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The World of Yesterday by Stefan Sweig

1942, Williams Verlag

2013, University of Nebraska Press

Translated by Anthea Bell


In this autobiographical text which has been called both "the longest suicide note in literary history", and "a chilling parallel to the political challenges of our own times," Austrian writer Stefan Sweig gives insight into the loss of a world, a time and a culture, a loss which ultimately led him to take his own life in 1942.


What was lost? Sweig points to his birthplace, Vienna before World War I, where the Arts and intellectual pursuits were appreciated as an integral part of life and highly respected by all social classes, and "the earth belonged to the entire human race." 436 This latter statement is debatable, but it is true that no passport was required when Sweig visited New York City in 1912, and work was easy to come by with no questions asked about personal status (212).


Due to the growth and prosperity in Europe, many were totally unprepared for WWI. There were no warnings against the approaching war in prominent writers of the time, regrets Sweig, we thought we were doing enough. 221 Perhaps nothing more graphically illustrates the monstrous relapse the world suffered after the First World War than the restrictions on personal freedom of movement and civil rights. 436


Later, with the onset of World War II, personal freedom became non-existent, notably for Sweig as a Jew, and his observation that "no writer had any influence at all" (264) eventually led to the loss of his belief that culture can help humans live in peace. Exiled from his country and stripped of his earthly treasures - home, books, cherished collections, he desperately carried on writing and speaking. "It is difficult to rid yourself, in only a few weeks, of thirty or forty years of private belief that the world is a good place" 389 But well before the end of the War and its increasingly ruthless events, he decided life was no longer worth living.


Sweig's writing is always exceptional, flowing along regardless of the topic. This work is dense with information about life in Vienna before, during and between the World Wars, related political events, writers, poets, painters, sculptors, activists, philosophers cherished by the author, and his opinions on all sorts of subjects, but nonetheless reads more or less like a page turner, although that likely depends on who is turning the page.

 

Up for Debate


Sweig was from a well-to-do family and, as a gifted writer from a young age, privileged. There is a feeling of elitism in his writing. Before WWI, for example, the world did not "belong to the entire human race", as he stated.


Why did Sweig maintain a certain neutrality? His friends wanted him to protest, for example, against composer Richard Strauss who was seen as cooperating with the Nazi regime in order to be able to keep writing music. Sweig refused. He didn't want to interfere with the work of the genius Strauss, and didn't like emotional public gestures.


Wanting to know more after reading the book, I watched the film Farewell to Europe (not exceptional but informational). During the scene where Sweig and his second wife commit suicide together, I wondered why only Sweig left a note and why he didn't mention his wife in it? She was close to thirty years younger than Sweig; did he try to dissuade her from joining him in death?

Stefan Zweig and his second wife Lotte









 

Extras


Friends


Sweig's most fruitful and crucial friendships were with Romain Rolland, the pro-Europe writer he considered his master; Sigmund Freud; and the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren. He recognized Paul Valéry and Marcel Proust as great artists who weren't being given the attention they deserved at the time (1900-1914). 223


Bertha von Suttner (1843 - 1914), writer and pacifist, lived through the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 and considered all war criminal. She impressed Sweig when she protested against WWI, yelling and pleading with people to not just stand there and leave it to an old lady, but to get out and "Do something!" 232. She convinced Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, to compensate for the damage his invention had caused by creating the Nobel Peace Prize to encourage international cooperation.


Read:

Under Fire, Henri Barbusse

The Century of the Child, Ellen Key

Un Mâle, Camille Lemonnier

Scenes from a Bohemian Life, Henry Murger

The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzche

Above the Battle, Romand Rolland

Lay Down Your Arms, Bertha von Suttner

Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig

The Burning Secret, Stefan Zweig

Emile Verhaeren, Stefan Zweig

Poetry of Emile Verhaeren

Works by Aksakov, Dostoevsky, Gorky, Mereshkovski, Tolstoy

Three Lives, (biography), Oliver Matuschek

Formerly owned by Zweig, presently by the British Library (I think)
"King John" by William Blake

See:

William Blake, drawing of King John

Works of Charles Van der Stroppen, sculptor

The Burning Secret, film by Robert Siodmak 1933


Hear:

Rosenkavalier Waltz, Richard Strauss ("fully rounded perfection of composition" -Zweig)

The Silent Woman, (Opera) Richard Strauss, lyrics by Sweig






Hate, War, Exile, Loss


Hymn of Hate for England:

by the German-Jewish poet Ernst Lissauer (1882-1937), eagerly sung by his compatriots


Excerpt:

You we will hate with a lasting hate,

We will never forego our hate,

Hate by water and hate by land,

Hate of the head and hate of the hand,

Hate of the hammer and hate of the crown,

Hate of seventy millions choking down.

We love as one, we hate as one,

We have one foe and one alone--

ENGLAND!


Romain Rolland (1866-1944) Art "can bring comfort to us as individuals but can do nothing against stark reality."


Freud (1856-1939) denied the supremacy of culture over our instinctive drives... Events confirmed in the most dreadful way...his opinion that it is impossible to root the elemental, barbaric destructive drive out of the human psyche.



One of the greatest material losses for Sweig was his collection of original autographed pieces, which included a Beethoven composition, a page from Leonardo Da Vinci's sketch book, Napoleon's army orders to soldiers at Rivoli, the proof of a novel by Balzac, a Bach cantata and much more. 375 “Nothing can give an idea of the incomprehensible process of creation except, to some slight extent, handwritten pages,” he said. Read more about the collection here.

"...if there is one art we have had to learn, those of us who have been hunted down and forced into exile at a time hostile to all art and all collections, then it is the art of saying goodbye to everything that was once our pride and joy." 378


A Story


I love this story Sweig tells about painter James Ensor:


...James Ensor, the greatest modern Belgian painter, a very strange, reserved, hermit of a man, ... was much prouder of the rather feeble little polkas and waltzes for military band that he composed than of his amazing paintings, executed in brilliant colours. His real dream...was to sell (the paintings) at a high price but at the same time be able to keep them all, because he was as fond of money as of every single one of his own works. Parting from one always cast him into deep despair for a couple of days.


Two last comments from Sweig:


Referring to the newly created Panama canal: "America's greatest creative achievement." 213


"The greatest curse brought down on us by technology is that it prevents us from escaping the present even for a brief time," destroying our soul. 426


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