Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The World of Yesterday

A poet, novelist, dramatist and biographer, Stephan Zweig (1881-1942) was a brilliant writer, documenting both historical lives and his own. During the First World War he took a pacifist stand together with French writer Romain Rolland, summoning intellectuals from all over the world to join them in active pacifism, which led to Romain Rolland being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Zweig remained pacifist all his life - but also advocated the unification of Europe before the Nazis came. Like Rolland, he wrote many biographies including lives of Balzac, Nietzsche and Rolland. He described his Erasmus of Rotterdam as a concealed autobiography.

Zweig fled Austria in 1934, following Hitler's rise to power in Germany. He then lived in England (in Bath and London) before moving to the United States. Of his non-fiction The World of Yesterday is his personal memoir of growing up in fin de siecle Austria and the early years of the twentieth century. Written the year before he died, the book is a testament to his life, a life of the mind and a life of letters. It is a paean to the European culture he considered lost. As such it is a great source if you desire and understanding of that period of European cultural history.

In 1941 he went to Brazil, where in 1942 he and his second wife Lotte (née Charlotte Elisabeth Altmann) committed suicide together in Petrópolis, despairing at the future of Europe and its culture. "I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth," he wrote.

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. University of Nebraska Press. 1964 (1943)

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