Stefan Zweig was one of the most respected and widely read authors in continental Europe in the first third of the twentieth century and at the very heart of its literary and cultural life. Therefore, he was in a very good position to write a memoir of the intellectual history of the time and that is what he offers here. This is NOT an autobiography in the normally understood sense of the term rather an exceptionally fine portrait of the turbulent age in which Zweig was living and working. As Zweig takes you through his education and development into a writer of note a fundamental theme emerges: his passionate belief in a united Europe and the core values that he argues all Europeans share-a commitment to the rule of law, a desire for peace and toleration add above all, a belief in the central role to culture in the promotion of a civilized common life. Zweig finds these shared values in the age before 1914 despite the many failings of the period (which Zweig is keen to acknowledge)and then witnesses their brutal destruction first in the imperial egotism of the First World War and then even more horrendously in the perverted racial supremacy of National Socialism. In the course of his account, the author offers us revealing portraits of the complacency of people in both 1914 and the 1930's when the idea that nations would go to war seemed absurd and against all notions of European progress. However, this book is no dry history enlivened as it is by fascinating vignettes of the great cultural figures of the time most of whom Zweig knew. You can look forward to hearing of Zweig meeting James Joyce, writing a libretto for Richard Strauss or visiting the dying Sigmund Freud. There is also much on the growth of a budding writer and how education and friendship shapes the creative process. Having been forced into exile and disowned by his beloved Austria, Zweig committed suicide with his wife in 1942 in despair as Hitler rampaged through Europe destroying all of the values that he had so long espoused. As a Jew he had lost more than most even though the full horrors of the Final Solution had yet to be perpetrated though his message about the threats of nationalism and greed to civilization remain universal and real. Great credit is due to Anthea Bell for a wonderfully sympathetic translation. Recommended especially to those with an interest in European literature and history, but also to all who like humane and intelligent writing.
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