Friday, 22 January 2010

'we paid the price in full'

The World Of Yesterday
by Stefan Zweig

translated by Anthea Bell

Whilst the whole Christmas and New Year thing was happening I could justifiably give myself a break from blogging and simply settle down with a substantial book. This is what I chose. Another well-produced volume from Pushkin Press, whose focus on Zweig's oeuvre has helped to bring his work to a wider readership, there is a pleasing feel to the book in your hand and its 500 pages give it a satisfying heft entirely in keeping with the importance of what is between its covers. Living in an era where memoir has been hijacked by celebrities with nothing real to say or sports stars who have barely begun to live at all it is important to be reminded what real memoir can achieve. It may be crass but just thinking in terms of Who, What, Where, When and How you can get a quick idea of why David Hare called it 'one of the most important memoirs of the twentieth century'. Living in Vienna during a period that saw the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the 'golden age of security', two World Wars and the rise of Nazism, Zweig's position in society and his viewpoint as a writer and a Jew put him in a unique place as a witness to the shifting political tides of the beginning of the century. But before we anticipate the darkening days of what would become the end of his life (Zweig's suicide occurred shortly after the publication of this book - although there is no hint of it in what we read) there is so much uplifting material about Viennese culture, art and artists, including Zweig's encounters with people ranging from Rilke to Rodin.

It is generally assumed that getting rich is a Jew's true and typical aim in life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Getting rich, to a Jew, is only an interim stage, a means to his real end, by no means his aim in itself. The true desire of a Jew, his inbuilt ideal, is to rise to a higher social plane by becoming an intellectual.

I can't say that I had ever considered Zweig as a child when reading his fiction so there is something joyous about reading about his childhood and schooling. His intelligence means that school becomes a 'constant surfeit of tedium', where the rigid curriculum means that pupils end up outstripping their teachers knowledge, adding to the their precociousness. Boys of that age have their minds on other things too of course, even in a rigid society at the turn of the century, in fact the lack of flesh on display and of an opportunity to even converse with the opposite sex creates something closer to a surfeit of passion. 'Forbidden fruit excites a craving, only what is forbidden stimulates desire, and the less the eyes saw and the ears heard the more minds dreamt.' A certain level of privilege means that schooling for Zweig is merely a stepping stone towards the life he wants to lead. He is quite honest with himself, drawing up a plan of attack:

For three years I would not bother with my university studies at all. Then, in my final year, I would put on a strenuous spurt, master the academic material and dash off some kind of dissertation. The university would thus have given me all I really wanted of it: a couple of years of freedom to lead my own life and concentrate on my artistic endeavours - universitas vitae, the university of life.

The importance of art to Viennese society is made very clear, this is a time and place where the general public are more likely to recognise an actor from the state theatre in the street than one of the country's leading politicians. But rather than this being similar to our current cult of celebrity it is a veneration of the status of art, and theatre in particular, in providing the culture and conscience of the nation. I can't help but be envious when I read of a society that considers theatre to be 'a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm, a bright mirror in which society could study itself, the one true cartigiano of good taste...a spoken three dimensional manual of good conduct and correct pronunciation, and an aura of esteem, rather like a saints's halo, surrounded all who had even the faintest connection with the court theatre.' Vienna also provides of course a level of society below that of the state. The cover illustrates what we might term cafe society and it is here that Zweig begins to get a fuller understanding of human character and motivation, a dose of reality that shows up the 'whiff of scented notepaper' about his early novellas.

What I had hardly credited in realist novels was present here, teeming with life, in the little bars and cafes that I frequented, and the worse someone's reputation was the more I wanted to know him personally...Perhaps the very very fact that I came from a solidly established background, and felt to some extent that this 'security' complex weighed me down, made me more likely to be fascinated by those who almost recklessly squandered their lives, their time, their money, their health and reputation - passionate monomaniacs obsessed with aimless existence for its own sake - and perhaps readers may notice this preference of mine for intense, intemperate characters in my novels and novellas.

In mentioning our current predilection for celebrity and fame by association there can't be many who wouldn't get a thrill from reading the casual way with which Zweig is able to drop the names of his contemporaries, friends and colleagues. The man was connected. But he is also humble and he takes pains to explain that with any mention of his own success, 'I am not speaking of something that is really mine, but something that once was mine, like my house, my native land, my self confidence, my freedom, my lack of inhibition. I cannot illustrate the depths to which I...sank...without mentioning, first, the height from which we fell.' Even so there is something thrilling about the ease with which his throwaway admiration for Rodin leads to a meeting with the man himself and later a trip to his studio. It is here that Zweig witnesses the master at work, furiously altering a painting in progress and learns what for him is 'the eternal secret of all great art'.

His movements became more and more decisive, almost irate; a kind of wildness or intoxication had come over him, he was working faster and faster. Then his hands slowed down. They seemed to have understood that there was no more for them to do...He took a deep breath, released from tension. His figure seemed to grow heavier again. The fire had gone out.

Rodin had entirely forgotten that Zweig was even in the room, actually reacting angrily when he eventually spotted him waiting, as if he were an intruder. That total absorption in the process is one of many observations made by Zweig of his fellow artists. The deliberation of Rilke...

This golden age of creativity is also one of security as the opening chapter heading tells us. Turn of the century Europe saw nations brimming with confidence and the development of commercial flight made borders and frontiers seem almost pointless. Travel was possible without passports and Zweig as a prodigious traveller was able to sample and be connected to the wider cultural experience, something that must have in part contributed to the upsurge in feelings of international fraternity. However, those last years of European confidence hid the danger that was growing, the fact that all countries were filed with that same confidence and had ambitions that could not be contained by the land mass itself. The sequence of events that lead to what would become the Great War are noted by Zweig together with his own incomprehension at the manner in which friends and colleagues became transformed by the growing hostilities.

Gradually; in those first weeks of war in 1914, it became impossible to have a reasonable conversation with anyone. The kindest and most friendly acquaintances seemed to be drunk on the smell of blood.

In our current financial crisis there are even words of comfort, particularly for creative types, from the time of depression and hyperinflation that followed the end of war.

I myself do not think I ever lived and worked with more intensity and concentration than I did in those years. What had been important to us before mattered even more now. Art was never more popular in Austria than at that time of chaos. Money had let us down; we sensed that what was eternal in us was all that would last.

I'm just quoting great chunks now because the book is filled with observations that you'll want to note down or earmark. To have such a humble, enlightened, important voice like this in print is to have a direct link to one of the most fascinating periods of history. Anthea Bell doesn't need my praise after being awarded and OBE and recently winning the TLS translation prize (and also in the running for the same prize from Three Percent), but I shall praise her anyway. He translation makes light work of this 450+ page memoir. There are notes at the end of each chapter (and a pleasingly small number of them too), usually there to explain the few idiomatic words or phrases that she leaves in the original language or some background information (Zweig never really mentions his personal relationships). A book, as I said, that reminds you what memoirs should contain, a fascinating insight into an artist and a time, and a testament to a life that we now know had very little left to run. As his travels become more like flight into exile you cannot help but be saddened by such an ending.

And as the train crossed the border I knew, like the patriarch Lot in the Bible, that all behind me was dust and ashes, the past transformed into a pillar of bitter salt.


Rob Spence 23 January 2010 at 10:37  

Thanks for this long and thoughtful assessment. This is a book I've been wanting to read for some time since reading Clive James's Cultural Amnesia, and now I have, courtesy of dovegreyreader, the same handsome Pushkin edition awaiting my attention. It seems to me that this is a book requiring sustained attention, rather than a short read before sleep. So I'm saving it for a point where I have some time to devote to it.

William Rycroft 23 January 2010 at 10:57  

Thanks Rob. I think you're right to want to give the book some time and attention although it can still be read in small snatches (I was working over the Christmas period so my train journey is often a chance to read). Despite having produced a longer than normal review here, there is still so much more I could have said. If you're worried that I might be reviewing him indulgently then there is a pretty straightforward corrective from translator Michael Hofmann in the LRB which can be found here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n02/michael-hofmann/vermicular-dither

Rob Spence 23 January 2010 at 11:20  

Thanks William - I missed, somehow, despite being a subscriber, the Hofmann piece, which i will ferret out now. Zweig was a name I knew, but I don't think I'd appreciated what a towering figure he was. Seems to me there are riches here, and lots more Anthea Bell (sister of Martin, apparently) translations to discover in that Pushkin series.

William Rycroft 23 January 2010 at 11:50  

Hofmann isn't much of a fan judging by his rather hilarious review in which he describes Zweig as the 'Pepsi of Austrian writing'. I certainly had no inkling that his books were turned into films so frequently or that he'd also had a (pretty disastrous) dabble in theatre too. The fiction of his that I've read has certainly been well worth reading (check Zweig in my index on the right) and Pushkin Press certainly do publish other titles that are worthy of attention.

Ronak M Soni 23 January 2010 at 22:18  

I have an issue with your first line. If you feel compelled to pick smaller books just so that you can blog more means that there is something terribly wrong in your relationship to your blog.

William Rycroft 24 January 2010 at 08:41  

Blimey Ronak! You don't like to give me an easy ride do you?!

I think you may have got the wrong impression from that first line as my blog and I have a pretty good relationship. When I say substantial I don't necessarily mean size but import of content. With people less likely to be logging on over Christmas and me less likely to have time to write posts I could give myself the time and space to focus on a memoir covering an extraordinary period of history, a book I was sure would demand my attention in a way fiction tends not to (i.e it may require some research or reading around it).

That said, I was working all the way through Christmas, reading on the train etc, so it's not like I was sat in front of the fire in pipe and slippers. I don't pick books due to their size as a look back at my blog will show you. I began last year by reading Bolano's mammoth 2666 and went on to read the similarly gargantuan Sunnyside and Leviathan, Or The Whale. My problem if anything is an attraction to books that are on the epic size. 2007 and 2008 saw me pick Tree of Smoke and Darkmans as books of the year, both of which could substitute as weightlifting aids.

Small books have an attraction too of course, especially for someone who reads on the move or during short breaks at work. But I've found recently that a book's size can be very deceiving when it comes to the size of what's contained within. That's the important thing after all and I'm always trying to pick books that I think will contain something brilliant in between the covers.

Ronak M Soni 24 January 2010 at 17:59  

Gotcha. Sorry, but I found it profoundly disturbing coming from a blog I follow (I know other bloggers who actively do things to increase traffic, so it wasn't completely alien).

Ronak M Soni 24 January 2010 at 18:01  

Not to mention, I only began following your blog a couple of months ago, and haven't been entirely regular in reading it.

Tom Cunliffe 11 May 2010 at 16:25  

A much better review than mine! I must have been out of my depth on this one, or perhaps just "not in the mood". I've linked to this review from mine.

Max Cairnduff 13 May 2010 at 14:06  

Spectacular William, really an excellent review.

As I commented at Tom's I shall likely leave this to read in the Winter when I think the weather will better suit the mood, but you do make a good case for it.

I was glad to to see Anthea Bell getting discussed. Her work is excellent, one of the many elements of Hofmann's hatchet job I disliked (after the main one, that he criticised the man rather than the writing which is just sloppy of him) was the way he criticised Bell on the basis of his dislike of her son. Like much in his piece, the relevance was hard to grasp.

Regardless of what she may be like in person (I have no idea), her work is of the highest quality and I now consider her name on a book a recommendation. She's a talent in her own right.

Nice reflections on theatre too. I realise you're well placed to comment, but still interesting. The Viennese had it right, at risk of preaching to the choir it is an extraordinarily intense and personal art form and while the London scene still has a lot going for it I would like to see the West End a little less reliant on star names and rehashed musical back catalogues.

Perhaps as you say our austerity will breed better art, if not I fear better paid artists.

William Rycroft 14 May 2010 at 00:42  

Thank you Max, your kind words are much appreciated. The Hofmann piece just becomes funny after a while because it's such a personal attack as you say. It's such a shame because the names of both Hofmann and Bell are now sufficient for me to be interested in a title, perhaps there's sufficient competition to fuel the flames of dispute like this (if the recent Orlando Figes Amazon review debacle is anything to go by then academia seems a far bitchier place than even the West End).

Your comment about austerity couldn't be more apposite on a day when the new Tory Culture Minister has announced £66m of cuts. How's that for a first day? I dread to think what the impact of our new political makeup and the current financial climate might have on the business I work in. All I can say is that I'm incredibly proud to be involved in a show which isn't a musical rehash and contains no stars and yet still manages to pack them in every night. Long may it continue...

Max Cairnduff 14 May 2010 at 12:15  

Arts cuts are inevitable, there's no way any departmental budget will escape cuts, we just have to hope the arts budget is already low enough that it's not a major target.

Science too I suspect will take a kicking, and is if anything in even more need of support. The arts suffer when funding is withdrawn, but a lot of scientific research just plain has to stop.

My main hope is to get away from talk of economic benefit and the creative industries. Labour were pretty supportive of the arts, but I couldn't get comfortable with the language of the debate which was always cast in economic terms. The value of theatre (for example) isn't in the tourist revenue it raises, that's just a nice extra. The value is intrinsic and would remain whether we made a return or not.

I was always more comfortable discussing the arts than I am discussing the creative industries. The arts are not an industry. Their justification is not their return on investment.

But I risk ranting...

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