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Overly Long, Some Excellent Passages, But Irritating
on 31 January 2015
A quote on the cover of this book suggests that it is one of the greatest memoirs of the twentieth century, it is not. This book is patchy and could have been much improved with some substantial pruning down from its 462 pages. There are passages, particularly when Zweig has some major historical changes to relate, that soar and flow with the speed and elegance one often finds in his works of fiction. However, there are other passages particularly relating to his early life and education that are just plain tedious. Zweig also has a tendency to produce lists of literary figures he was aquainted with, and these become rather repetitive as the book progresses. Some of the thumbnail sketches of his friends and acquaintances such as Theodor Herzl or Richard Strauss are interesting but are never fully developed.
The other major problem with this ‘memoir’ is that it is entirely egocentric to quote a term from one of Zweig’s acquaintances and heroes, Freud. The book contains virtually no mention of Zweig’s first wife, Friderika, or her two children, we have no idea whether or not they accompanied the author on his numerous trips abroad, I suspect not. Nor do we learn of his divorce, or his secretary, Lotte Altmann, who became his second wife and who later joined Zweig in their joint suicide in Petropolis, Brazil, just after this book was completed. This overbearing absence gives the work a very odd and unsatisfactory feel. Yes, other commentators have said this is not an autobiography but a memoir, but that is semantics, the single dimension is a major flaw and points to a serious character fault in its creator.
It is true that this is an important work in terms of illustrating the complete destruction of civilised intellectual life by the Nazis, but it also completely fails to give the slightest hint that exactly the same thing was taking place in the Soviet Union. Surely Zweig who had contacts all over the world and was aquainted with a number of Russian refugees must have been aware of the Soviet intellectual repression that was well under way in the 1930s. Perhaps the absence arises from the fact that it did not inconvenience him or he was unwilling to criticise left-wing governments.
I frankly found the book irritating and did not warm to the intensely self-regarding Zweig who could have put over the same message in considerably fewer pages.