stifling, world of pre-World War I Vienna, Zweig’s memoir traced his development as a young intellectual. I related to his stories of his brainy friends, reading and discussing the latest ideas of the age. “We had the feeling that a time had set in for us, our time, in which youth had finally achieved its rights.” That’s just how my generation felt in the late 60s.

As a young man, he met Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism. I enjoyed seeing his mention of Ellen Key, who I’d first heard of in a book about Frank Lloyd Wright’s wives and lovers. One of FLW’s wives (Mamah Borthwick Cheney) had been a champion and translator of Key’s work. It was also fun to read about his seeing Lawrence Binyon at the British Museum. I had enjoyed reading Binyon’s poems in our WWI poetry selection. It’s great to see all these connections in the books our group reads.

Another highlight for me was reading about his youthful visit to Paris. He wrote that “I was intellectually familiar in advance with everything in Paris through the descriptive and almost plastic rendering of its poets, its novelists, its historians and its writers on modes and manners, before I had seen it with my own eyes. It was merely brought to life by coming face to face with it; and seeing it physically was really nothing but a recognition.” That was exactly how I felt when I first went to Paris, and he captured the feeling perfectly.

The start of the War took him by surprise, as it seems to have for so many. There had been so many crises, so many little upsets that were overcome, that when at last the war began, it seemed unreal. While he was anti-war and always hoped for a more united Europe, he understood and joined in the feeling of brotherhood and sense of shared history at the start of the war. His descriptions of the War, the great divide between the world at war and the safety/fairytale peace of Switzerland, and the aftermath of the war were highlights of the book for me. Of Switzerland, he wrote “I found myself asking if the fish in this frontier rivulet were belligerents on the right bank and neutral on the left.” Kind of like Pascal’s famous line about “truth on this side of the Pyrenees and error on the other.” I was also fascinated by his account of the post-war inflations in both Austria and Germany.

One of the surprises for me was reading his opinion that the inflation was more damaging than the war itself, and that it was a key factor in making the people “ripe for Hitler.” He also saw both the inflation and the general post-war hard times as somewhat positive. “The collapse of money made us feel that nothing was enduring except the eternal within ourselves….Never have I experienced in a people and in myself as powerful a surge of life as at that period when our very existence and survival were at stake.”

Zweig was able to enjoy a few good years between the wars, collecting musical and literary documents, doing his own writing, traveling, visiting his many creative friends. His trip to Russia in the fairly-early days of Communism was interesting, as was his relationship with the pacifist, Romain Rolland.

All too soon, his good days came to an end with the rise of Hitler. His account was fascinating, written during the period. I especially appreciated his story of writing the libretto for one of Richard Strauss’s operas. The opera was cancelled after its second performance, due to Nazi censorship and anti-semitism. It must have been heartbreaking to have his work outlawed and to be forced into exile himself. (Greatly preferable though to what would have happened to him if he’d remained in Austria...) His meetings with Freud, a fellow exile, were interesting too. Because the last part of the book was written while the events were taking place, it had a less studied tone.

The copy of the book I read was published in 1943 (“produced in full compliance with all War Productions Board conservation orders”) and included a short editor’s postscript, describing Zweig’s final days and including a copy of his suicide note. I wonder if newer editions contain more on his current reputation, especially how he is regarded today in his native Austria?

After I finished reading this, I went back and read the book review that Judy had posted recently. I thought it was extreme when I first read it, and now I find it even more extreme. Whether or not one likes Zweig’s novels/poetry/libretti, this memoir is valuable as a document of the 1890s-1930s. Zweig’s writing made it all come alive for me—not just his Vienna, but the whole intellectual climate of the Europe of his day.

I highly recommend it!

Nigeyb Thanks Barbara. That's a marvellous review.

I have read about one fifth of this book and like you, I am really enjoying it.

To me, it's the best non-fiction BYT read we've had in ages.

Stefan Zweig is so passionate and interesting and I am discovering a lot of new information, and making new connections.

I really enjoyed the account of his school days and the description of late 19th century Austrian society. The extent to which the Jewish community was harmoniously integrated into Vienna amongst a range of other communities was also a surprise to me

What I am finding most poignant is that shortly after he wrote this he killed himself. Life must have been truly intolerable especially, as is coming through in the book, that he was such a passionate European and Austrian, and he couldn't bear to see the continent in the grip of intolerance and ripping itself apart.

Barbara wrote: "II highly recommend it!"

I suspect I will be echoing this sentiment in a few days time.

message 6: by Barbara (last edited Aug 04, 2014 11:58PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Barbara Nigeyb, it wasn't just "shortly" after he wrote the book that he killed himself--from what I have read in my old edition, it was the very next day after he finished the book. Like he was just waiting until he'd written the ending. I did a Google search about him, and it seems that he had suffered from depression for years, so perhaps he was just at the end of his rope. Also, his wife, who killed herself at the same time, had some endless cough (TB maybe?) that might have caused her to lose hope as well. Very sad.
How thrilled he would have been to see today's European union--what he'd hoped for all his life.

Like you, I think this is the best BYT non-fiction we've read in a while. Really a wonderful book and filled with names I want to pursue further.

Mike Robbins (mikerobbins) | 39 comments I also enjoyed this book - it was an extraordinary glimpse into the past. He was always a big figure in Europe, but never in Britain; I only stumbled across him by accident after confusing him with the left-wing writer Arnold Zweig. It looks like this is changing, maybe partly because the novella is making a comeback!

I liked this biog in The New Yorker, which I am sure some people will have read:

Nigeyb Thanks Mike for the New Yorker blog, which I'd not seen before and I am grateful to have read - it fills in a lot of autobiographical blanks.

Thanks also Barbara for clarifying the timescale, I was unsure of the chronology and it is helpful to understand the book as a final piece of work.

Barbara Thanks, Mike, for this interesting article.

Nigeyb--apparently I misread the publisher's postscript in the edition I've been reading. The World of Yesterday was NOT finished the day before his suicide. It was the chess story. World of Yesterday was finished during his time in Brazil, shortly before his death.

message 10: by Nigeyb (last edited Aug 07, 2014 01:13AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nigeyb Thanks again for the clarification Barbara.

I'm really enjoying this book. Now SZ has left Vienna the pace has picked up considerably, and the insights are also coming up with increasing regularity.

Great stuff.

message 11: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I'm hoping to pick this book up from the library today or tomorrow... looking forward to it.

Barbara, just noticed you mentioned that intemperate review by Michael Hoffman - I also thought it seemed extreme, and am interested to hear that you found it even more so after reading the book. I will revisit it when I've read the book too.

Barbara Back when you posted the link to Hoffman's review, I thought maybe I'd regret voting for The World of Yesterday. His review was definitely "intemperate" as you say. I'm so glad I didn't let it deter me. I really enjoyed this book. I'm looking forward to your reactions.

message 13: by Nigeyb (last edited Aug 10, 2014 01:54AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nigeyb I am still working my way through Stefan's wonderful tome. It's very good.

I'm at the part when Stefan returns to Austria after WW1. His description of post-War Austria is eye opening and heartbreaking.

message 14: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I just picked this up from the library yesterday, in Anthea Bell's translation - hope to get started soon!

Nigeyb I'm taking a long time to get through this (now at about 65%), mainly due to other commitments, but it is getting progressively better and better, and it's very good. I'll post some more coherent thoughts soon and when I've finished. I'm currently grappling with that extraordinary period of hyperinflation in Germany in the 1920s.

Barbara Nigeyb--hyperinflation is right. I have stamps in my collection for 20 BILLION marks to mail a letter in 1923!!

Nigeyb ^ Wow. That's an impressive sounding artefact Barbara.

Barbara I love my stamp collection. It's a nerdy, old fashioned hobby, but you can really learn a lot about history from it.

Susan | 774 comments Wow Barbara - what an amazing piece of history. It's so odd to think how worthless money was. Imagine working so hard and making a life, to just have all your jewellery buy you one loaf of bread? It makes you realise what is truly important too - bread suddenly becomes more desirable than diamonds...

Although I loved this book, I wonder what everyone thought about the part set in 1920-21 when he goes to Italy and suddenly announces, as a side comment, that he is with 'his wife.' I thought, what? When did that happen?! He later remarried, of course, so perhaps he simply wrote her out to save explanations, but it did seem a bit odd.

message 20: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I haven't started reading this book yet, but the comments about the hyper-inflation remind me of 'The Invisible Collection', a powerful short story by Zweig from this period which I read at school when learning German.

I've just found an etext of it online translated into English, on a website which has put old issues of periodicals online.

message 21: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Robbins (mikerobbins) | 39 comments Judy wrote: "I haven't started reading this book yet, but the comments about the hyper-inflation remind me of 'The Invisible Collection', a powerful short story by Zweig from this period which I read at school ..."

Great - and in fact this whole site looks a bit of a treasure-house. Thanks Judy!

Susan | 774 comments There is a documentary on Wednesday 9pm on BBC4 called "Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds," about Vienna in 1908. I thought it might be of interest to anyone who read this book.

Nigeyb Thanks Susan. Sounds essential viewing.

message 24: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments On top of 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', there's also another new film out in the UK based on a Stefan Zweig book. 'A Promise' is based on his novel 'Journey into the Past' and is set in Germany before and during the First World War.

The main stars are Rebecca Hall, Alan Rickman and Richard Madden. I saw a trailer for this at the cinema the other day and it looked excellent. Apparently it has already had a limited release in the US.

Nigeyb ^ Zweig-tastic. There's so much Zweig-related stuff around to enjoy. Hurrah. Joy is unconfined.

message 26: by Jan C (new) - added it

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments It looks like the movie came out in 2013, but I don't recall it.

message 27: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Robbins (mikerobbins) | 39 comments Neither do I. But I did see The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was enormous fun.

message 28: by Jan C (new) - added it

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Me, too. Although we were watching it on some Roku service while I was on vacation and I must have slept through half of it. An exhausting day.

message 29: by Roisin (new) - added it

Roisin | 729 comments Just reserved a copy, but there are two reserves already so might have to wait a bit for mine. Bummer!

Nigeyb I've nearly finished. The closing section, describing Hitler's ascent, and Stefan's subsequent exile, is worth the price of admission alone. A remarkable and poignant memoir.

message 31: by Roisin (new) - added it

Roisin | 729 comments Hopefully I'll get a copy soon. Otherwise might have to e-book it instead.

message 32: by Roisin (new) - added it

Roisin | 729 comments The Grand Budapest Hotel was absolutely fantastic one of the funniest films that I had seen in a while. Just brilliant!

message 33: by Roisin (new) - added it

Roisin | 729 comments Too e-book or not too e-book...

Nigeyb Finished. Gets better and better. A perfect evocation of early twentieth century Europe and the tragedy of the two World Wars that tore the continent apart. Heartbreaking conclusion. Proper review to follow in a week or so.

message 35: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I'm about 200 pages in and enjoying this - I loved the whole anecdote about the man who stole his case in Paris, and how disgusted the hotel concierge was when Zweig decided not to prosecute!

Also fascinating to read about his collection of literary manuscripts etc after just revisiting the short story 'The Invisible Collection' - clearly collection was a subject very close to his heart.

I also like the way he writes with nostalgia and love at the start, but then shows damaging aspects of the world he has portrayed, like the boring lessons and lack of frankness about sex.

Charles I've been digitizing some LPs and did Rite of Spring -- I have a performance conducted by Stravinsky. I've listed to this many times, and yet what an astonishing piece of music it is. Think what it would have been alive in a time and place where such things could be. The nearest I can come is San Francisco -- but so much shorter a time. Brautigan, the Dead, the Airplane, the Beats still among us -- a fairly long list despite. A time of possibilities, destroyed by war. It puts Zweig's experience in perspective, and to make his despair a bit more real.

Nigeyb Absolutely. It also really brought hem to me what it means to be exiled from your beloved homeland, and without a passport. Talking d which, I was amazed to discover that he travelled the world in an era (pre WW1) when passports didn't exist. Imagine that. That whole infrastructure is less than 100 years old.

message 38: by Roisin (new) - added it

Roisin | 729 comments Passports? Which country? : ) Passports did exist in the UK, but the rules were relaxed, because it was difficult to enforce during WWI. The term 'passport' was used back in the 1600s. According a Guardian newspaper article, a passport was issued and Charles 1 signed this. From 1794 the office of the Secretary of State issued them and this is continued by the Home Office today. I must read this book!

message 39: by Roisin (new) - added it

Roisin | 729 comments But anyone travelling about that time was amazing.

Nigeyb Interesting. I'm just quoting SZ who says he travelled the world without a passport pre WW1.


Just read this about passport history. Interesting.

Nigeyb Thanks Barbara - that clarifies things, and helps explain how Stefan managed to travel about without a passport pre WW1

message 43: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val Travel documentation was not standardised back then, so it would have depended on who you were and where you came from. He was fairly well off and did become famous, he was also a citizen of a major power of the time, so he might have found it easier to travel than most people. This all changed later, but even then it was the returning he had bureaucratic problems with, more than the leaving.

message 44: by Roisin (new) - added it

Roisin | 729 comments I forgot to add link to said article. Ta Barbara!

message 45: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Barbara wrote: "I loved this book! Stefan Zweig knew everyone and had such an interesting life.

Beginning in the safe, and perhaps stifling, world of pre-World War I Vienna, Zweig’s memoir traced his development..."

Barbara, after finishing the book I returned to this thread to read your review again, and really enjoyed your thoughts.

I was reading the newer translation by Anthea Bell, which does have footnotes and a short afterword. However, this doesn't contain as much information as the one in the old edition you mentioned. I've just managed to read the afterword via "look inside" at Confusingly, the old edition shows up when you click on the new hardback!

I've also had a quick look at how the translations vary. The anonymous older one seems to sound more 'translated', but on the plus side that means it gives more feeling of how Zweig would sound in German. (I did wonder whether to try this in German, but thought it would take me too long and might be beyond me - though I might take the plunge for one of his novellas!)

message 46: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Many thanks to Mike for posting the link to the New Yorker blog on Zweig, which is very interesting and, as Nigeyb said, fills in a lot of the autobiographical material he left out of the book. It also shows why some aspects of his career were controversial.

I've also just read another intriguing New Yorker piece about how Zweig's book inspired 'The Grand Budapest Hotel':

This article mentions a new biography, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, which sounds good.

message 47: by Roisin (new) - added it

Roisin | 729 comments Interesting what you say about translations Judy. I have reserved mine (still waiting for a copy), there were two reserves a head of mine. So I wonder how old or new mine will be and whether it will make a difference when reading. I wish my German was better. Bummer!

message 48: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Roisin wrote: "Interesting what you say about translations Judy. I have reserved mine (still waiting for a copy), there were two reserves a head of mine. So I wonder how old or new mine will be and whether it wil..."

I found the new Anthea Bell translation very readable, Roisin, and from a brief peek the old one also looked good, though different - so I am sure you will enjoy it either way.

message 49: by Roisin (new) - added it

Roisin | 729 comments Ok, thanks.

message 50: by Nigeyb (last edited Sep 01, 2014 02:24PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nigeyb Here's my review...

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. At the height of his literary career, in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most popular writers in the world.

Zweig left his beloved Austria in 1934, as Hitler rose to power in Germany, and lived abroad, finally ending up in Brazil with his wife where, in 1942, having felt increasingly depressed about the horrors of Nazism, and the future of humanity, Zweig and his wife killed themselves. In the years before his death he wrote this extraordinary book.

I have not read any of Stefan Zweig's work, however if his other work is as good as this autobiography then it will be worth reading. This is a wonderful portrait of Stefan Zweig and the world he inhabited and which includes the tail end of the Habsburg empire and the seismic social and cultural changes in Vienna following World War 1 as Stefan Zweig was making his name. Sadly all too soon the confidence and prosperity turned to nationalism, anti semitism and despair, which were completely at odds with Stefan Zweig's pacifism and humanity.

This book brings to life extraordinary times and is a great book for anyone hoping to understand twentieth century European history. It also features some fascinating encounters with many of the major writers and composers of the era from across Europe. These touching anecdotes are in stark contrast to Stefan Zweig's first hand account of the Nazis and their systematic destruction of the humane culture he cherished. Stefan Zweig's subsequent persecution and exile, followed by more on his death in the Publisher's notes at the end of the book, make for a heartbreaking finale.

Essential reading for anyone interested in the period between 1880 and 1941.


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