Review: The World of Yesterday

English-language readers can now enjoy Stefan Zweig’s autobiographical masterpiece echoing a civilisation’s demise.

By David Herman, December 29, 2009

By Stefan Zweig (Trans: Anthea Bell)
Pushkin Press £20

Stefan Zweig was one of the great central European writers of the 20th century and his memoir, The World of Yesterday, is his masterpiece. It was written just before he left America for Brazil, where he and his wife committed suicide in 1942. A superb evocation of turn-of-the-century Vienna written in a series of hotel rooms, it is laden with Zweig’s awareness that he was writing about a vanished world.

Zweig was a major figure in his day. He met Brahms and Herzl, watched Rodin at work in his Paris studio and collaborated with Richard Strauss. He saw himself as part of a great cultural chain stretching back to “the heroic Olympian world” of Beethoven and Tolstoy.

“Perhaps,” he reflects, “I am the last who can say today: ‘I knew someone on whose head Goethe’s hand had rested affectionately for a moment.’” Now available in Anthea Bell’s new English translation, this is an autobiography redolent with the sense of a civilisation coming to an end.

Born in 1881, Zweig was the son of a middle-class Jewish textile manufacturer. He was born in “the Golden Age of Security”, of bourgeois stability, when “Anything radical or violent seemed impossible in such an age of reason.”

It was also a moment of extraordinary cultural creativity. Zweig has no doubt that this creative explosion was driven by Jews: “They were the real public, they filled seats at the theatre and in concert halls, they bought books and pictures, championed and encouraged new trends everywhere.”

He argues that “nine-tenths of what the world of the 19th century celebrated as Viennese culture was in fact culture promoted and nourished or even created by the Jews of Vienna”, Jews like Mahler and Schoenberg, Hofmannstahl, Freud, and Zweig himself — at one time “the most translated writer in the world”.

These men were all very different from the Ostjuden we encounter only once or twice in the book — in which, amid fascinating reflections on culture, the 19th century and Austria, there is little about being Jewish.

The world of Viennese culture he describes is the world in which he grew up, a world of European high culture shaken by the First World War, rocked by inflation and finally destroyed by Nazism.

But Zweig was also a witness of his times. He brings to life the horrors of the First World War, of famine and inflation in post-war Austria and Germany where in 1923 “a shoe lace cost more… than a luxury shop with a stock of two thousand pairs of shoes; repairing a broken window was more expensive than building the whole house had once been.” And then he describes leaving his Salzburg home for the last time: “as the train crossed the border, I knew, like the patriarch Lot in the Bible, that all behind me was dust and ashes, the past transformed into a pillar of bitter salt.”

David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011