Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review of Stefan Zweig's "The World of Yesterday"

Having read a few autobiographies, I am usually let down by theauthor's reticence concerning famous figures that they knew well or interacted with on a consistent or even random basis. We commoners want to know what certain big figures were like behind closed doors, not just read about your life and times. We are a society of voyeurs. I am no different. I picked up Stefan Zweig's "The World of Yesterday" because of his connection to the art world of pre-war and interwar period Europe. Zweig's writing on the figures he came into contact with and the world he inhabited are a tremendous read.

Zweig's central theme is covering the turmoil of the 1914-1940 period while also contrasting it to the Age of Security. The Age of Security is his term for pre-war Europe, specifically the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Zweig really sets the table for what life was like in Vienna. Stability and respect with age or for the aged are core concepts. It is interesting how sharply that flips after the war. The cult of youth seems to have started right after WW1. Four years of trenches, death and destruction can erode the credibility of a regime and mindset. I can completely buy this from a European standpoint, but not so much from an American point of view. The elder statesmen that worked its way through the Great Depression and WW2 deserved respect, deference and unquestioned leadership. Sorry for that tangent, I loved the passage about the train ride out of the country for the last Emperor. It was beautiful.

A very interesting section was on the farce of what we call Victorian morality. Zweig discusses how prostitution was like an army. That passage was comical as he described some prostitutes as artillery vs. infantry ("siege guns" made me laugh). The entire subject of sex or displaying body parts was hysterical. Seriously, with how women dressed, a woman could go her life with maybe 4 people knowing what her body really looked like. What women were available was interesting as the art community was looked upon as women half in and half out of accepted society. I don't think dance history books mention ballerinas charging 200 crowns for an evening. Sadly, Zweig writes how the army of hookers would all end up in the infirmary. He does cite the destruction of prostitution after the war. Sex and gender relations are another facet of life loosened because of WW1. Sex does seem to have a golden age between Zweig's new dawning after WW1 to 1980 or so. The unraveling of that fraudulent morality is another outcome of the destruction of the old order due to WW1.

The truly wonderful passages in Zweig's book are the bits about writers and artists that he came into contact with or counted as friends. When Zweig visits Rodin, he is in for a treat. Not only does Rodin share a meal with him, but he displays the work and beauty that is art. It's a great section of the book. I enjoyed those moments where Zweig let you in on the art community, the figures, the fights, and the joy. Zweig has some great lines on the fostering of the arts in Vienna. I've always been against state intervention (both grants/censorship) because I view it as dangerous and crude. I've read too many books about Stalin or Hitler interfering with the arts and always screwing up. I do think supporting artistic endeavors is helpful for culture at large, but I believe in artists finding private patrons if they want funding. Find the donor that your art speaks to, don't just write a great grant letter and appeal to the politics of a civil servant.

Throughout the book, even the happy passages are tinged with sadness. Zweig committed suicide right after completing the book. You can almost feel his pain in the nostalgia and loss of that old world. While he constantly discusses the concept of being a citizen of Europe, you can feel that living in England and Brazil far from Austria was draining on him. Zweig's section on Gorky was marvelous and considering Zweig's escape to Brazil, a bit prophetic. It should act as a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to live as an exile. I loved this book. If you love history, art or pre-WW1 Europe, you will too.

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