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[651] The World of Yesterday – Stefan Zweig


” And, oddly, one lived the war in one’s mind more intensively than at home in a country at war, because here the problem became objective, and so to speak, wholly detached from any national interest in victory or defeat. The war was soon, no longer from a political standpoint, but rather as a European matter, as a horribleand mighty happening which was not merely to change some boundary lines on the map but the form and future of our world. ” (XI: In the Heart of Europe, p.274)

Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, published a year after his suicide in Brazil in 1942, is not a conventional one, for it is a mirror of an age rather than of a life. Once the most popular writer in the world in terms of translations, this volume, however, is not intended as Zweig’s literary testament, but a skillful momento of an era as seen through the eyes of one of its outstanding citizens. Zweig is far too shy and modest a man to draw attention to himself, let alone to write the story of his life. But he feels obliged to record and capture the golden age that was no more as Europe turned into madness and barbarism. It is through The World of Yesterday that w appreciate the full measure of a man in the lost era before the First World War.

It was too painful for me to cast another glance at the beautiful country which had fallen prey to gruesome devastation through foreign guilt; Europe seemed to me doomed to die by its own madness; Europe, our sacred home, cradle and Parthenon of our occidental civilization. (XVI: The Agony of Peace, p.398)

This memoir reinforces the point that his art is often self-effacing and certainly not self-revelatory. It also reveals much about the genteel world that made him. Therefore, it’s more than an autobiography; it’s a long lament for a lost world, a testament to the (diminishing) values of decency, toleration, humanism, and artistic and cultural endeavor—since his expulsion from the paradise of the “world of security,” the Austro-Hungarian empire, although he was realist enough to see that the world in which he grew up was in many ways a fool’s paradise, “naught but a castle of dreams.”

The outbreak of the First World War shatters forever this world in which Zweig had been insulated by affluence, culture, and a sure sense of style against remote conflicts and conflagrations. Now he finds himself encroached by global clashes and cataclysms, aghast at the war’s power to break ties and corrode loyalties. Despite being a brave and outspoken pacifist during WWI, advocating against mass litany of hatred and dreadful hysteria, he is too exhausted to live after the rise of Hitler and in the wake of the Second World War. Not only was Hitler’s seizure of power beyond the comprehension of even the ample minds, it also represents the absolute, nightmarish opposite of every value Zweig believed in and held dear. Zweig’s sense of acuity presents the details as if they become available for the first time. He depicts how a power that loves violence and stands in need of it and to which all those concepts to which we held and for which we lived—peace, humanity, conciliation—seemed infirmities of a bygone day. The book is a prominent portrait of the turn-of-the-century Vienna and European culture prior to World War I.

454 pp. Bison Book. (1964) [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Stefan Zweig & The Grand Budapest Hotel


The recent The Grand Budapest, comedy-drama film written and directed by Wes Anderson, nudges me back to the writings of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. The movie is inspired by his writings. Zweig was born to a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna in 1881. He wrote novels, short stories and biographies. When Zweig was still a young man, he went to Berlin where he was supposed to be studying in the university there, but instead spent most of his time in low dives hanging out with the toughest, roughest people he could find. Zweig describes his lifelong fascination with character types whom he calls “monomaniacs,” people really driven to stake everything on the realization of a desire that often proves impossible to realize. His work is deeply invested in confessions and secrets. Who doesn’t like to overhear conversations? In his fiction there’s lots of eavesdropping and peeping in and all sorts of ways in which the characters who narrate their stories are often observers of some grand moment of passion to which they become, in some way or other, either sucked in directly or have their own complacent view of the world shaken by what they see of other lives.

Zweig’s overwhelming objective was the creation, preservation and proclamation of the Europe that was already inside him. When Zweig began to feel that the Europe that he had known was gone for good, he lost a lot of his motivation to keep going. He and his wife committed suicide while they were in exile in Brazil in 1942. As Zweig put it in his memoir, The World of Yesterday, published in Stockholm in the year of his suicide: “The truly great experience of our youthful years was the realization that something new in art was on the way—something more impassioned, difficult and alluring than the art that had satisfied our parents and the world around us.” The World of Yesterday is in one respect a long, loving wail of lament for a world that was largely lost by 1918, and wholly, irrevocably lost with the rise of the Nazis. While the goofiness and jocularity in the film are not part of Zweig’s work, but what Zweig does have is an understanding of the absurdity of existence. The way the film portrays a celebration of life in the midst of a poignant tragedy is something the Zweig himself would have found very resonant.

With the ascension of Hitler and the toxins of xenophobia and nationalism, Zweig felt that old, familiar pain and surrendered to despair. Yet, in saying “no” to the world, Zweig found a way of saying “yes” to himself. I was moved by his visionary idealism and commitment to international culture. It is with The World of Yesterday that I begin to feel I have anything approaching the full measure of the man. His art was always self-effacing, or certainly not self-revelatory; all you could have confidently told about him from reading his work is that he was obviously thoughtful, highly observant, and humane.

[389] The Post-Office Girl – Stefan Zweig

” In this instant, shaken to her very depths, this ecstatic human being has a first inkling that the soul is made of stuff so mysteriously elastic that a was found among Zweig’s paperssingle event can make it big enough to contain the infinite. ” (I 66)

The manuscript of The Post-Office Girl was found among Zweig’s papers after his death, in which he committed suicide in a pact with his second wife in Brazil, in 1942. The NYRB original is the first English translation of the book, which was first published in Germany in 1982. The novel tells the story of Christine Hoflehner, subject of the book’s title. In 1926, at age 28, she works as a post office clerk in a small village outside Vienna. Although the state job warrants a (barely) steady living and a pension, she lives a mundane life with interminable tedium. A life rigidly under the reign of state is one in which all objects, humans included, differ in their rhythm of attrition and renewal, not in their fate. For even human being, like a pencil, a lightbulb, and a chair, is dispensable and interchangeable.

What a fantastic world, where unspoken wishes are granted. How could anyone be anything but happy here? (I 61)

Like Cinderella being rescued from her chores to attend the party, Christine is saved by a telegram from a wealthy American aunt inviting her to stay in a Swiss resort where she and her husband are vacationing. Although she is initially self-conscious of her shabbiness and inferiority, fearing derisive look from other guests, Christine is quickly inured to a world of previously unimagined wealth and opulence: she is agog at the extravagance of shopping without concern for the cost.

Fear is a distorting mirror in which anything can appear as a caricature of itself, stretched to terrible proportions; once inflamed, the imagination pursues the craziest and most unlikely possibilities. (I 116)

Delirious with happiness, Christine is not aware that rumors about her former poverty has run berserk among hotel guests. When stories reach the alarming ears of her aunt, who is afraid that her own blemished past might come to light, she is quick to cut her niece loose and brings her idyll to a hasty conclusion.

Curiosity and hate, desire and envy alternated in her as she gazed at this world that was at once so far away and so familiar. (II 155)

After a taste of the luxury, reality is even more unbearable. It isn’t a goodbye, Christine reflects, it’s dying. Her dream not only turns into a repugnant farce, she is forced to get back to that Christine Hoflehner who has long been dead (because in Switzerland she became Christine van Boolen). A chance meeting with Ferdinand, a disaffected young man who fought with her brother-in-law during the war, turns into a relationship based on disillusion and mutual sympathy. Together they conceive a plan to overcome their harsh fate.

The Post-Office Girl depicts lives embroiled in the bleak interior worlds that are rife after the First World War. Poverty crushes all the feelings in people like the world-weary lovers, whose lives have slid into meaninglessness. The questions “who am I?” and “why am I here?” frequently come up in the story—before and after Christine’s extravagant idyll. What is more hopeless than her situation is that after being given the chance to experience high life, it’s quickly taken away from her for good. Maybe she’s better off not given that opportunity at all. From there the novel takes a decidedly dark turn, although the second part is somewhat overwritten. It depicts the ruined souls’ downward spiral into tragedy. Zweig finds a universal story of psychological struggle, spiritual testing, as well as class conscience in a bitter but humane indictment of social inequality. The frightening sense of a premonition–the horrible turn of events–hangs over one’s head to the very end.

257 pp. NYRB Original Classics. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[197] Chess Story – Stefan Zweig

chess“Anyone who has suffered from a mania remains at risk forever, and with chess sickness (even if cured) it would be better not to go near a chessboard . . .” [73]

On board a steamer from New York to Buenos Aires is Mirko Czentoic, the world chess champion who has been undefeated since the age of fifteen. That he has beaten one by one the world’s grandmasters, outstripping gallery of champions endowed with various superior intellect—philosophers, mathematicians, strategists, and people whose instinctive talents are imaginative and creative, is more than enough for him to put on an air of self-importance and conceit. But he is compromised by one limitation: he cannot play blind. His unexpected opponent is an Austrian lawyer with a surprising talent for the game, for he has created an internal projection of the chessboard and pieces—exactly what Mirko is not capable of. How this mysterious Dr. B, who handled Austrian imperial assets before the country fell, acquired his unmatched skill and at what terrible cost are the substance of a story.

Through the art of chess game, Chess Story is Zweig’s examination and final judgment of the Nazis. The terse novel does not contain an extra word. In order to present his characters as case histories of psychoanalysis, Zweig relies on a distancing technique that uses a friend of the main narrator to fill in indispensible details of Mirko’s orphan background and education. Then, in a first-person narrative, Dr. B tells the narrator instead the story of his terrible mastery in chess by the Nazi conquerors of Austria. Coiled with suspense, the book ponders the relationship between chess and madness. It mirrors the events of a war-torn world in which the author observed a brutal, ruthless peasant’s rise to dictatorial power in Germany. Czentovic (who was raised in a Yugoslavian village) is, in this way, a representation of Adolf Hitler while his chess opponents, aside from Dr. B, symbolize the fractured allies.

84 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]