'In early June I spotted Stefan Zweig's latest book Spinoza, in the window of a bookshop on avenue Kleber. Today I hurry over there to buy a copy. The book is no longer in the window, and the bookseller informs me that she is not allowed to sell it anymore. I refuse to give up, and in the end she reveals that the Zweig books are packed up in the room behind the shop; after swearing me to secrecy, she eventually agrees to let me have a copy. It appears that the list of banned books has already been drawn up, and that they will be destroyed. So we no longer have the right to read or say what we want in the privacy of our own homes.'
This was the redoubtable Agnes Humbert in Paris on 7th August 1940 and an episode recounted in her book Resistance - Memoirs of Occupied France. and I had cause to recall it because I'm deeply embedded in the life of Stefan Zweig right now. I hope I'm not over-egging my love and respect for the man, his life and his writing in recent weeks, but his autobiography The World of Yesterday will certainly be in amongst my best reads of the year if and when I try to pin them down to a list.
Stefan Zweig confirms what I sensed I knew about him from his fiction, a modest and self-effacing man nursing a profound sensitivity and an astute line in judgment all of which he utilises to full effect here.
I've been reading this one at snail's pace over the last month or more and have just made the 200-page halfway point,
'Then on June 29, 1914, in Sarajevo, the shot was fired which in a single second shattered the world of security and creative reason in which we had been educated, grown up and been at home - shattered it like a hollow vessel of clay.'
Europe is a rumbling volcano, the stack is about to blow and as he reflects on the world rushing headlong towards that war, Stefan Zweig has offered me some new perspectives.
Firstly, whilst admitting what we all now know,
'Calmly reflecting on the past, if one asks why Europe went to war in 1914, neither reasonable ground nor even provocation can be found..'
he then goes on to elaborate,
'Every state had the feeling of being strong and forgot that every other State had the same feeling, each wanted more and wanted something from the other. And the worst was that just the sentiment which we most highly valued - our common optimism - betrayed us. For each one thought that in the last moment the other would draw back affrightedly; and so the diplomats began their game of bluff.'
It's a chunk of world history I have never really explored in any depth and as Stefan Zweig recounts the 'slight discomfort whenever a rattle of shots came from the Balkans' and proceeds to offer some personal observations about the people and daily life that worried him, I began to build up the picture for myself and the route to conflagration became increasingly clear.
Stefan Zweig writes with a piercing and self-effacing honesty that cuts to the quick,
'Never, and I say this without pride, but rather with shame - has any generation experienced such a moral retrogression from such a spiritual height as our generation has.'
There is so much in this eminently readable book to savour as Stefan Zweig allows himself to step back, positions himself firmly in that crow's nest vantage point overlooking a history of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, and becomes a primary source and witness to the rise of anti-semitism and fascism.
The book is a fine social history too; pre- and post- fin de siecle Vienna had bred several generations who knew nothing of conflict and applauded the rise of the Jewish bourgeoisie as a positive force for good in the cultural life of the Austrian capital,
'nine-tenths of what the world celebrated as Viennese culture in the nineteenth century was promoted, nourished or even created by Viennese Jewry.'
Stefan Zweig met and knew many of the prophets, names to conjure with, Sigmund Freud, Rudolf Steiner, Rilke and Rodin and was a part of this milieu, leaving him perfectly placed to reflect on the rise of many of the luminaries of the day.
Mahler and Schonberg, Hofmannsthal and Schnitzler, Sonnenthal and Reinhardt burnishing the city's universal reputation for music, literature and the theatre respectively. Meanwhile Freud was busy doing what Freud did best and his influence on Stefan Zwieg's thinking is nowhere more evident than in the chapter Eros Matutinus. Stefan Zweig reflects on a puberty and adolescence blighted by reserve, secrecy and misinformation for a generation who were preparing for something very different
'...we grew up in this sticky, perfumed, sultry unhealthy atmosphere. This dishonest and unpsychological morality of secrecy and hiding hung over us like a nightmare.'
Zweig's dissections of the conceits and the buttoned-up world of repression in which he and his friends were raised, the disparity and inequalities between men and women in dress, behaviour and social expectations to all of which they were expected to conform, highlights just how ready this generation was to rebel and break free of the world their parents and grandparents had known.
The Cassandras were there alright.
The unknown to me Berta von Suttner, the woman who took it upon herself to hinder any progress towards war in any way she could, the woman who persuaded Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, to atone for that discovery with the endowment of the Nobel Prize for Peace and International Understanding.
I've just been turning page after page thinking how amazing that one book can offer me so much inspiration, more to explore, other writers to seek out and I still have the second half to go,
'The summer of 1914 would have been even more memorable for us even without the doom which it spread over the European earth. I had rarely experienced one more luxuriant, more beautiful and. I am tempted to say more summery...the heavens were a silly blue, the air soft yet not sultry, the meadows fragrant and warm..,'
Gangway...gangway, let me at the rest of this book right now.