Review of The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

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Book Review of The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

Even since reading Stefan Zweig’s remarkable description of psychological co-dependency in his novel, Beware of Pity, I’ve tried to read every thing I can get my hands on by this fine writer.  In recent years, a minor publishing industry has developed around Zweig, with Pushkin Press leading the way with quite a few volumes of short stories and even an uncompleted novel, The Post Office Girl which I reviewed here.

The World of Yesterday is the final book Zweig handed to his publisher before he and his wife committed suicide in 1942, despairing at the destruction of European culture resulting from by the rise of fascism.  Having a bit of a completist tendency with my favourite authors, it was hard to resist another book by Zweig, particularly one which is both autobiography and memoir, describing literary Vienna’s golden age, and its sad decline through the first half of the 20th century.

Let me say at the start of this review, that despite the adulatory reception this volume had when published by Pushkin Press last year, I found it a very difficult book to read.  This is not conventional autobiography in the sense of describing the relationships and events which formed the subject’s life. 

It is really a cultural history, in which philosophical development (and decline) is given greater prominence than the life described.  I found it to be a heavy read, with page after page of solid text unrelieved by any touch of human drama or even humour to lighten it.  

When I look at the appreciative reviews elsewhere I feel rather embarrassed to report that I didn’t actually enjoy this book.  I found it not at all difficult to see this book in the context of Zweigs imminent suicide, for it has an air of gloom and failure about it which, while not detracting from its value to those with an interest in the era, on the whole makes it an unhappy and depressing read.

The sense of oppression began for me with Zweig’s description of his school-days.

. . . my entire school career was nothing but a constant surfeit of tedium, inreased only by my impatience to escape this treadmill.  I don’t recall ever having felt either happy or blissful during that monotonous, heartless, dismal schooling, which thoroughly spoilt the happiest days of our lives . . . as soon as we entered the hated school we had to keep our heads down, so to speak, to avoid coming up against the the invisible yoke of servitude.  Schook to us meant compulsion, dreary boredom . . .

There are several pages of this which describe in largely abstract language, Zweig’s dismal experience of those years, without actually mentioning any friendships, family events  or happier times which might lighten the description, leaving this reader at least very pleased when finally the author graduated to university (which alas turns out to be a not much pleasanter experience).

Another chapter describes the sterile and stultifying condition of relationships between men and women in the Vienna of the early twentieth century.  A  rigid formality goverened communications between the sexes, with women placed on a pedestal so ethereal that it was unthinkable that they could have even an inkling of sexual desire.  Men on the other hand were allowed to “sow their wild oats” among a vast army of prostitutes who serviced their sexual needs, receiving money and gifts while returning incurable infections to their unhappy clients.

By this time I was beginning to wonder whether this unremitting gloom would come to an end and was pleased to discover that at about page 150, Zweig leaves university and escapes to Paris, London and other great European cities.  Unfortunately we read little to lighten these journeys, for Zweig discusses his cultural development to the detriment of any sense of his actual experiences in these cities. 

We read of his discovery in London of William Blake and his quest to own even a single page of his work, his admiration for the poet Rainer Maria Rilke who he got to know in Paris, and countless other writers and artists, many of whom are now largely forgotten.  While these chapters are of interest, they again lack that human touch which might bring them to life, with too many diversions into self analysis, the title of the chapter, “Digressions on the Way to Myself” perhaps saying it all.

Zweig was deemed unfit for active service in the First World War and was appointed an archivist for the Imperial Government, a role which occasionally required him to travel to the Front using a hospital train or even open artillery carriages as transport.  The years after the war saw Zweig enjoy literary success, but with the advent of Adolf Hitler, his works soon became politically unacceptable, containing as they did, critiques of militarism and nationalism quite opposed to the thrust towards rearmament.  Zweig describes how Hitler arose almost unnoticed:

It is an iron law of history that those who will be caught up in the great movements determining the course of their own times always fail to recognise them in their early stages.  So I cannot remember when I first heard the name Adolf HItler, one that for years now we have been bound to speak or call to mind in some connection every day, almost every second.

Despite the gangs of young men roaming the streets in support of Hitler, Zweig tells how cultured people simply didn’t take Hitler seriously, laughing at his pompous prose style and soothed by the national newspapers and their assurances that National Socialism must soon collapse.  Of course, the Nazis rose with unstoppable momentum and when Austria was seceded to Germany, in no time at all life was intolerable for Zweig and, after his house was searched in 1934, he and his wife decided they had to live abroad.

The book ends with Zweig in the English city of Bath, with

. . . the sunlight full and strong.  As I walked home, I suddenly saw my own shadow going ahead of me, just as I had seen the shadow of the last war behind this one.  That shadow has never left me all this time, it lay over my mind day and night.  Perhaps its dark outline also lies over the pages of this book.

While this book is undoubtedly important both as a personal record of Zweig’s life, and also as his account of the fall of the “old” European culture, I fear that it is too imbued with Zweig’s despair at the decline of so much he held dear and his pessimism about the future.  He is absorbed in his story, but it is a story which, in the way he describes it, can only go downhill and this makes for a depressing time for its readers. 

I feel sure that if Zweig had been able to live for a few more years this would have been a very different book with perhaps a wider perspective on the events he describes.  As it is, its value is not disputed but anyone expecting to find something along the lines of his other published works may be disappointed.

Title:  The World of Yesterday
Author:   Stefan Zweig
Publication:   Pushkin Press (2009), Paperback, 505 pages
ISBN: 9781906548124

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