Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The World of Yesterday: an autobiography by Stefan Zweig


Yes, I’m all Hitlered up, suas go ruball (up to my tail). Reading and abandoning A Small Circus by Hans Fallada, and The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. The last mentioned I finished last night and it is possibly the most unsatisfactory memoir ever written. His parents and their origin are not mentioned. How did they make their money? Did he have any siblings? Growing up, what was his attitude to Judaism in a religious sense? He married but who and how did they meet? Not revealed but a great deal of information on his manuscript collecting, Goethe’s laundry list amongst them. There is much about his connection with famous men, writers, artists and composers. His snobbery is vast and comprehensive. How, with Romaine Rolland, I tried to save Europe from itself. During the Kaiser war he met James Joyce in Zurich:

The people in this circle who affected me most deeply —perhaps by way of premonition of my own future fate— were the ones without a country or, worse still, who instead of one had two or three fatherlands and were inwardly uncertain to which they belonged. A young man with a little brown beard, with keen eyes behind strikingly thick lenses sat, usually alone, in a corner of the Cafe Odeon; they told me that he was a highly gifted English author. When I became acquainted with James Joyce a few days after that, he harshly rejected all association with England. He was Irish. True, he wrote in the English language but did not think in English and didn't want to think in English. 'Td like a language," he said, "which is above all languages, a language to which all will do service. I cannot express myself in English without enclosing myself in a tradition." This was not quite clear to me; I did not know of his Ulysses, on which he was then working; he had merely lent me A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his only copy, and his little drama Exiles which I had thought to translate in order to be of use to him. The better I knew him the more his incredible knowledge of languages astonished me; his round firmly sculptured brow, which shone smooth like porcelain in the electric light, stored every vocable of every idiom and he was brilliantly able to toss and keep them balanced in the air. Once when he asked how I would reproduce a difficult sentence in the Portrait of an Artist in German, we attempted it first in French and then in Italian; for every word he was prepared with four or five in each idiom, even those in dialect, and he knew their value and weight to the finest nuance. He was inclined to be testy, and I believe that just that irritation produced the power for his inner turmoil and productivity. His resentment against Dublin, against England, against particular persons became converted into dynamic energy and actually found release only in literary creation. But he seemed fond of his own asperity; I never saw him laugh or show high spirits. He always made the impression of a compact, somber force and when I saw him on the street, his thin lips pressed tightly together, always walking rapidly as if heading for a definite objective, I sensed the defensive, the inner isolation of his being even more positively than in our talks. It failed to astonish me when I later learned that just this man had written the most solitary, the least affined work—meteor-like in its introduction to the world of our time.

Exile, Silence and Zweig. We share that asperity Stefan. Actually no, but in the end his complaints that the rich and well connected, famous people who were Jews, people like me, me, me, could not get out of Germany and Austria is wearing. He got out in the early 30‘s and lived in England. He met H.G. Wells and G.B. Shaw. Of course he did. Zweig was an international best seller. His short stories are quite good and some were made into films - Letter from an Unknown Woman is one. He reminds me of Somerset Maugham and Louis Couperous.

Read not as a self-styled autobiography; there is much to enjoy.

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