Library Director’s Notebook January, 2015 Stefan Zweig is one of the most famous people no one has...

Tue, 01/06/2015 - 11:26am -- KChin

Library Director’s Notebook

January, 2015


Stefan Zweig is one of the most famous people no one has ever heard of.  This certainly seems like a contradictory statement, but in our modern world where people are famous, if only briefly, for merely being famous, Stefan Zweig in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s of the last century was famous for much more concrete reasons: because he was a brilliant, highly sociable, gifted, prolific writer, a humanitarian and a pacifist,  whose books at one time were translated into more languages than almost any other writer of his generation and sold around the world in the millions.

To read Zweig’s most famous, autobiographical/social history The World of Yesterday is to take a trip back through history, in the congenial company of Zweig, an intellectual who knew great and early success as a novelist, playwright, and biographer and who was intimate friends with some of the giants of the world of literature, the arts, psychology and politics of the late nineteenth and twentieth century. In the pages of this book Zweig at one time or the other has lunch with Freud, drinks with Rilke, working meetings with Richard Strauss,  watches Rodin sculpt in his studio, convinces Mussolini to release a political prisoner,  and as a boy, received a friendly pat on the shoulder from Johannes Brahms!

Yet The World of Yesterday is much more than an orgy of name dropping among the rich and famous.  In this book Zweig very carefully and painstakingly tries to bring back to life the world of his childhood and youth, before the world lost its innocence with the coming of World War I.  Brought up in a middle class home in Vienna, Zweig did not experience any particular disadvantage from his Jewish heritage. In fact, Zweig describes the time of his childhood and youth as “the golden age of security.”  Wars, if they were fought, were always in faraway places and had little or no effect on the lives of the average person.  Human rights, prosperity, and well-ordered lives seemed the birthright for all people living in enlightened European countries, such as Zweig’s homeland in Austria-Hungary.  Intellectual striving and achievement were highly valued.  Reason and sanity seemed to reign supreme, and Zweig and his classmates were encouraged to enthusiastically explore and love the arts and philosophy.

But destructive forces were always bubbling under the surface, and the lust for power, revenge, and the annexation of land were always a political reality, even if the average citizen was not fully aware of it. So Zweig’s memoir moves from the halcyon days of his youth through the heartbreak of the coming war that was to end all wars.  Between the two world wars, in the 20’s and early 30’s, Zweig describes a time of relief, a breathing period for the peoples of Europe to try to pretend the world might return to its golden age.  Yet by the end of The World of Yesterday, Zweig is once again describing the horrible sounds of the drum beat of war, whether in the jeers of the Nazi youth, the goose stepping boots of the Italian Fascisti, or the hateful screeds of Hitler, whipping up adoring crowds.

At 60 years of age, Stefan Zweig feels he has seen and experienced as much as one life can hold.  He feels he is too old to face another war and to be a homeless refugee.  As a Jew, he and his books have been banned in Germany and  its conquered nations.  Touchingly, he tries to describe what it feels like for a writer to have his own books banned from his homeland.  Yet he ends his book with these words that seem to offer a slim ray of hope:  “But in the last resort, every shadow is also the child of light, and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their lives”.

Despite these words, Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide shortly afterwards in 1942 ,which makes reading The World of Yesterday an even more evocative and memorable experience.

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