The semi-autobiography of a semi-prophet

New reading list: Signpost books, those with place names in the title.

I’ve finished Zweig’s ‘The World of Yesterday’ – he’s made several more guest appearances. It is a fascinating portrait of an era, or rather several eras, as Zweig points out: fin de siecle, war, interwar, war again.

You could make a strong case for this autobiography as an example of trauma writing, although I’m not particularly saying this because he committed suicide shortly after completing it. But instead of the usual fragmentation of the self that is seen as a mark of trauma writing, this book contains more of a submerged self, a self that is overwhelmed by history. As well as being a sign of his private nature, the lack of personal detail in the autobiography can be read as a sign of the impact of totalitarianism, where nothing is personal; although I’m on shakier ground here as he never actually lived in a totalitarian state, it can certainly be argued that he felt the impact of his century’s shift to totalitarianism.

He writes about having once been successful, having once had fame as a writer, before his books were burned in Nazi Germany; his identity as a writer is swept away, just as his prized collection of other writers’ manuscripts is dispersed before he goes into exile (which is, come to think of it, a fragmentation). The continuity of life is broken up: he writes about having had ‘lives’ rather than a singular ‘life’. His overarching struggle was an attempt at the cultural unification of Europe, at emphasising philosophical, artistic and cultural similarities over differences, at developing links between the writers, artists and composers of all countries on the Continent (not so much the U.K.) as a way of combating the destructive spread of nationalism which had destroyed the peaceful world of his youth.

Zweig strongly identified with the fifteenth century scholar Erasmus, who was condemned to see both sides of the argument and thus be vilified by almost everyone during the Reformation. Erasmus, he felt, saw the danger inherent in the religious territorialism which broke out after Luther, leading to war: his fate was that of an ignored prophet. Likewise Zweig at the beginning of the Great War could see the destruction that was to come, but was condemned as unpatriotic when he spoke out against it. Balint Abady from Banffy’s The Writing on the Wall is in a similar position at the end of that trilogy, and his character is said to be close to Banffy himself in terms of opinions.

It’s the fate of prophets only to be heard when they have been proven correct by history. But then, paradoxically, often if they were to be heard, the course of history would change, and they would no longer be prophets.

Plus, as it turns out, Zweig lived for a bit in Bath, so it’s no wonder I like him.


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