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‘What was eternal in us was all that would last’ [book review]

A review of The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Anthea Bell

My old flat in Vienna was in Stefan Zweig territory. Just around the corner, where I would stand to wait for the bus, a plaque on a stone façade announced that he had lived there for a time. A few streets further down, a hotel – all glassy, shining lobby – now occupies the building in which he spent most of his childhood. Perhaps it was partly to do with the proximity of these places, subsumed in the backdrop to my daily life, that I have always felt something for Stefan Zweig, one of the most talented and tragic writers of the twentieth century.

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

Born in 1881 in Vienna, Zweig grew up in a well-to-do Jewish family and by the age of nineteen was a respected writer. Over the course of his phenomenal career he published novellas, short stories, poetry, plays, journal articles and biographies of famous historical personalities, from Charles Dickens to Marie Antoinette. A particular friend of Freud, Rilke, Rolland and Schnitzler, he rubbed shoulders with most of the early twentieth century’s great artists and thinkers and was at one point the most widely translated writer in the entire world. A life-long pacifist and committed European – although he lived much of his adult life in Salzburg, he also moved with ease between France, Switzerland and England – Zweig’s existence came crashing down around him with the rise of Nazism and the outbreak of the Second World War. Forced into exile in the UK and then Brazil, disillusioned and heartbroken by what he saw as the irreparable state of the world, Zweig took his own life in February 1942 in a suicide pact with his wife.

That world – the one to which Zweig belonged so completely and couldn’t bear to see destroyed – is the subject of his memoir, The World of Yesterday, which was completed only a short while before his death. Although just one of several of his books to be published in translation by Pushkin Press, who together with the late, great Anthea Bell have made Herculean efforts to bring Zweig’s works back into wider circulation, this is, I would argue, the most readable and important. Known for his generally sparing style and short works of fiction – Zweig was a ruthless editor of his own work – in this book he adopts a more poetic, flowing tone and admits the reader into his personal consciousness. Having lived with the rather mysterious figure of Zweig the author for so long, I was thrilled to finally feel that I knew more about the man once sheltered by those unforgiving stone façades.

That said, The World of Yesterday is without doubt one of the most highbrow memoirs I have read. With scanty personal information – I think there are only two references to his marriages in the entire 460 pages, each accompanied by a dedicated footnote – and a rather philosophical bent, it doesn’t exactly offer many revelations about Zweig’s day-to-day life, relationships or any other such mundane matters. Instead, he is careful to situate himself within Europe, describing his youth and career in terms of the political, social and cultural events going on around him. The result is an extraordinarily rich historical document, a memoir that could only ever be a product of its time and which offers a unique glimpse into Europe before, during and between the wars.

Concerned with culture and intellect as he is, Zweig’s memoir is a litany of encounters with the great writers, painters, playwrights, musicians and philosophers of his time – to name just a few of the luminaries he spent his days among. A bit of background knowledge of the period is certainly useful, especially when it comes to political developments, but this edition helpfully contains footnotes that offer concise explanations of particular events or people where needed. Anthea Bell has also translated with great sensitivity, making the most of Zweig’s plays on words and skilfully managing references that are clearly meant for a German-speaking audience. For as much as Zweig was a translator himself, and indeed writing his memoir during the calamitous years in which he was exiled and his work banned from his own country – years he didn’t live to see the end of – he was at heart always an Austrian. Proudly, not to say defiantly European, yes, but first and foremost Austrian.

As high-flown and overtly academic as he sometimes comes across, what had me increasingly engrossed in this book and ultimately ended up breaking my heart was the deep sorrow in which it is steeped. From the first page to the last we are aware of Zweig’s hopeless situation and his sheer despair at the turn history has taken. In recounting the world he grew up and lived in, even including his experience of the First World War, Zweig seeks to capture the very essence of something he – and we with him – knows to be irretrievably lost. ‘For the air around us is not a dead and empty void, it has in it the rhythm and vibration of the time’, he writes, and this air is exactly what he has caught in The World of Yesterday. Captured and bottled to be released again into the twenty-first century, a reminder of all that once was – and all that stood to be lost.

Although claiming that his generation has learned ‘the fine art of not mourning for what is lost’, I do not believe after reading this book that Zweig was ever able to do that. The World of Yesterday, with its lyrical prose, subtle beauty and evocative descriptions of cities like Vienna, is a love letter to a lost world, an elegy for Europe. It seemed strange to me reading it now, in the often quite frankly terrifying times we are living in, that in many ways Zweig could just as well have been writing today. It didn’t exactly make me feel uplifted, feeling the echo of words written more than half a century ago resonate so strongly, but it gave me a sense of the way the world might move in cycles, of how perhaps it is possible to learn from what went before. Certainly, I think that is what Zweig would wish us to do with his memoir. ‘Perhaps, ungrateful as human beings are, we did not realise at the time how strongly and securely the wave bore us up.’ A warning recognisable to anyone who has lived through times of great, unwanted change. But also a simple and forgiving statement of what it is to be human.

While this book definitely won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, anyone who cares for early-twentieth-century history, literature, the idea of Europe and, I would argue, humanity itself, would do well to read The World of Yesterday. Without once setting out to be overtly emotional, it is imbued with immense poignancy and offered, for me at least, an extraordinarily ‘felt’ reading experience. Zweig died in tragic circumstances, his life cut short by events so monstrous he no longer knew what to do with them, but I like to think he did know what he was leaving us with. ‘All the bridges are broken between today, yesterday and the day before yesterday’ – another claim he made that, unlike most sentences in this book, simply isn’t true. The world of yesterday may be gone; the bridges may be full of holes. But completely broken they are not, because we have this.


5 thoughts on “‘What was eternal in us was all that would last’ [book review]

  1. Beautiful, eloquent review! I thought this was a very evocative and powerful book as well. And I lived in Vienna too, for many years! I read this while I was there — there’s definitely so much to be said for appreciating how figures like Zweig describe the city and feeling that history while you’re there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much – I’m really glad to hear you enjoyed the book too. And what a lovely coincidence that you lived in Vienna! I find there’s something about the city that really lends itself to literature, and Zweig does an excellent job of capturing it on the page.

      Liked by 1 person

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