on 12 August 2010
There are several compelling reasons to read this book. Written in Zweig's crystalline prose (at one point he describes his process of writing as paring down to the essentials), he examines the effects of the turbulent events of the first half of the twentieth century on the cultural life of Europe. Zweig himself perfectly represents this cultural life. Growing up towards the end of the century, he describes how even as a boy he was a voracious imbiber of the latest books, plays, and music. His description of how the driest and dullest of lessons was alleviated by that old trick of hiding a book of poems behind his mathematics primer (not possible alas in today's 'child-centered' classrooms). As an adult he was immensely sociable with, and held a deep admiration for, the prime writers and thinkers of his time. Therefore the final chapters are all the more shattering as he delineates what Nazism destroyed, both in personal and cultural terms.
Twice now Zweig has illuminated my understanding of the 30's. Firstly in his marvellous novella 'The Post-Office Girl', where the desperation of post-war Austrians is shown to lead easily to radicalism (this is also described very vivdly in this book). And secondly, the intellectual costliness of Hitler's programme. Zweig is such a keen observer that I felt moved afresh by the atrocities committed then. I urge anyone to read this book.
In the Introduction to his book Stefan Zweig rightly says that no generation in recent times had undergone such a series of cataclysms, each breaking bridges with an earlier period, as had his own. He had lived not only in one world of yesterday, but in several, and it is these worlds he sets out to describe.
He was born, a Jew, in 1881 into a cosmopolitan and tolerant Vienna and into a world of utter political and economic security, confident in steady progress in society and in science. It knew the douceur de vivre (except that unmarried young men and especially young women led a sexual life which could find an outlet only in prostitution), and where culture - no longer under the patronage of the Court, but under that of the Jewish bourgeoisie - was more honoured throughout society than was wealth. The culture of the older generation was challenged by the avant-garde, with which Zweig and his fellow-students, even while still schoolboys in a stultifying educational system, were knowledgeably, passionately and actively engaged. Hugo von Hoffmansthal and Rilke were their lodestars. The universities were little better: Zweig was only a nominal student at the universities of Vienna and Berlin: his real intellectual life lay elsewhere. Already at the age of 19 he had the first of several articles accepted for the feuilleton section of the prestigious Neue Freie Presse in Vienna (of whose editor, Theodore Herzl, he gives a wonderful account). In Berlin he was looking for (and found) a wider circle - socially and intellectually - than in the somewhat inbred bourgeois and mainly Jewish milieu in which he had moved in Vienna. He drank in influences of every kind, from the sophisticated to the louche, exposing himself to `real life' as opposed to the purely literal and to some extent derivative life he had led so far.
In his travels in Belgium and his beloved Paris, he sought out the great artists and poets of his time. His descriptions of them - their physical appearance, their character and their psychology - are always masterful. His worshipful admiration of their work and of their personalities extends to reverence for the manuscripts or other memorabilia which he collected all his life. Though an Austrian, he identified himself first and foremost as a European.
The pivotal chapter, entitled Brightness and Shadows over Europe, describes the first decade of the 20th century: what a wonderfully optimistic, vigorous, progressive, prosperous, and confidence-inspiring decade that was, and yet how that very energy was used in greedy competition, how states who had plenty wanted yet more and clashed with others who wanted the same, so that in the end that very vigour brought about the cataclysm of the First World War. Written with tremendous verve, these few pages surpass many an analysis of the causes of that disaster. And he observed with horror how overnight not only the masses but his so sophisticated and sensitive intellectual friends were swept along by the hysterical and bombastic enthusiasm for war. The sole exceptions among his friends were the Austrian Rilke and the Frenchman Romain Rolland. Only when Zweig visited Switzerland did he meet other opponents of the war who, like Rolland, had moved there because they could not bear or dare to live in their own countries. (Not all of these, of course, were lovers of peace: they included communists who would unleash their own slaughter in the coming years.)
He then describes the immediate post-war years: the terrifying inflation in Austria, which however seemed moderate when compared by the even more horrific inflation which followed in Germany; the collapse of and contempt for all pre-war cultural and social norms and forms, especially among the young.
These four or five terrible years then gave way to a decade of relative normality. It was then that Zweig's fame reached its apogee and he became the world's most widely-translated living author. He has some fascinating pages analyzing what might be the cause of this success which he found both intoxicating and disturbing because - so he says - he had ever been beset by self-doubt, by a desire to avoid personal publicity and to feel under obligation to nobody.
He presents some wonderful vignettes relating to that decade: of a visit to the Soviet Union in 1928 in which he is overwhelmed by the naive warmth of the people and only just made aware that he was being manipulated; his encounters with Gorky and with Croce; or of how Salzburg, the town he had made his home, had become, through its Festivals which began in 1920, a place of cultural pilgrimage from all over the world which brought to his home the most famous literary and artistic figures.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they burnt and banned all his works, eventually, after tortuous discussions involving Hitler himself, forbidding their revered composer Richard Strauss (of whom Zweig again gives a superb pen-portrait) to stage his opera `Die schweigsame Frau' because its libretto had been written by Zweig. The pressure of the Nazis on Austria became ever greater, and in 1934 Zweig left, initially for England (later for Brazil). In helpless despair he saw from afar more clearly than his friends in Austria that his homeland was doomed. And when Austria fell to the Nazis and he lost his passport, he became a refugee, subject to constant bureaucratic form-filling. There is an eloquent lament for the world before the first world war when one was free to travel the world without a passport, and free from so many of the humiliating restrictions and regulations which now control innumerable aspects of our lives. The man, who as a cosmopolitan had felt at home everywhere, as a refugee now felt anchored nowhere. Tortured by the collapse of civilization in Europe, demeaned, deprived and unconfident, he poured out this masterpiece. He sent it off to a Swedish publisher in 1942, and took his life on the following day.
Zweig's aim was to compose an eyewitness report on the first part of the twentieth century in order to save the horrendous truth for the next generations.
It is a shocking report about what he calls the 'Apocalypse': terror, war, revolutions, inflation, famine, epidemics, emigration, the rise of bolshevism, fascism and the most horrific plague of all: nationalism.
He gives us a compelling story of contrasts: the soldiers in the trenches and the arms merchants with their luxury life; English unemployed in five star hotels in Salzburg because they could afford a luxury life on the continent with their unemployment benefits; the brothels and the suicides because of syphilis (Eros Matutina); and the desertion of the Kaiser as a thief in the night at the end of the war, after driving millions of his compatriots into a certain death.
He also relates his encounters with fellow writers like Gide, Rolland, Rilke or Verhaeren.
A moving, outspoken, penetrating and emotional report.
on 8 January 2010
If you havent read Zweig then I beg you to do so.This is a staggering historical autobiography from the latter part of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th.
Stefan Zweig is one of the most underestimated writers of recent times.His 'Burning Secret' is a wonderful novella.
on 3 February 2009
This is a lovely book. Stefan Zweig included the words `An Autobiography...' in its sub-title. True, but the subject of this autobiography is not he but Europe. He deliberately gave none but the barest personal account of himself or any of his friends.
Half the book is concerned with the Europe from 1895 to 1914. The son of a prosperous Jewish family, Zweig grew up in the Vienna of God and the Emperor Franz Josef. Being Jewish then was incidental to being Viennese. It was a city where opera, theatre and music were the basis of everyday life; news of catastrophes elsewhere did not penetrate the Viennese well-padded existence. The Austro-Hungarian empire's lingual and national differences were harmonised by the common love of music.
On leaving school, Zweig determined on a literary career and, while he travelled around Europe, rejoiced in the differences between countries. The Viennese landlady would always be helpful but not obsessed with tidiness, whereas in Berlin his apartment was spotlessly maintained by the Prussian landlady, who never forgot to add two pfennigs to his bill if she sewed a button on his trousers. Paris during the Belle Époque was a city for the young. There, they breathed the very atmosphere of youth. Like every young man who spent a year there, Zweig carried away an incomparably happy memory that lasted for all his time. London by contrast was polite and, if the truth were known, a bit stuffy.
Europe before the War may have been golden, but it was not Eden. European nations had become increasingly prosperous over the previous forty years. However the position of women had scarcely advanced. Even wealthy women were constrained by the dictate of fashion's handicapping their physical mobility. Middle class women were stultified by lack of sexual education when young and the belief in the custom that sexual enjoyment by them was unseemly. Amongst women it was probably only peasant women who enjoyed sex. Men visited prostitutes for sexual gratification and not infrequently came away with syphilis.
Unanticipated, the Great War that was to destroy Europe suddenly came about in the summer of 1914. Its horrors should have been foreseen by European governments, who had the example of the American Civil War some fifty years before. Zweig, temperamentally and physically unfit for military service was employed as an archivist by the Imperial government. His duties sometimes took him to the Front and his return, transport by hospital train, exposed him to the horrific sufferings that the wounded endured. He was struck by the contrast between the state of the hospital trains and the almost pre-war appearance of normality in Vienna and Budapest. He was allowed to visit neutral Switzerland to stage his pacifist play, Jeremiah. Possibly the granting of this permission was aided by Emperor's secret peace moves in 1917.
After the war he returned to a devastated Austria. After rebuilding his life over the following five years he progressively worried about the rise of Hitler and the way his actions in Germany desecrated the corpse of the old Europe. Eventually, he escaped to England and thence South America. Hitler's malignity progressively depressed him until Zweig and his wife committed suicide in 1942. Had he lived he might have seen the corpse of Europe decently reburied after 1945. He would not have survived to see today's EEC functionaries and their apologists dance on old Europe's grave.
By chance, Zweig was a witness to the precise moment of Europe's death. Early in 1919 he was standing on the platform of Feldkirch station just over the Austrian border with Switzerland. Whilst waiting for the scarcely operational train with its malnourished crew, which would take him home he noticed another train approach from the Austrian direction. It was truly a train de luxe with spacious black polished cars. It came to a halt at the opposite platform and Sweig then saw standing behind the plate glass window in the car corridor was the person of Emperor, Karl I, looking back for a last time at the hills and homes of his people as he went into exile. Then, the locomotive started with a violent jerk - Europe's last twitch of life - as it started off into Switzerland and his exile carrying Europe's corpse while its soul departed into eternity. Sweig's dead Europe it was, but it was also the Europe of Constantine, of Charlemagne, of St Benedict, of Beethoven and Mozart, of Shakespeare and Dante. Yes, and our Europe too, for that Europe gave us our faith and our laws.
On reading this book, my first thought is that this is much more than a biography. It is a portrait of an era and a love letter to Stefan Zweig’s beloved Europe; written after he was forced into exile by the onslaught of fascism. However, the book begins with Zweig growing up in Austria, prior to WWI, in, what he terms, the Golden Age of Security. Austria seemed to have a stable government and consistency in the Habsburg monarchy. There was a sense of order and everyone knew their place in society. Despite Zweig’s remembrances being a little rose-tinted, there are hints that not all was perfect. He admits to finding school pointless and dreary, complains about the lack of natural relationships between men and women and sneers at the duellists at university. Throughout the book, Zweig’s love is for literature and he opts to study philosophy not out of any love for the subject, but because he believes it will inconvenience him the least and leave him time to write.
There are many portraits of other authors, musicians and artists in this book. Zweig suggests that European Jewry saw their support of the arts as a way in which they could make their mark and find a niche for themselves – other avenues, like the army, being virtually barred to them. Luckily, it was an area he adored and he spent much of his time collecting memorabilia from those he admired. He writes of the unrest leading up to WWI and recalls how the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was greeted without distress, as he was generally unpopular. Zweig is always utterly honest in his writing, admitting, “there is nothing heroic in my nature,” and that he had a perfectly natural desire to evade dangerous situations. That said, he procured a post in the library at the War Archives, where he wrote movingly of his desire for a united Europe. He always resisted war and hatred and found Austria a different place after the war, with no Kaiser, financial chaos and raging inflation.
He also writes about his travels; to Paris, Berlin, London, India, America, Italy and a fascinating account of his visit to Russia. When Zweig asked his Russian publisher why he had not fled on the outbreak of the revolution, the Russian admitted that he had not believed the situation would last. Along with an anonymous note advising him not to take all he heard and saw at face value, Zweig was much more likely to question when fascism began to rise in Europe, suggesting that people used self deception because of a reluctance to abandon their accustomed life. Still, it made him more aware of the problems ahead. Despite being financially secure and imagining his life was settled, he found he was standing on very unstable ground.
Although the decade after the war was enjoyable for Stefan Zweig, as the 1930’s began, life became more difficult. By 1934, when his friends began to avoid him and he suffered the indignity of having his house searched, Zweig left for London, where he stayed for some years. Although he returned to Austria in 1937, he found nobody was prepared to listen to his warnings and it is obvious that, during this time, he felt terrible despair. In his fifties, he found himself homeless, stateless and with the possibility of becoming an enemy alien, if England went to war with Germany.
Despite much of Zweig’s musings being both moving and, at times, deeply saddened by events in his beloved Austria, this is by no means a depressing book. It is filled with anecdotes of literary and artistic life, of travel and his delight of discovery and friendship. At all times, Zweig is humane, intelligent and understanding company. If you have any interest in Europe, especially around the time of the first world war, this will present you with a vibrant and enticing portrait of a lost world. It is obvious that it’s loss saddened Zweig and that he was unable to come to terms with life as an exile – sadly committing suicide in Brazil in 1942. His death was a tragic loss to literature and it is wonderful that his books are now being translated into English. According to Zweig, his books never received much success in England, but that was surely our loss and it is wonderful that his work is now being rediscovered.
on 31 January 2003
For me the best book of all times. Zweig "World of Yesterday" is an unforgettable classic, witch should be mandatory in any high school. The best-selling writer in "yesterday world", world of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Mann and any other great writers, he could be happy that his work is not granted in "today world", world of Harry Potter, and similar books.
This book is much more then autobiography, it's a story of one time, it's a vivid, moving and nostalgic portrayal of Europe before wars, it's a story about intellectual brotherhood witch tried to prevent nationalistic madness that destroyed the Europe and the World, twice.
It is a story about what Zweig calls the "Apocalypse": war, revolutions, inflation, famine, epidemics, emigration, the rise of bolshevism, fascism and the most horrific of all: nationalism.
Zweig commits a suicide after he finished this work (1942), he stay in "World of Yesterday".
on 23 March 2013
Essential reading for anyone interested in the life of Stefan Zweig and the period leading up to the second world war. He even explains how he managed to produce great books by eliminating all superfluous text. Zweig is always interesting and compared to many others he is an intellectual giant.
on 19 October 2015
Just as with his novel Beware of Pity (B-Format Paperback), this work remained on my bookshelf and was passed over many times, until I finally picked it up, to of course never look back, and wonder why I had left it so long. Perhaps this is a microcosm of what I criticise modern fiction for: a lack of challenge and a lack of willingness to be challenged. I am guilty of it myself. The fear of being confronted with a work that comes from a deeply humane and un-manipulative mind, and which does not seek to caress or flatter the reader, but simply presents the world as it is perceived, and attempts to make some sense of it.
This book, supposedly an autobiography, is also a terrifying evocation of Europe’s complacent state of mind in the lead up to two world wars. It is fascinating in its broad insight, and contains details which for a writer are utterly engrossing, because the vessel of the author Zweig himself is charted as it navigates the massive forces at play in his lifetime. There are morsels aplenty for aspiring writers. There was even a page that had me fist-pumping the air with a temporary sense of artistic objectivity.
To think that Zweig, nearly always so slickly readable, was one of the foremost-selling authors of his day, and yet never shied from examination of the human spirit. Dare we make comparisons with the matter disgorged out by publishing houses into the squawking, gaping, unfledged mouths of the book-buying public today?
Finally My Ambulance
The Wolf & Taurus
on 26 March 2015
I was searching the second hand book and i got it in Cassell Biographies. It is very remarkable autobiography and very sad indeed that the author finished his precious life before the Second World War ended. Long before Lord Edward Grey declared at the beginning of Great War ^ The lights of Europe are put out, we shall never see them again in our lifetime.^ He was correct so as Mr Stefan Zweig that culture of the Europe is completely destroyed.
He correctly writes ^There was no protection,no security against being constantly made aware of things and being drawn into them. There was no country to which one could flee , no quiet one could purchase; always and everywhere the hand of fate seized us and dragged us back in its insatiable play.^
The world is remembering the trauma of great war as Centenary has quietly passed. We hope the civilized people would never allow the vision of nuclear Apocalypse come true to destroy the world again and politics should dominate the literature and other fine arts. It is disheartening that no new edition of this fine book was published recently and people knew little about this book and its author.
At last i quote from the book ^Only that which wills to preserve itself has the right to be preserved for others. So choose and speak for me, ye memories, and at least give some reflection of my life before it sinks into the dark!^
I very strongly recommend this fine autobiography to be read by every one who is interested in the history, literature and great authors.