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BOOK REVIEW:

The world of yesterday

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Call Number: 
832 Z79Z 2013

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was the most popular writer in continental Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. A novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright and journalist, Zweig wrote his memoir shortly before he took his own life in Brazil, exiled from his Austrian homeland.  In recent years, Zweig's works are back in print in the United States with new translations, and his personality inspired Ralph Fiennes character in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the film in turn has revived interest in the author's long-neglected works. 


Growing up in cosmopolitan Vienna before the turn of the century, Zweig was inspired to become an artist at a young age. He found mentors in Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, the founder  of Zionism, the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (whom he met in Paris), and classical German composer Richard Strauss, an early collaborator. Living in Berlin and Paris during his early adulthood had a considerable effect on Zweig's psyche, and he relished the artistic and sexual freedoms that he found in those cities that he could not find in his home country.


The first shock of Zweig's adult life was the start of the Great War. The civility that Europeans had displayed before the conflagration vanished over the course of a few months. Germans began to regard the English and French as savages, and the English and French felt the same way about the Germans. Propagandists inflamed the fires of national resentment. Passports were now required in order to travel between countries. The old European order had disintegrated.


Zweig spent the first part of the war working in the Austrian military archives. Eventually, he was able to travel to Switzerland, and spent the last two years of World War One safely ensconced in a neutral country. He met old friends from Paris in Zurich, and made new ones, like James Joyce.


After the war, Zweig settled in Salzburg, a beautiful resort town in Austria and home of a world famous music festival. Zweig and his wife received many famous visitors in their home. He spent time during the 1920s traveling abroad, with trips to the United States, India and the new Soviet Union. While he became increasingly famous abroad, the Austrian economy was going through the upheaval of hyper-inflation.


Just as the central European economy began to stabilize in the late 1920s, a new specter hung over Europe. Zweig had witnessed firsthand the ascent of Adolf Hitler, and was disturbed that no one seemed to take his noxious ideas and barbaric methods seriously until it was too late. During the rise of Nazism in Germany, unidentified backers also seemed to bail the Nazis out whenever they got into trouble with the authorities.


As early as 1934 Zweig sensed that Austria would fall under German domination, and decided to take up residence in London during a visit. Within four years, he would become a stateless person, stripped of his Austrian citizenship. He said goodbye to his native country in early 1938 just prior to the Anschluss. In London, he befriended fellow Austrian exile Sigmund Freud shortly before Freud's death.


Zweig traveled extensively in the Western Hemisphere after the outbreak of the Second World War: the United States, Argentina and Brazil. He no longer had any faith in the future of European civilization. After settling near Rio de Janeiro, he continued his writing, but the world which inspired and nourished him was gone. The World of Yesterday, his final opus, was published posthumously.

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