This is an absolutely beautiful (yet heartbreaking) memoir written in the midst of World War II.
Completed in 1942 (and sent to his publisher just days before he and his wife took their lives), it provides an intimate and fascinating look at life in Europe during the end of the Victorian Era and through two world wars.
I think one of the most striking things about this book (especially in the later pages) is how mournful, almost hopeless, Zweig is about the state of Europe and the world as a whole. And it’s no surprise, right? He was an Austrain Jew who saw the home and the people he loved destroyed.
Take this passage, written about Paris. He lovingly describes his time in Paris after he graduated from university and how it was a city that could always make people happy.
“I had promised myself a present for the first year of my newly gained freedom—I would go to Paris. Two earlier visits had given me only a superficial knowledge of that city of inexhaustible delights, but I could tell that any young man who had spent a year there would be left with incomparably happy memories for the rest of his life. Nowhere but in Paris did you feel so strongly, with all your senses aroused, that your own youth was as one with the atmosphere around you. The city offers itself to everyone, although no one can fathom it entirely.”
And then a paragraph later, we get to the hard truth about the time period this book was written in:
“Of course I know that the wonderfully lively and invigorating Paris of my youth no longer exists; perhaps the city will never entirely recover that wonderful natural ease, now that it has felt the iron brand forcibly imprinted on it by the hardest hand on earth. Just as I began writing these lines, German armies and German tanks were rolling in, like a swarm of grey termites, to destroy utterly the divinely colourful, blessedly light-hearted lustre and unfading flowering of its harmonious structure. ”
Another powerful aspect of this book is that while reading, we know that he would soon take his life and he’d never get to see how this tragic story (World War II) ended and how the cities, art and music he loved would eventually recover.
The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig