Stefan Zweig's memoir, The World of Yesterday, recalls the golden age of prewar Europe - its seeming permanence, its promise and its devastating fall with the onset of two world wars. Zweig's passionate, evocative prose paints a stunning portrait of an era that danced brilliantly on the brink of extinction. It is an unusually humane account of Europe from the closing years of the 19th century through to World War II, seen through the eyes of one of the most famous writers of his era. Zweig's books (novels, biographies, essays) were translated into numerous languages, and he moved in the highest literary circles; he also encountered many leading political and social figures of his day. The World of Yesterday is a remarkable, totally engrossing history. This translation by the award-winning Anthea Bell captures the spirit of Zweig's writing in arguably his most important work, completed shortly before his tragic death in 1942. It is read with sympathy and understanding by David Horovitch.
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This memoir of Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) is another of Ukemi’s treasures. Zweig was the most important writer of his day writing in German, but his work was banned by the Nazis. Translated into English, his memoir The World of Yesterday was rescued by the Pushkin Press only within the last ten years. The translation by Anthea Bell (who concludes this beautifully sympathetic, exactly right narration by David Horovitch) is what a first class translation should be: it’s as though this is just how Zweig wrote it.
Zweig’s world of yesterday is the ‘golden age of security’ of the Austro Hungarian Empire in which he grew up, a wonderful time for Viennese high culture of music, opera, art and conversation provided mainly by Jewish intellectuals, a world Zweig creates in all it richness. As a child he met Brahms, looked on actors as supernatural beings and was fired with a passion for ‘things of the mind.’
His musings over the changing mores as time passed have a universal appeal. Growing up, women of his class were chastely swathed from head to foot, always chaperoned, and bridegrooms would have no idea of what was underneath – a purity which existed alongside thriving and rampant prostitution. Later women cut their hair, discarded their corsets, played tennis and, even if some did have stones thrown at them for doing so, rode bicycles. The insights he gives into his own writing explain the slimness of his novels: he wanted to intensify the ‘inner architecture’ of his writing, to know more than he showed, to hone and omit. A good lesson for writers to absorb.
The memoir is filled with vignettes of great names, from Gorky, Yeats and Strauss to Rilke, Ravel and Valéry– and a host of other Europeans I’d never heard of and are now, as Zweig says, mainly forgotten. His portrait of Freud is a real person, suffering but determined as he neared death; with James Joyce he discusses German and Italian translations of words from Ulysses. His treasured collections included the quill pen and candlestick of his greatest icon, Goethe. He travelled widely, from Paris to America and even in India, observing and analysing with telling detail, as when he describes the peasants doffing their caps before artworks in the Hermitage in Leningrad.
But ‘great evil swept over humanity’ with the onset of WW1, after which he returned to a Salzburg in his ‘poor plundered unhappy country’ where everything was either ‘broken or stolen’ and hyperinflation raged: squirrel for Sunday lunch, frozen potatoes, trousers made of old sacks, treasured possessions sold in markets. But he noted too how real value was found in friendship, art and music. His final heartbreak was the start of the rise of Nazi Germany with its systematic destruction of all that he held dear in humanity and the loss of his hopes for a unified Europe. These were horrors enough, but he didn’t live to see the worst.
The history in this memoir is all too familiar, but Zweig’s telling makes it fresh and new. The World of Yesterday is a unique listening experience.