Thought-Provoking Lockdown Reads: ‘The World Of Yesterday’
I’m embarrassed to admit that the first time I had ever heard of Stefan Zweig was in the credits of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. That film has helped to push him back into the limelight and encouraged Pushkin Press to bring out new editions of his essays and his novellas.
The subtitle to ‘The World Of Yesterday’ is ‘Memoirs of a European’, and the common ground between the Jewish Vienna-born author and those of other European nationalities (in which I include myself) quickly becomes apparent. His ability to place us in clearly familiar surroundings even though they’re beyond our personal experience makes emotional allies of us all.
For anyone wishing to understand anything about Europe in the last century the memoirs are essential and unique, a canonical European testament to a highly sophisticated world destroyed by the thuggery of fascism. Read the first two pages of ‘The World of Security’ and you’ll get an instant sense of what it was like to live in a place where everything was ordered and certain from cradle to grave. The security bred confidence; when you know that your world will not change you can make plans and build dynasties.
Life in Vienna was conservative, intellectual, artistic and smugly comfortable, but it was also a hypocritical, wilfully blind society. While the German Reich developed aggressively just across the border, Austrians were busy arguing about art, living a life of political indolence and economic stagnation. After Zweig left university he traveled to Paris, experiencing the anagnosis of streets made familiar through literature, and then to London, describing his arrival thus; ‘like stepping suddenly into shade on a day that is rather too hot – at first you instinctively shiver but your eyes and senses soon get used to it.’ Zweig didn’t, though. Despite attempting to out-English those around him the subtleties of the language evaded his grasp.
Zweig leads us from the light of intellectual Europe and the luscious, carefree summer before the Great War, into the deepening shadows of two engulfing conflicts. His atmospheric account of the twentieth century, seen though the eyes of one mild-mannered European, is nostalgic for a lost time, for the simple reason that Zweig saw before and after, and knew that before was better. It had been an age of enlightened society destroyed by dumb brutal populism. How could the artistic, literate Zweig offer any defence against the butchers and farmers who made up Hitler’s armies?
He presents familiar events with such immediacy that throughout these diaries you you feel yourself present and involved. Hope is destroyed by the thoughtless cruelty of history; Hitler’s ascendence revolted and horrified Zweig so profoundly that in 1942 he committed suicide. When we hear that people are attacking 5G masts in the bizarre belief that they cause coronavirus we realise that stupid people can be led to anything.