Review: The World of Yesterday – Stefan Zweig

Even since reading Stefan Zweig’s remarkable description of psychological co-dependency in his novel, Beware of Pity, I’ve tried to read every thing I can get my hands on by this fine writer.  In recent years, a minor publishing industry has developed around Zweig, with Pushkin Press leading the way with quite a few volumes of short stories and even an uncompleted novel, The Post Office Girl which I reviewed here.

The World of Yesterday is the final book Zweig handed to his publisher before he and his wife committed suicide in 1942, despairing at the destruction of European culture resulting from by the rise of fascism.  Having a bit of a completist tendency with my favourite authors, it was hard to resist another book by Zweig, particularly one which is both autobiography and memoir, describing literary Vienna’s golden age, and its sad decline through the first half of the 20th century.

Let me say at the start of this review, that despite the adulatory reception this volume had when published by Pushkin Press last year, I found it a very difficult book to read.  This is not conventional autobiography in the sense of describing the relationships and events which formed the subject’s life.  It is really a cultural history, in which philosophical development (and decline) is given greater prominence than the life described.  I found it to be a heavy read, with page after page of solid text unrelieved by any touch of human drama or even humour to lighten it.   When I look at the appreciative reviews elsewhere I feel rather embarrassed to report that I didn’t actually enjoy this book.  I found it not at all difficult to see this book in the context of Zweigs imminent suicide, for it has an air of gloom and failure about it which, while not detracting from its value to those with an interest in the era, on the whole makes it an unhappy and depressing read.

The sense of oppression began for me with Zweig’s description of his school-days.

. . . my entire school career was nothing but a constant surfeit of tedium, inreased only by my impatience to escape this treadmill.  I don’t recall ever having felt either happy or blissful during that monotonous, heartless, dismal schooling, which thoroughly spoilt the happiest days of our lives . . . as soon as we entered the hated school we had to keep our heads down, so to speak, to avoid coming up against the the invisible yoke of servitude.  Schook to us meant compulsion, dreary boredom . . .

There are several pages of this which describe in largely abstract language, Zweig’s dismal experience of those years, without actually mentioning any friendships, family events  or happier times which might lighten the description, leaving this reader at least very pleased when finally the author graduated to university (which alas turns out to be a not much pleasanter experience).

Another chapter describes the sterile and stultifying condition of relationships between men and women in the Vienna of the early twentieth century.  A  rigid formality goverened communications between the sexes, with women placed on a pedestal so ethereal that it was unthinkable that they could have even an inkling of sexual desire.  Men on the other hand were allowed to “sow their wild oats” among a vast army of prostitutes who serviced their sexual needs, receiving money and gifts while returning incurable infections to their unhappy clients.

By this time I was beginning to wonder whether this unremitting gloom would come to an end and was pleased to discover that at about page 150, Zweig leaves university and escapes to Paris, London and other great European cities.  Unfortunately we read little to lighten these journeys, for Zweig discusses his cultural development to the detriment of any sense of his actual experiences in these cities.  We read of his discovery in London of William Blake and his quest to own even a single page of his work, his admiration for the poet Rainer Maria Rilke who he got to know in Paris, and countless other writers and artists, many of whom are now largely forgotten.  While these chapters are of interest, they again lack that human touch which might bring them to life, with too many diversions into self analysis, the title of the chapter, “Digressions on the Way to Myself” perhaps saying it all.

Zweig was deemed unfit for active service in the First World War and was appointed an archivist for the Imperial Government, a role which occasionally required him to travel to the Front using a hospital train or even open artillery carriages as transport.  The years after the war saw Zweig enjoy literary success, but with the advent of Adolf Hitler, his works soon became politically unacceptable, containing as they did, critiques of militarism and nationalism quite opposed to the thrust towards rearmament.  Zweig describes how Hitler arose almost unnoticed:

It is an iron law of history that those who will be caught up in the great movements determining the course of their own times always fail to recognise them in their early stages.  So I cannot remember when I first heard the name Adolf HItler, one that for years now we have been bound to speak or call to mind in some connection every day, almost every second.

Despite the gangs of young men roaming the streets in support of Hitler, Zweig tells how cultured people simply didn’t take Hitler seriously, laughing at his pompous prose style and soothed by the national newspapers and their assurances that National Socialism must soon collapse.  Of course, the Nazis rose with unstoppable momentum and when Austria was seceded to Germany, in no time at all life was intolerable for Zweig and, after his house was searched in 1934, he and his wife decided they had to live abroad.

The book ends with Zweig in the English city of Bath, with

. . . the sunlight 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 has never left me all this time, it lay over my mind day and night.  Perhaps its dark outline also lies over the pages of this book.

While this book is undoubtedly important both as a personal record of Zweig’s life, and also as his account of the fall of the “old” European culture, I fear that it is too imbued with Zweig’s despair at the decline of so much he held dear and his pessimism about the future.  He is absorbed in his story, but it is a story which, in the way he describes it, can only go downhill and this makes for a depressing time for its readers.  I feel sure that if Zweig had been able to live for a few more years this would have been a very different book with perhaps a wider perspective on the events he describes.  As it is, its value is not disputed but anyone expecting to find something along the lines of his other published works may be disappointed.


Title:  The World of Yesterday
Author:   Stefan Zweig
Publication:   Pushkin Press (2009), Paperback, 505 pages
ISBN: 9781906548124

Newspaper Reviews

Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian
Lewis Jones in The Daily Telegraph
Michael Hoffman in the London Review of Books

Book Blogger reviews

Dove Grey Reader
Just William’s Luck

28 comments to Review: The World of Yesterday – Stefan Zweig

  • Fascinating to read this Tom in counterpoint to my own reading of the book (thoughts here). I’m so sorry to hear that you found it a difficult and depressing read, and a little surprised. I think the key thing is whether or not Zweig’s impending suicide is something that lays over the book or not. Personally I didn’t think it did. I found all the lamentation at the loss of the golden age of Austro-Hungarian culture and the worry about the arrival of fascism in its place to be something separate from the drastic solution Zweig and his wife enacted. There are hints of his worry and displeasure throughout but nothing I thought that even begins to suggest that he had suicide in mind.

    I also thought that there was humour and humanity, often at his own expense, the way in which he is in thrall to some of the figures in the book, his superiority when at school etc. It’s interesting , isn’t it, how the same book can come across so differently to two readers. Romantic nostalgia tempered with sadness or depressing omen of doom! You decide fellow readers…

  • hi ,tom sounds like a tough book ,i ve only read postoffice girl which i felt fell off in the second half ,but want to read more zweig ,he is a beautiful writer style wise ,all the best stu

  • Blimey, this sounds like quite a depressing read! I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about Zweig and have his name on my list of authors whose books I should read at some point – I’m thinking of reading The Post Office Girl. As far as this book is concerned, it does sound rather interesting, in spite of all the lamenting going on within the text. Perhaps his suicidal state of mind affected the direction and tone of his book, but at the same time it obviously added another dimension to the book (inserting himself not just by writing about his past and relationships – typical autobiography; instead Zweig utilized his state of mind to add a tinge of sadness and reality to his book which reflected his opinions/experiences on his own life and the politics/cultural/societal events occuring during his lifetime). Definitely a book that I will be adding to my TBR list. Thanks!

  • Thanks for a very thoughtful review, Tom. I am not a memoir reader but do enjoy reading reviews from those who are. This volume has interested me somewhat (not the least, it has a great cover) and I have found with every review that I read there was always a “question” that remained with me — your review has framed the answer for that question. Zweig certainly excites debate — people seem to either love him or hate him. I have a few volumes on hand but have deliberately chosen not to start him yet. This review suggests to me that I should leave him on the shelf for a while.

  • Tom

    Thanks for the comment. I realise that I’m one of the few who didn’t enjoy this book, so you’re probably right to put it on your TBR list. I actually found it, dare I say, “boring”. A million Zweig fans will now berate me, but the point is I love all his other books. May I suggest that you start with Beware of Pity, which I think is his best. Thanks for visiting

  • Tom

    Thanks for visiting Stu. I’m sure you’d enjoy others of Zweigs books more. As with my reply to Nadia, I think Beware of Pity is his best.

  • Tom

    Thanks for that William. I have no problem with believing that its me who’s deficient in his reading than Zweig in his writing, and I have yet to read a derogatroy review of this book. I have no problem with depressing books (The Emigrants for example, or The Kindly Ones), but this one left me just uninterested. And yet I am a keen reader of books of that era. Ho hum, just me I suppose. I’ve linked to your own review now.

  • Tom

    Thanks for visiting Kevin. I am a great fan of Zweig’s other books and am sure that when you pull one of his fiction works down from the shelf you will be very impressed. Having read a number of other reviews of this book, I feel its far more likely that you’ll enjoy even this one more than I did. I’ve not mentioned it in the review, but the price of this book is scarcely believeable. Pushkin are certainly pushing the envelope when it comes to cover prices of Zweig’s works!

  • Hello Tom:
    I have a few Zweigs on the shelf, but it sounds as though this one should perhaps be read at the end (in my case).

    I tend to enjoy memoirs (depending on the subject) so this one may have its appeal, but I certainly appreciate and respect your honest review.

  • I must say I admire your perseverance. I tend to give up when I have to force myself! Nevertheless, given your admiration for Zweig’s other books I’ll actually shift some from my wishlist to my ‘acquisition’ list! I remember an earlier review of yours when I decided to read some Zweig. I’ll keep away from ‘The World of Yesterday’ for the time being and as you say, it seems to be available in expensive hardback only.

  • Tom

    Thanks for the comment Guy. I think I might be outnumbered here! So many people think its a tour de force. However, what’s the point of reviewing if you don’t say what you think.

  • Tom

    Thanks for the comment. As I’ve said in other responses below, I tend to think that Beware of Pity is the best. His short stories are good too. As for the “perseverance”, well, I wouldn’t normally do that, but the sheer number of good reviews convinced me I must be missing something.

  • I’ll second the praise for Beware Of Pity too, a fabulous book.

    Tom, if you want a negative review to peruse then you couldn’t do any better than Michael Hofmann’s assassination in the LRB: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n02/michael-hofmann/vermicular-dither

    Enjoy!

  • Tom

    William – what a find! I am sure the review is intended as a provocation, but there is some truth in it. Its always good to question why some people are put on a pedestal and its usually not difficult to find good reasons why perhaps they are not all they seem. Hoffman is far more erudite than me and I enjoyed looking at his use of words with a view to improving my own reviews. This article makes me consider renewing my defunct sub to the LRB, but I found too much in it which was just above my head. Its a shame there isn’t a good quality literary magazine aimed not just at academics and their in-fighting

  • Hello Tom,

    I am glad I chanced upon your blog! You have some really wonderful reviews here. Just stopped by to say keep going! :)

    Birdy from Lifewordsmith

  • Fascinating to read a less positive review. I own this, but I think like Guy I may leave it until I have read more of his other works, so far I’ve only read Burning Secret (which I enjoyed hugely).

    Like Kevin I’m not a reader of memoirs, but I thought I’d make an exception here due to my interest in the period (as I did for Morand, perhaps I do read them if well written enough). I have at least one other Zweig at home I’ve not read yet, so I’ll leave this until Winter when the weather may suit the mood…

  • I have not read any Zweig yet, but do have three or four on hand — plan to start with Burning Secret. I am one of those people who did not think the Hofmann piece was that bad. Yes, he did venture over the line with some of the personal comments but there is also a thread to the criticism that Zweig fans seem to want to ignore. (That’s an observation, not a judgment at this stage.) So I thought I’d wait for the Zweig storm to calm down a bit before venturing into his work, which I do have every intention of doing.

  • Tom

    HI Kevin – thanks for visiting. Until reading the Hoffman piece it didn’t occur to me that Zweig may have his detractors. In my humble opinion (!), Zweig is a very good writer, a master of the short story, and a fine novelist. I am sure you will enjoy the books you have on your shelf.

  • Tom

    I was definitely surprised not to find myself enjoying this book as from the cover description, it looks just up my street. I found it rather turgid and self-absorbed however. Its definitely one for a Zweig collector though. Thanks for your comment

  • Tom

    Thanks for the comment. We book bloggers really do it as a “labour of love” don’t we.

  • I quite like memoirs by writers, but usually only after I’ve read a lot of the writers’s work. I’ve only read one Zweig book – Journey into the Past — which I quite liked, and I have a couple of others in the TBR, including Chess and The Post Office Girl. Perhaps I’ll read all those first, before trying this one, as it does sound like it’s quite hard work. Thanks for your thoughtful review.

  • Tom

    Well, I may be wrong! Everyone else seems to think its a very good read, and important addition to the Zweig library. Chess is good – and the P.O. Girl – I’m sure you’d enjoy them both

  • The beginning of your review made me think that this must be an intriguing book, I’m not so sure if I still want to pick it up. Maybe I should start with the book by him that you loved?

  • Tom

    Iris – thanks for visiting!

  • Anna

    I finished the book yesterday, had borrowed it from a friend, and while reading I did went and bought it. It is a book I truly loved to read and will definitely read again.

    I read this for my book club, and all of us loved it.
    I see this may not be a book for everyone but I do advise everyone to give it at least a try. It would be a shame to miss.

  • Tom

    Anna – I agree – many people have admired this book and I’m a bit of an odd one out!

  • Monty D. Ledford

    I finally happened upon this website today. I have enjoyed Zweig for years and I am glad that he is getting some attention. His style is precise and flowing and his sympathy in portraying characters is fascinating (though I wish he had applied some of his obvious empathy to his wife in their life together). Also, he can unfold a rollicking good story. I also just finished Donald Prater’s fine biography of Zweig.

  • Tom

    Thanks for visiting Monty. I am glad you also like Stefan Zweig. For me his best book is Beware of Pity. I have not heard to Donald Prater’s biography of him but have just looked it up on Abebooks – it sounds very interesting but is rather expensive at the moment

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