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The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

The World of Yesterday

by Stefan Zweig

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Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
Interesting, but a little dry. ( )
  Judy_Ryfinski | Jan 20, 2016 |
Interesting, but a little dry. ( )
  Judy_Ryfinski | Jan 20, 2016 |

Stefan Zweig. First Trip to Brazil, 1936.

I enjoyed reading the memoirs of Stefan Zweig and found his eyewitness accounts of life in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries both fascinating and revealing. He speaks of the stability that older generations had taken for granted becoming unrecognizable during the turbulent decades of World War I and beyond. I’ve always been curious about this period in history, when the arrival of new technology like the automobile, telegraph, and aeroplane pushed the world headfirst into modernity. New forms of art and literature were also being developed that were a radical departure from the past. I felt like Zweig was living a firsthand account of events as they transpired, sharing his best impressions with the reader.

As a writer living in Vienna, Zweig was part of an incredibly rich circle of artists and writers. Amazingly, he shared deep personal friendships with several notable men of the time (Freud, Rilke, Verhaeren, Rodin, and the composer Richard Strauss among others) and brings them into focus through real life anecdotes. He also speaks about the political climate of Europe around the time of the First World War and was witness to the madness that overwhelmed the continent at that time. After the war hyperinflation swept in and ruined Austrian and later German economies, setting the stage for the rise of fascism. Because he was Jewish, when Hitler came to power his work was banned and he was forced into exile, his previous life and accomplishments completely ruined.

As I read this book I found myself growing fond of Stefan Zweig the man, even as he shied away from discussing the more personal aspects of his life (such as his two marriages or discussions of his own fiction). Zweig himself is certainly always present in the narrative but rarely the star; rather he takes on the role of observer of events and other people’s art. Yet paradoxically, despite the lack of private detail, I still felt as if I came to know a good deal of the man while reading this book- his kindness towards others, belief in humanist values, and the romantic sensibility that colored his worldview all shined through. In a way his modesty was part of his charm. But even so, I feel a companion biography such as [b:Three Lives A Biography of Stefan Zweig|11250548|Three Lives A Biography of Stefan Zweig|Oliver Matuschek|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1328692501s/11250548.jpg|16177022] would be worthwhile to help illuminate other facets of his life.

On a final note I am so glad to see Zweig’s work being read again by an international audience and especially being published once more in his native German. In the memoir you can sense his despair at being silenced by the fascists. The devastation must have been immense, as is clear from his choice to end his life in 1942. I think he would be happy to see so many people reacquainting themselves with his work. I hope others will visit the Stefan Zweig Group on Goodreads and consider joining in.

( )
  averybird | Dec 28, 2015 |
Stefan Zweig was born in Austria and was an important part of the European intelligencia in the early and mid 20th century. In this memoir that leans away from the personal and toward the social and historical, he tells of his experiences during the World Wars. Beautiful prose and a thoughtful, modest life--a joy to read. ( )
  gbelik | Dec 4, 2015 |
Stefan Zweig’s autobiography is a wonderful, engaging read, a vivid look at life, art, culture and society in various European cities leading up to World War II. Zweig does tend to namedrop, but he is as passionate and enthusiastic about his lesser-known friends as he is about some of the people who would go on to be the best-known thinkers and writers of the day. There isn’t as much about his personal life and works – for example, he mentions his marriage to his second wife as an aside and does not talk much about his first wife either. He doesn’t spend much time on his influences and processes for his novels, stories, and nonfiction works either. Instead, it’s about the people, cultural movements, and milieu of the period from the late 19th century up to World War II, although eventually the tumult of wars, inflation, and creeping repression becomes the main topic.

The opening of his first chapter is marvelous, describing “The World of Security” from his youth. Everyone believed the Austrian government was solid and stable, people had turned from the barbarism of the past, and science and technology would continue to improve ordinary people’s lives. Everything was well-ordered and in its place, everything would continue to get better. Zweig’s very subjective view is from a contented segment of the population - wealthy, cultured Jewish families. He frequently makes notes from the present, and there is some dismay at the naivety of those days, but a bit of nostalgia also. He is more critical of the education and sexual mores of late 19th/early 20th century Vienna – he unhappily recalls the cold, uninspiring schools from his childhood and the hypocrisy of a Vienna rife with prostitution and pornography but firmly upholding the ban on young people learning about sex.

Zweig, along with his fellow schoolmates, did find passion and meaning in art and literature – they were always reading and into whatever was new or different. He mentions that most of the group drifted off to normal lives later on – and that other classes had different obsessions, sports being the other one he recalled – but he gained a solid cultural background from his own studies, while learning nothing much at school. An early celebrity spotting was Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who he met as a young man. University wasn’t much different – Zweig decided to take the opportunity to pursue his interests and get into new social circles, while procrastinating on his writing and then doing it all as the deadline approached. He traveled to Berlin and hung out with bohemians – which gave rise to an interesting comment about his work –

“Perhaps the very fact that I came from a solidly established background, and felt to some extent that this ‘security’ complex weighted me down, made me more likely to be fascinated by those who almost recklessly squandered their lives, their time, their money, their health and reputation – passionate monomaniacs obsessed by aimless existence for its own sake – and perhaps readers may notice this preference of mine for intense, intemperate characters in my novels and novellas.”

He also started writing short pieces and poetry. In celebrity meetings, Zweig mentions his encounters with Theodor Herzl. After taking his degree, the author commenced a period of traveling and meeting new people. His descriptions of the cities are very lively, as are his portraits of his friends. This part could feel a bit like “And then I met X….then I met Y…..then I met Z”, but the writing makes it interesting. He discusses meeting Romain Rolland, Rainer Maria Rilke, and other well-known artists, but also has lots of praise for his lesser-known friends Emile Verhaeren and Leon Balzagette. He visited Paris, London, Spain, Italy, and Belgium and went even further afield, to America and India. Besides his travels and friends, Zweig’s descriptions of his hobby collecting autographs and manuscripts are interesting. His start as a playwright at first appeared auspicious, but then began to seem cursed, as various people connected to his play died.

From his POV, all of Vienna was in denial about WWI until it happened. He forthrightly admits his cowardice and describes how he took a safe library job during the war. However, although many writers beat the nationalist drum and churned out propaganda, Zweig couldn’t forget his friends and knowledge of other countries and banded together with other artists to try to promote cross country communication. Many were on board with nationalism, so it ended up being mainly Zweig and a few friends exchanging letters and writing anti-xenophobic articles, although he notes that Romain Rolland did a lot of humane work. Zweig’s contribution was the play Jeremiah. Its anti-war sentiment and criticism of unchecked power became appealing towards the end of the war, when the population had lost their enthusiasm for hatred. Jeremiah was a huge success and Zweig’s popularity increased. Austria after the war had massive inflation and privation, and the author’s unhappy account of those years is very compelling. Zweig, it seems, hibernated at his house in Salzburg to eke out the post-war years. However, after that, he had a period of happiness, security, and fame.

He continued to write, travel and meet with his friends. Zweig describes a couple trips to the Soviet Union and Italy. While he had many positive impressions of both places and became fast friends with Gorky, he also saw evidence of repression and growing fascism. In the Soviet Union, he gave away all his supplies – which were lacking there – and an anonymous note describing how he was under surveillance set him on alert. In Italy, he tried to help a woman whose husband had been imprisoned, with moderately positive results. His life in Salzburg was peaceful and happy. One change was the influx of society as the town became a cultural center with a prestigious festival. In this section, he also talks a little about his writing style – there are some amusing quotes about his dislike of anything long-winded.

Zweig’s story could be seen as a rise and fall – if so, the pinnacle would be his 50th birthday, where he surveys his past hurdles and successes, and wonders if his life will continue on in the same contented fashion – with a slight note of dissatisfaction. He remembers his wish for some more excitement, but is not prepared for the darkness that upends his life and Europe. While he occasionally focuses on the political upheavals earlier in the book, in the final chapters, it is the main subject. At first, the author’s circle saw Hitler only as an unimportant rabble-rouser, who would likely sink without a trace any day now. But his influence soon became apparent, and Zweig’s books were banned, along with other Jewish authors.

Zweig describes his intellectually stimulating collaboration with Richard Strauss, the great German composer, when he worked as the librettist of Die schweigsame Frau. The Nazis wanted Strauss on their side but didn’t like Zweig’s name on his works. There’s a long section describing the conflict, and Zweig seems to have written this part with a half-smile, recalling how he discomfited Hitler. He sat at home in Salzburg while Strauss and others battled it out. The premiere was a success, but then the whole run of performances was canceled. Things continued to go downhill, but the event that caused Zweig to leave Austria forever seems comparatively small – his house was searched by the local police. However, that was an affront unimaginable in previous times, and the author was obviously correct in his foresight.

He went to England and monitored the events there, despairing at Chamberlain’s appeasement and not even celebrating when Britain declared war in 1939, as he knew he would be seen as foreign and suspect. Unsurprisingly, Zweig’s writing becomes more hopeless and unhappy towards the end – in his final visit to Vienna, he notes

“But everyone I spoke to in Vienna genuinely appeared not to have a care in the world. They invited each other to parties where evening dress was de rigueur, never guessing that they would soon be wearing the convict garb of the concentration camps; they crowded into the shops to do Christmas shopping for their attractive homes, with no idea that a few months later those home would be confiscated and looted. For the first time I was distressed by the eternally light-hearted attitude of old Vienna, which I always used to love so much – I suppose I will dream of it all my life…”

He ends with his plan to leave England and a down note –

“And I knew that yet again all the past was over, all achievements were as nothing – our own native Europe, for which we had lived, was destroyed, and the destruction would last long after our own lives. Something else was beginning, a new time, and who knew how many hells and purgatories we still had to go through to reach it?”

Zweig’s death is probably as famous as his life – he and his wife escaped the ravages of Europe, but committed suicide together in 1942. But his autobiography stands as impressive memorial to the times in which he lived. ( )
5 vote DieFledermaus | Aug 25, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (25 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Stefan Zweigprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bell, AntheaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gleichmann, GabiAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hagerup, AndersTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hagerup, IngerTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Heerikhuizen, F.W. vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Toorn, Willem vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Toorn, Willem vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zohn, HarryIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security.
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