The world of yesterday: reading Stefan Zweig’s autobiography


Special to the OBSERVER

Although it also received a great deal of praise, Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, entitled “The World of Yesterday,” was also taken to task by the writer’s intellectual contemporaries. They scolded him for a variety of reasons, including the lack of information pertaining to his personal life, as well as the distanced, equivocal treatment of his Jewish heritage. His adoring readers perhaps felt cheated, expecting an outpouring of factual and relatable evidence that he was human himself. The writer whose characters surrendered every detail of their psychology in a 50-page story chose not to expose hardly any details about his personal life.

If you were given the time and space necessary to recall and report upon the very specific circumstances in which you grew up and that shaped who you are, would you rise to that challenge? This can be quite a test; it feels like betraying the very fragile, elaborate construction of our own memories. It is like trying to remember a dream – you cannot explain why certain places or people appear together at the same time. There are inconsistencies; things we could have sworn happened that did not or vice versa.

Zweig knew that there was an urgent need for his life’s story. Expression and obsession were his reality, and Zweig lived in a time where empathy and sensitivity were under threat of being diminished by a perplexed, traumatized generation. Wartimes and surfacing corruption in the world had caused fluctuation in culture, and changed the world around him.

“When today I see young people come out of their schools and their colleges with their heads high, with happy faces, when I see boys and girls in free, untroubled companionship, without false modesty and false shame it seems as if not 40 but a thousand years stands between them and us” (page 90).

Throughout the book but especially in the first chapter, called “The World of Security,” one feels the overwhelming sense that Zweig felt responsible for his own disconnection with life. While scholars reprimand him for doing far too little for his fellow Jews and countrymen during the war, I believe that his motivations deserve a second look.

The writer claims that he wrote the autobiography, which was originally going to be called “Three Lives,” from memory while living as a foreigner away from his war-torn Austria – in fact, Zweig wrote most of this work while living in Ossining, N.Y., along the Hudson River. The nostalgia with which he describes the vibrant city of Vienna where he grew up almost explodes from the page, and it is clear that though far away the writer was still smitten with his energetic, theatrical city. The old expression that hindsight is 20/20 definitely does not ring true in Zweig’s case, for after his suicide many people, including his wife of almost 20 years, told very different stories about his life.

One of the biggest points of contention, which brought “The World of Yesterday” about many complaints, was his attitude about his Jewish identity. His Jewish readers, not surprisingly, found this self-effacing treatment of his religion as very troubling, especially during such a chilling Jewish crisis. His readers wondered why he would scarcely discuss his Jewishness – was it insincerity? Vanity?

However, the very fact that Zweig could not bring himself to write frankly about his Jewish family may not have been because he wished to separate himself from his faith or from humanity in general. His parents’ involvement with the Jewish community was not the only part of his life that he seemed to shuffle out of view in his autobiography – his wife Friderike is not spoken of! He chooses to boast about his parents’ humility and superb educations, emphasizing their goodness and fine social standing. The fact was simply that his parents’ austere morality trapped him, and caused a lifelong discomfort with himself that made his lyrical, elegant writing possible and also made for mental torture. He built his life on the foundation of a troubled childhood like one builds a home on a poisoned field. He could never ignore it, or escape from it, and so he chooses to handle the memories carefully, opening only small windows to the past at a time, only for a moment.

Zweig was a man of his time. His autobiography is indeed more about the personality of his generation than about his own inner workings. He felt distrust in politics, and believed that it destroyed relationships rather than build solidarity. When his peers derided him for doing little to protect the public image of his Jewish people, they were forgetting his preference for the browbeaten – the alienated, downtrodden, small adventures of the abused. Zweig understood that the Jewish spirit would not be destroyed by the events of his time or any other time, and that their dignity and spiritual unity was stronger than the shocks they absorbed. Zweig loved this world for all its imperfections, and if he could then, perhaps we can learn to now.

This is the second in a series of columns to be published in Sunday Living, leading up to the second biannual Stefan Zweig lecture, to be held in Rosch Recital Hall on March 19 at 7:30 p.m.

Rebekah Calhoun is a SUNY Fredonia senior English major from Gowanda.