Book Review: The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

In his biographical account, Stefan Zweig chronicles the European bourgeosie’s lust for war – and the world it destroyed

TVR Books | David Warren | November 2011

A Writer’s Loss of Innocence

When Karl Kraus quoted some yea-sayer to the effect that Stefan Zweig with his novellas in translation had conquered all the languages of the world, he added just two words of his own: "Except one". Indeed, malicious contemporaries of the socialite Zweig claimed that he asked university professors to check over his grammar. And even today, back in fashion though he is, a storming tirade in The London Review of Books has recently re-ignited the debate about the author’s literary merits.

Yet, in spite of the skeptics, Zweig made success look remarkably easy. At 19, he had a poetry essay published by a thoughtfully nodding Theodor Herzl at the Neue Freie Presse, and at 26 a play of his was staged at the Burgtheater. Such popular biographies as Balzac, Dickens and Doestoevsky and Casanova, Stendhal and Tolstoy, went on to become world-wide best sellers. His melodramatic novellas, where tempests of lust, guilt and rage hide under respectable veneers, chimed with a Freudian zeitgeist.

Zweig’s range of contacts was as similarly broad as his oeuvre, and no less impressive. His address book listed the names of the full range of European intellectuals from Arthur Schnitzler to Maxim Gorki, Maurice Ravel to Alban Berg. And indeed, rather than literary merit per se, it is the reflected light cast by Zweig’s meetings with his illustrious acquaintances, together with its compassionate account of the travails of the new century, that makes The World of Yesterday so fascinating.

We are taken, for instance, into the studio of Auguste Rodin, where the great sculptor intoxicates the young Viennese writer as he chips away with infallible instinct at a marble block in front of him, and into the modest apartment of Romain Rolland, who would write at his "small, heaped-full desk" before reading in bed "allowing his tired body no more than four or five hours’ sleep," with music as his "sole relaxation." Overwhelmed with their good manners and humanity, Zweig writes, "great men are always the kindest" and that "nearly always they are the simplest in the manner of living."

Similarly absorbing is his relationship with Richard Strauss, for whom he wrote the libretto of The Silent Woman. Here, Zweig, thankfully, refrains from telling us (too often) how brilliant the Bavarian found him, and instead illuminates the pregnant dialectic between composer and librettist. In his textured prose, we grasp the nature of perhaps the greatest composer of the troubled 20th century. Within an hour of their meeting, Strauss had candidly admitted that Wagner and his operas had scaled "so gigantic a peak that nobody could rise higher." Acutely aware of his limits, Strauss was happy to write within them: He "made a detour" around Wagner; conscious of an inability to create long melodies, he focused on extracting everything he could from his shorter ones.

On a different level The World of Yesterday is a tender narrative of our troubled times. It is the story of three eras (the book’s original title was "Three Lives") engagingly told: the honeyed "world of security" before 1914, the fruitful decade and a half that followed in its wake, and the rapidly enclosing darkness of the Hitler era up to the Second World War. Narrating the crazed march of Europe from a refined utopia, where people never looked "handsomer, stronger, healthier", to the charred remnants of a Superman’s mechanised inferno, Zweig’s work, to quote 19th-century dramatist Franz Grillparzer, traces "the road of modern culture…from humanism via nationalism to bestiality."

For, as Zweig’s World matures, the reader becomes ever more aware of the malign undercurrents eroding the harmony of those idyllic, pre-1914 days. Shocked by a crowd in a French provincial town baying at the sight of Kaiser Wilhelm, he watches in disbelief as the storm clouds gather, nationalism and animosity usurping pan-Europeanism and peace as the creed of the masses, while a cabalistic elite of the self-interested lead the world to ruin.

Although spending a relatively comfortable war in the military archives, the compassionate Zweig was deeply shaken by the reverberations of the years 1914 to 1918. Sent on a fact-finding mission to Galicia, he witnessed at first hand the hideousness of modern warfare, where stretchers "occupied by moaning, sweating, deathly pale men" were stuffed into blood-smeared hospital trains.  For all Zweig’s easy-running descriptions and anecdotes however, the most evocative words as to the horror are left to an old priest he meets:

"I am 67 and I have seen much," the old man says, "But I would never have believed such a crime on the part of humanity possible."

Seeing Tyrolean militia men trying to communicate with some captured Russian troops using sign language, Zweig concludes, "These simple, primitive people had understood the war more truly than our university poets: namely, as a disaster that had come over them with which they had nothing to do, and that everyone who had happened into this misfortune was somehow a brother."

It is the loneliness in which the humanist’s voice is cast that is one of the most striking features of this volume. We hear the courageous Berta von Suttner, who, fresh from having persuaded Alfred Nobel to set up an international prize for peace, would shout

on the streets of Vienna, "The people have no idea what is going on." And Romain Rolland, who would tire himself to exhaustion working for the Red Cross in Geneva, or the author

himself, who struggled in vain to set up a trans-European community of intellectuals searching for peace. We feel that the forces of good were always outnumbered: For every von Suttner there were two Lissauer’s singing a Hymn to Hate, for every Rolland there were a thousand bourgeois dancing to the orchestra of a cheap patriotism.

While the author enjoyed growing success after the war, the inner man was increasingly troubled by the new realities of a world deconstructed, of a polity fractured and broken, conventional ideas of music and art disintegrating to the disharmonies of Schonberg, the splintering rhythms of Cubism. After the rise of Hitler, Zweig emigrated first to England and then America, where he was to live in a world where an "acquaintance with a passport clerk was infinitely more important than that with a Rolland or a Joyce."

If that was a tragedy for this gregarious, cultivated man, then The World of Yesterday is the tragedy of the 20th century.


The World of Yesterday

by Stefan Zweig

Translated by Harry Zohn

University of Nebraska Press (1964)

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