Reviewing “The World of Yesterday”

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Stefan Zweig (1881-1942).

He was a poet, he was a novelist, a dramatist and a nomade. But first and foremost, he was a hopeless romantic; Like one of those academics who enjoys every single second of the mere beauty of just living. He treasured each traveling-experiences. He adored his friends and schoolmates. On the whole, you could say that he never took anything for granted. Yet, life failed him immensely during his last years on earth. Friends, politicians, the development of the culture, the aesthetics, the government, the hopeless future of Europe – it all hit him so hard, that in the end, despite all of the things he had worked towards, despite all of the values and ideals which he had hoped to transform into reality – he found himself better off leaving this world, than to stay in it. On 23 of February 1942, Stefan Zweig and his wife were found dead, after intentionally having swallowed an overdose of barbiturate. They were lying in their bed in the city  of Petrópolis, holding hands. Finally, they were in a better place. 

So how could his view on Europe have changed so drastically? How could death be a better solution than to continue living in the 20th century? Zweig claimed that it was the big contrast between the world before the war and the precent world (as in the 1940s) which eventually lead to his Great Depression. Still, I had my doubts. There has to be another reason! I thought. Thus, I began reading his memoir and last published book; “The World of Yesterday” … 

 

Beginning, middle and end 

The beginning is wonderful. The world seems rich of both good and evil, full of possibilities, full of poverty, diseases, crime and anxiety – yet, shockingly alive and heated with young, enthusiastic youths, ready to dive into knowledge and later, conquer the world with their heroism. 

Towards the middle of the book, Zweig starts narrating the pre- and postwar times, which evidently sets the mood down to a more melancholic place. More and more, he’s witnessing the world he loved so dearly, fall and dissolve into ashes. And as a result of this, his nationalism for Vienna grows, his values and principles are strengthened and his nostalgia of the past feels like a time he hopes to, but knows he can never regain. Change is happening all around him. People are more emotional about small matters that seemed ridiculous, even childish before the war. Trust and loyalty  becomes only a concept – not a sincere action, like during the old schooldays. In short, the whole memoir starts going downhill in atmosphere. Beautiful, enthusiastic descriptions about crossing borders without a passport turn into mournful anthems about a lost kingdom and a fallen unity. 

In the end, I had already anticipated what was to come; Some dreadful last sentences about it all being lost and how it would take an everlasting time to be able to rebuild it again. Yet, I couldn’t help but seeing the very discrete, underlying optimism behind his words. In the end of his last page, he writes: 

“And I knew that yet again all the past was over, all achievements were as nothing – our own native Europe, for which we had lived, was destroyed, and the destruction would last long after our own lives. Something else was beginning, a new time, and who knew how many hells and purgatories we still had to go through to reach it? The sunlight was full and strong. As I walked home, I suddenly saw my own shadow going ahead of me, just as I had seen the shadow of the last war behind this one. That shadow had never left me all this time, it lay over my mind day and night. Perhaps its dark outline also lies over these pages of this book. But in the last resort, every shadow is also the child of light, and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their lives.”

True, the beginning of this paragraph is highly depressing, BUT – towards the end of it, the mood switches. For example, when he writes “But in the last resort, every shadow is also the child of light” he is basically saying that the fall of the West could be a beginning of something great – a reaction might come, probably not before a hundred or more years have passed, but some time it WILL COME! 

Then theres yet another ray of sunshine to be found in his last sentence, “and only those who have known the light and the dark, have seen war and peace, rise and fall, have truly lived their lives” – in which he is abruptly implying that everyone who comes after him, basically anyone in our generation has not yet lived. But Zweig did. He experienced the horrors of a fallen kingdom, the death of his relatives and friends …

In the end (after a lot of debating with myself) I came to the conclusion that this is why he killed himself – because he had already lived a fulfilled, experienced life. How many more horrors did he have to face in order to feel alive? None! 

His underlying optimism made me understand the reason to why he chose death. A contradiction I know – but, it also makes a lot of sense. He had nothing more to give to this world, nor had he anything to gain from it. He had written his memoir. He had told the public what they needed to hear. The world had changed, but it hadn’t changed with him. Zweig was still living in the optimism of the 19th century. His body was in the 1940s, but his mind was somewhere else. And when time flies you by, and theres no possible way for you to fly away with it, then the only solution would be, to enter another dimension, namely the kingdom of death. 

I do not blame Mr. Zweig for doing what he did. In fact, I think it’s the only solution he was granted at the time. Because after all, the solution of death is granted to you everyday, every morning when you wake up, it’s there, calling your name, asking you if its a yes or a no. You could just grab your racer or your kitschen-knife and juts get it over with. Instead, you wait. You wait for death to choose you. Why? Because you still have so much to offer to the world. To yourself, to your loved once, and maybe also to the mass of people around you. Zweig had already accomplished these things. Therefor, he said yes to the overdose of barbiturate, and he offered his wife to join him to a better place. 

The tone

First person. Very descriptive. Highly reflective. One would say that his tone changes from a light summer-breeze to a dark melancholia towards the end – but in my opinion, despite all the nice things he has to say about his early twenties and thirties in the beginning of the memoir, it’s still narrated in a slightly heavy-hearted tone, as in him saying directly to the reader; I know that it’s wonderful now, but you just wait and see, it will get worse and you will understand why I decided to kill myself! 

For me, every word, every single sentence in his entire work is written with the feeling of a strong, wistful nostalgia – a longing from his heart, a grave loss in which he will never allow himself to recover from. 

The theme 

Nostalgia. It’s the only word I can come up with. And no, I wouldn’t say biography, drama, political piece, historical piece or tragedy. To me, the theme is pure nostalgia. No more, no less. 

Recommendation 

I would recommend this book to anyone in their teens or older. Wether or not you’re interested in history, this book is more than just recalling of past events. It’s deeply emotional and his words will resonate with everyone. 

Dice (1-6) 

I give it a 5. 

 

That was it for today! Do tell me if you liked this, if you shared my thoughts or if you think I should make more of these reviews! And know that I always appreciate your suggestions – because you guys are what keeps me going! Until next time … 

Love, 

Aftur S. Nerdrum 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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