Monday 13 May 2013

The World of Yesterday

I'm reading Stefan Zweig's extraordinary memoir, The World of Yesterday (Pushkin Press). In recent years I've read several of his fine novellas and the novel Beware of Pity (about which I wrote here) - but The World of Yesterday is something quite different, a memoir that is also a portrait of an age, the age in which Europe moved from peace, security and wellbeing into the destructive horrors of two world wars. Zweig, born in Vienna in 1881, was to experience - to intensely experience - this terrible transformation in his own lifetime, losing almost everything along the way. The World of Yesterday was published in 1942, the year that Zweig and his wife, having been driven from their homeland by the coming of the Nazis and having lived a peripatetic life in Britain and America, died in a double suicide in Buenos Aires.
  The World of Yesterday is not a suicide note, but it bears powerful personal testimony to the shattering impact of the wars, and what came between them, in the most murderous century in human history. In 1942, the tide of war was actually turning against Hitler, but Zweig had probably concluded that, even if he was defeated, too much damage had been done for Europe ever to recover and be itself again. At least, dying when he did, he was never to know the full extent of what the Nazis and their allies had inflicted on his fellow Jews...
  But no, The World of Yesterday is not a suicide note. It is, for one thing, immensely readable and suffused with Zweig's large humanist (in the best sense) spirit. It begins with a vivid and richly detailed picture of what Zweig calls the Golden Age of Security, that world into which he was born, one that seemed permanent and endlessly promising, but was to be entirely lost when Europe stumbled into war in 1914. (He is, though, by no means uncritical of that lost world - particularly of its brutal and deadening education system and its extreme hypocrisy in sexual matters.)
 'I never considered myself important enough to feel tempted to tell others the story of my life,' writes Zweig. 'Much had to happen, far more in the shape of terrible events, disasters and trials than any other single generation has known, before I found the courage to embark on a book in which I feature as the main, or rather the central, character. Nothing is further from my mind than to bring myself to the fore...' And indeed this is the most self-effacing of memoirs - we don't even learn that Zweig is married until the second person singular suddenly appears. Zweig sees himself not as the subject, but as 'the presenter of a lecture illustrated by slides. The times provide the pictures...' And what pictures they are. There are unforgettable images here, particularly in the riveting chapter on The First Hours of the 1914 War - or, at the end of that war, crossing from Switzerland into a ruined Austria, while the last Emperor travels in the opposite direction, standing at the window of his train, 'a tall, grave man, looking for the last time at the mountains, the buildings and the people of his land'.
  Much of this rich book is given over to accounts of the literary, artistic - and political - milieu Zweig moved in, with pen portraits of many friends, some (like Rilke and James Joyce, who was not exactly a friend) still famous names, others forgotten. There are certainly passages that can be skipped (it's a big book, getting on for 500 pages), but the narrative gains momentum as it goes along and becomes ever more gripping. I've still got something over 100 pages to read, and I really don't want it to end - especially to end where it does.

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