Stefan Zweig belong to those memorable and touching authors that you meet quickly in literature, be it through one of his numerous biographies (on Montaigne, Marie Antoinette and Erasmus among other) or through novellas that need no introduction (“Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman”, “The Royal Game”). We certainly get to meet him quickly but it is not until after we read his autobiography, “The World of Yesterday”, and the great care he took in recreating the picture of his destiny, the that we truly get to be acquainted with him.
This autobiography is his ultimate effort and, in many regards, his greatest achievement, made in the twilight of a life that has known changes of such a scope that they become terribly difficult to imagine. He was once the citizen of an Empire that dominated the intellectual and political life in all of Europe, an Empire that, when he began writing this story, had disappeared of every map of the World.
The book begins by introducing us to the city of Vienna and by giving us a vivid portait of this capital with its intense cultural life, where students hide from their professors in order to read Nietzsche or to write their own poetry during classes.
A capital where a large part of social life has reorganized itself around culture and art : theaters are full on a daily basis, the number of publishing houses increase rapidly and Viennese cafés have become genuine institutions where every artists and intellectuals meet each other. They were unique places where, for the price of a cup of coffee, you had the opportunity to stay all day writing and reading, with access to newspapers bringing reports from the entire world and hours to reimagine it with the entire cultural society of the city.
The more somber aspects of this era are not forgotten: a rigid social order and powerful archaisms are bringing their fair share of unhappiness. But the most important part lies elsewhere, in a dream and an ideal of universality that is slowly developing and that we will later get to know as “Mitteleuropa”.
Zweig himself occupies a specific place in that dream. Born in a family of Viennese Jews, an environment that has holds cultural life in considerable esteem and gives it prime consideration, he is quickly fascinated by this ideal of fraternity between writers, artists and intellectuals that, for the first time, makes the idea of “European culture” truly tangible.
He also has such an accurate sense of his time that his first writings are met, much to his surprise, with an immediate success that puts him to the front stage. He travels to many capital cities of Europe and meets with major figures that will leave an enduring mark on the History of the world: Theodore Herzl, Rudolf Steiner, Hugo von Hofmansthal, Rainer Maria Rilke and Sigmund Freund among many others.
Early on, everything seems to prepare him for a leading role in the coming world, but he will never truly take such a role, simply continuing on creating literary trends without even really wanting to. But he will stay a friend and a faithful witness of this high culture and these remarkable figures that captivate him. He may have been the one whose life was the most inextricably linked to the destiny of a Europe created through culture, that he will accompany in its most beautiful promises as in its most terrible failures, even into events that should never have existed.
The most remarkable thing about this book and last will, written in exile, among terrible hardships that are marking the end of an era, remains full of hope. At the time to finally put the pencil down, he turns his eyes towards the future and towards those that, scattered across the world, will know how to recover the dream he tried so hard to pass on to us.