THE WORLD OF YESTERDAY
By Stefan Zweig
Translated by Anthea Bell
University of Nebraska Press, $24.95, 472 pages
STEFAN AND LOTTE ZWEIG’S SOUTH AMERICAN LETTERS: NEW YORK, ARGENTINA AND BRAZIL 1940-42
By Stefan and Lotte Zweig
Continuum, $24.95, 210 pages
There is something especially poignant about posthumously published works. Especially when we know how the author died. Who can read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and not feel an added measure of pathos at her hopefulness in such dreadful circumstances because we know of the infinitely more hideous fate awaiting her after her diary concludes? The Viennese Stefan Zweig, a world-famous and honored man of letters, wrote this finely wrought, intense memoir in gilded exile in Brazil, thousands of miles from the horrors engulfing so much of the world. Yet immediately after mailing it to his publishers in March 1942, he and his wife committed suicide together, an act that puzzled and outraged people around the world, especially his fellow exiles, Thomas Mann, who wrongly suspected hidden scandal, and Hannah Arendt, who thought him overprivileged and spoiled.
With the benefit of nearly a century of hindsight, historians have indeed come around to the view that the world smashed to smithereens by World War I was a model of peace and stability, still unrestored to its prelapsarian state. “The World of Yesterday” gives us one man’s remembrance of that past, superbly evoked by one “torn from all my roots, even from the earth that nourished them” and tinged with ineffable sadness at something precious gone forever. This crystalline testament was first published in German in neutral Stockholm the next year because his native Austria was then subsumed in a Nazi Reich where even the most magnificent German prose could not be published if a Jew had written it. Since then, it has been read and justly admired in many languages and now is available in an excellent new English translation.
“The World of Yesterday” might be summed up as a parallel to the famous dictum by Talleyrand that no one who had not known the world before the French Revolution could really know the true sweetness of life. What makes it such a remarkable work is the wealth of intricate detail that elevates it far above even the most apt and memorable aphorism. His range is remarkable, from the economic underpinnings of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to political figures and movements, from artistic and literary phenomena and personae to the food and artifacts of living that bolstered such bourgeois comfort. He is not blind to the flaws of his lost world, seen through the bitter lens of distaste for the successive disasters wrought by its destruction:
“Now that a great storm has long since destroyed it, we know at last that our world of security was a castle in the air. Yet my parents lived in it as if it were a solid stone house.”
But how he laments its passing.
For those readers whose interest is piqued by this remarkable, elegiac testament and the tragic story of its author, there is the well-edited and annotated (but alas rather stiffly and stiltedly translated) “Stefan and Lotte Zweig’s South American Letters: New York, Argentina and Brazil 1940-42.” These frank, revealing and moving letters to family members left behind in Europe, concluding with the farewell ones written shortly before the suicides, are windows into the minds and hearts of these exiles. The Zweigs’ depression is manifest, and this persistent state, along with Lotte’s health problems and Stefan’s awareness of old age awaiting him, goes a long way to elucidating what to so many, both then and now, was an inexplicable act.
From their letters, it seems their own soft landing, in such stark contrast to the privations suffered by loved ones — not only in the maelstrom of Nazi Europe, but even in the frontline cities of Britain — brought on a measure of guilt. After all, their fellow refugee, Simone Weil, starved herself to death in England, unable to ingest more food than she would have back home in occupied France. To Anne Frank, both Weil and the Zweigs would have been in paradise, but the different ways people coped with such displacement are infinitely various. Readers of “The World of Yesterday” know that for the tormented Stefan Zweig, the contrast between even his today and yesterday was acutely painful. How could he not feel that the tomorrow awaiting him was bound to be unbearable?
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.