By Stefan Zweig Read by David Horovitch

David Horovitch’s sublime narration of Zweig’s haunting memoir matches excellence with excellence, style with style. Completed the day before he committed suicide in 1942, Zweig’s narrative is a bittersweet medley of nostalgia and despair, starting with the golden turn-of-the-century years when Vienna was the center of European intellectual and artistic activity, all of which was destroyed with the Nazi ascent in Austria. Film director Wes Anderson has reawakened interest in Zweig, an artist who was once Europe’s bestselling novelist—and who, in time, saw his books burned in public. Horovitch sounds as you imagine Zweig would sound and portrays Zweig’s sensibility, style, and moral compass perfectly, and indelibly. And, happily, if you are new to Zweig, a long list of his slim, elegant novellas awaits you on audio, in English, German, and French. D.A.W.

Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award © AudioFile 2017, Portland, Maine

The Brink of Destruction

This memoir of Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) is another of Ukemi’s treasures. Zweig was the most important writer of his day writing in German, but his work was banned by the Nazis. Translated into English, his memoir The World of Yesterday  was rescued by the Pushkin Press only within the last ten years. The translation by Anthea Bell (who concludes this beautifully sympathetic, exactly right narration by David Horovitch) is what a first class translation should be: it’s as though this is just how Zweig wrote it.

Zweig’s world of yesterday is the ‘golden age of security’  of the Austro Hungarian Empire in which he grew up, a wonderful time for Viennese high culture of music, opera, art and conversation provided mainly by Jewish intellectuals, a world Zweig creates in all it richness. As a child he met Brahms, looked on actors as supernatural beings and was fired with a passion for ‘things of the mind.’

His musings over the changing mores as time passed have a universal appeal. Growing up, women of his class were chastely swathed from head to foot, always chaperoned, and bridegrooms would have no idea of what was underneath –  a purity which existed  alongside thriving and rampant prostitution. Later women cut their hair, discarded their corsets, played tennis and, even if some did have stones thrown at them for doing so, rode bicycles. The insights he gives into his own writing explain the slimness of his novels:  he wanted to intensify the ‘inner architecture’ of his writing, to know more than he showed, to hone and omit. A good lesson for writers to absorb.

The memoir is filled with vignettes of great names, from Gorky, Yeats and Strauss to Rilke, Ravel  and Valéry– and a host of other Europeans I’d never heard of and are now, as Zweig says, mainly forgotten. His portrait of  Freud is a real person, suffering but determined as he neared death; with James Joyce he discusses German and Italian translations of words from Ulysses. His treasured collections included the quill pen and candlestick of his greatest icon, Goethe. He travelled widely, from Paris to America and even in India, observing and analysing with telling detail, as when he describes the peasants doffing their caps before artworks in the Hermitage in Leningrad.

But  ‘great evil swept over humanity’ with the onset of WW1,  after which he returned to a Salzburg in his ‘poor plundered unhappy country’ where everything was either ‘broken or stolen’ and hyperinflation  raged: squirrel for Sunday lunch, frozen potatoes, trousers made of old sacks, treasured possessions sold in markets. But he noted too how real value was found in friendship, art and music. His final heartbreak was the start of the rise of Nazi Germany with its systematic destruction of all that he held dear in humanity and the loss of his hopes for a unified Europe. These were horrors enough, but he didn’t live to see the worst.

The history in this memoir is all too familiar, but Zweig’s telling makes it fresh and new.  The World of Yesterday is a unique listening experience.

Rachel Redford, Audible.