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The World of Yesterday

The Highs and Lows of Humanity

Few things could hold me off from starting Margaret Atwood’s latest book, but The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig actually has. Zweig, an Austrian Jew whose wonderful novellas (The Royal Game, Amok, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman) many of you will know, was the world’s most popular author in the 1920s and 30s, until Hitler banned his books. The World of Yesterday is his autobiography, finished two days before his and his second wife’s joint suicide. It’s a lament for a lost world, a love letter to creativity and artists and an eloquent analysis of events that led up to both the first and the second world wars. The parallels with aspects of our own turbulent times are hard to ignore. Highly recommended.

Zweig, the son of a wealthy Austrian industrialist and an Italian banking heiress, showed early on an exceptional interest in and talent for intellectual pursuits. I loved the way he described his and his friends’ hunger for theatre, literature and poetry as an antithesis to their regimented and dry formal education. Writing – novellas, essays, plays even operas – came naturally to Zweig.

Free from family business obligations and with a healthy bank balance, Zweig started to travel; around Europe, India, Burma and America. His travels would shape his views; he always maintained that he was a European first, an Austrian second. People’s failure to see the person behind the enemy was the root of much evil, Zweig believed. He met and befriended much of Europe’s intelligentsia: Freud, Gorky, Rilke and many more. Sure, his wealth and connections must have opened some doors but there’s no doubt that he was an interesting and extraordinarily talented man. You wouldn’t know, though, judging from this book. Modesty is one of Zweig’s many sympathetic traits.

Zweig’s exquisite descriptions of Vienna’s and Paris’ cultural and intellectual life make you want to travel back in time. His views on the repression of sexuality (heterosexual only, it has to be said) are way ahead of their time. He becomes deeply disillusioned by those of his literary colleagues that join the propaganda machine of the First World War and establishes himself firmly in the pacifist camp. His efforts to create bridges across enemy lines fail but as soon as the war is over Zweig rebuilds relationships.

Watching post-war Europe limp along plagued by hyperinflation and poverty, Zweig can’t help but feel uneasy about the future. Soon enough, Zweig sees his books banned, Jews persecuted, and his beloved continent heading for ruin and he decides to flee. First to England and later to Brazil where he ends his life in a suicide pact with his second wife. Zweig simply couldn’t bear watching the evilness humanity was capable of yet again.

I absolutely loved this book. Zweig’s combination of humane voice, genuine interest in people and perceptive understanding of the world around him makes this an autobiography/history book with a difference. If there is one thing I missed, it was at least a glimpse into his family life. Zweig’s rare mention of his two wives and uncharacteristically negative attitude to homosexuals made me wonder about his own sexuality. Then again, he might just have been a product of his time.

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell is published by Pushkin Press, 505 pages.

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