There are two stories near the end of Zweig’s book that stood out in their sadness and frustration. The first involved his attending a debate between George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. Zweig, who is not a native English speaker, listens in to these aging intellectuals as they debate something, the theme of which he can’t quite figure out. He knows there is something brewing between those two minds, but he’s a stranger before them. The other story is of his elderly mother and how she was no longer able to rest during her walks on the public benches in Austria because Hitler stripped Jews of this basic right.
The story of how Zweig, and all of Europe got to the point where he was no longer part of the conversation and Jews were humiliated is what this book is about. We do not get the why, however.
Zweig begins the account of his beloved Austria and Europe as a child living in the strict and ordered German society that only the old were truly allowed to master. Even someone just turned 40 was still considered, in those days, to be too young to be really trusted with important work. A person had to spend their whole life working at a set pace, each year or decade moving up the ladder as if there was a checklist. But society was secure, there was safety, reliability, predictability in everyday life. Even the unpredictable could be managed with insurance and savings.
But Zweig had an artist’s mind and an artist’s youthful enthusiasm. He longed to break through those solid walls that had been mortared up generation after stoic generation, he wanted to be free, free to study art and music and think freely. And for much of his life he did. He rubbed shoulders with nearly every influential artist and thinker of his day. The book is an encyclopedia of who’s who.
But what we don’t get, and what he never saw, was what was happening off stage. While he was reading poetry, young people in the Balkans were planning the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Everywhere there was injustice and poverty, only a select few, like Zweig, could really enjoy the lifestyle he so loved and longed for. When WW1 breaks out it’s almost a surprise for him and he is nearly ignorant of the suffering world:
“Why should we be concerned with these constant skirmishes with Serbia which, as we all knew, arose out of some commercial treaties concerned with the export of Hungarian pigs?”
But I’m not going to be too harsh on Zweig because though he was thoughtless, he was naive in a good-natured way. His life was art, and thinking, and all that is good in the world. Were everyone only concerned with poetry and coffee shops how magical would the world be? How free of pain and suffering? Yet the real world does not take artists very seriously. Someone might make a few headlines with a propaganda poem, such as Ernst Lissauer’s “Hymn of Hate”, but then have to flee after the war because nobody wants to associate with and are ashamed of such hateful rhetoric.
Maybe this is a reason why he killed himself (his wife too, though she is barely mentioned more than four times in the book so her story is obscure)? Maybe he saw himself like the old woman who once lived above him, a woman who once knew Goethe, but the link between them is ephemeral, dry, and dying. She was an old woman dying in her room and he only saw the link between her and a great artist. What of her? What of her suffering? We learn nothing. So perhaps his blindness to the greater evils of the world was what did him in. Maybe he knew that his silence on politics was a mistake, but he might have also known it wouldn’t have mattered anyway for who could have stopped either war? Who could truly oppose Hitler and those who followed him?
And this is why I wanted to read this book now, because of the current political climate here in America, specifically with the candidacy of Donald Trump. Someone like myself who tries to stay away from politics, who sees that man as a buffoon, is reminded how Zweig saw the rise of Fascism. He saw it and was unable to do anything about it until he had to flee his country where he becomes a stranger and outsider everywhere and leaves his elderly mother behind to be humiliated by not even being allowed to sit on a park bench.
All of it is absurd, really. From him sitting in Switzerland with food but drink not 5 minutes away from Austria where everyone starves, to the Belgians using dogs to pull guns on little carts, to men drinking all the beer in one country because it was cheaper than in another and they’d become so drunk they had to practically be rolled back across the border, and where in a war economy when cakes of soap are more valuable than real estate.
And after the first World War he could see how the world had been fractured, where artists like Dali and Joyce rewrite the way we interpret the world through art, where instead of free passage between nations one needs passports and fingerprints and interrogations just to move across a line on a map.
The world went mad, and then went even madder when Hitler began his march. Zweig had become an alien, not just from his country, but from all humanity. He might have as well been from another planet considering how much the world had changed from when he was born. From beautiful, ordered Vienna, to the crazed heat of Brazil as the world tried to blow itself up once more across both oceans.
And the worst part is to be helpless. What good can art do against such forces? Where in the world is there a place for music and literature and the visual arts? How many mouths can an oil painting feed? How much clean water is a poem worth? How many books can save an infant from dying of disease?
And so now we stand on the other side of this question where engineering and practicality and a total lack of empathy for ‘those people over there’ is considered a virtue. Entertainment is ok, but not art, art is a waste of time. Artists should be put to the factories to make computers and ring cash registers.
And I can’t say I disagree with Zweig in not wanting to live in a world where function reigns over art, where a mind must conform to only one way of thinking and that energy is only directly applied to utility.
So where do we go from here, those of us who have lived on after Zweig? What is left for us? What good can art do? What use is an artist?
I hadn’t intended to grow so pessimistic by the end of my review, but it does parallel Zweig’s feelings on the state of the world. And while I have no intention of doing myself in, I do have a great sadness for his world of yesterday, too.