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On reading this book, my first thought is that this is much more than a biography. It is a portrait of an era and a love letter to Stefan Zweig’s beloved Europe; written after he was forced into exile by the onslaught of fascism. However, the book begins with Zweig growing up in Austria, prior to WWI, in, what he terms, the Golden Age of Security. Austria seemed to have a stable government and consistency in the Habsburg monarchy. There was a sense of order and everyone knew their place in society. Despite Zweig’s remembrances being a little rose-tinted, there are hints that not all was perfect. He admits to finding school pointless and dreary, complains about the lack of natural relationships between men and women and sneers at the duellists at university. Throughout the book, Zweig’s love is for literature and he opts to study philosophy not out of any love for the subject, but because he believes it will inconvenience him the least and leave him time to write.
There are many portraits of other authors, musicians and artists in this book. Zweig suggests that European Jewry saw their support of the arts as a way in which they could make their mark and find a niche for themselves – other avenues, like the army, being virtually barred to them. Luckily, it was an area he adored and he spent much of his time collecting memorabilia from those he admired. He writes of the unrest leading up to WWI and recalls how the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was greeted without distress, as he was generally unpopular. Zweig is always utterly honest in his writing, admitting, “there is nothing heroic in my nature,” and that he had a perfectly natural desire to evade dangerous situations. That said, he procured a post in the library at the War Archives, where he wrote movingly of his desire for a united Europe. He always resisted war and hatred and found Austria a different place after the war, with no Kaiser, financial chaos and raging inflation.
He also writes about his travels; to Paris, Berlin, London, India, America, Italy and a fascinating account of his visit to Russia. When Zweig asked his Russian publisher why he had not fled on the outbreak of the revolution, the Russian admitted that he had not believed the situation would last. Along with an anonymous note advising him not to take all he heard and saw at face value, Zweig was much more likely to question when fascism began to rise in Europe, suggesting that people used self deception because of a reluctance to abandon their accustomed life. Still, it made him more aware of the problems ahead. Despite being financially secure and imagining his life was settled, he found he was standing on very unstable ground.
Although the decade after the war was enjoyable for Stefan Zweig, as the 1930’s began, life became more difficult. By 1934, when his friends began to avoid him and he suffered the indignity of having his house searched, Zweig left for London, where he stayed for some years. Although he returned to Austria in 1937, he found nobody was prepared to listen to his warnings and it is obvious that, during this time, he felt terrible despair. In his fifties, he found himself homeless, stateless and with the possibility of becoming an enemy alien, if England went to war with Germany.
Despite much of Zweig’s musings being both moving and, at times, deeply saddened by events in his beloved Austria, this is by no means a depressing book. It is filled with anecdotes of literary and artistic life, of travel and his delight of discovery and friendship. At all times, Zweig is humane, intelligent and understanding company. If you have any interest in Europe, especially around the time of the first world war, this will present you with a vibrant and enticing portrait of a lost world. It is obvious that it’s loss saddened Zweig and that he was unable to come to terms with life as an exile – sadly committing suicide in Brazil in 1942. His death was a tragic loss to literature and it is wonderful that his books are now being translated into English. According to Zweig, his books never received much success in England, but that was surely our loss and it is wonderful that his work is now being rediscovered.