Messages from a Lost World by Stefan Zweig
To accompany their rather lovely edition of “Summer Before the Dark” (which I reviewed here), Pushkin Press have brought out a collection of Stefan Zweig’s essays. Subtitled “Europe on the Brink” they touch upon one of Zweig’s lasting obsessions (and in fact the one that would probably bring about his death) – the loss of the Europe of the mind, the civilised world of arts and culture which he saw being buried by barbarism.
In fact, Zweig witnessed this twice: firstly, with the First World War, which was cataclysmic but in some ways less apocalyptic; and with the lead up to WW2, where he saw culture being trampled under the Nazi boot. He came out of the first conflict desperate to see civilization rebuilt and the birth of a truly united Europe; however, the rise of Nazism was to put a stop to this dream.
I have to confess that up until now I’d only read Zweig’s fiction. However, as translator Will Stone points out, the majority of Zweig’s work is actually in essay form, so it’s about time these started to appear in English too! Stone has already translated a collection of Zweig’s travel writings, “Journeys” (Hesperus Press) and here he also provides an erudite and invigorating introduction which throws much light on Zweig’s eventual fate in Petropolis in 1942.
The pieces in “Messages” have been collected together for their commonality, sharing the running theme of the need for humanity to get past the divisive effects of the Tower of Babel (an image he uses repeatedly) and work together. Zweig had a vision of Europe as a cultural and spiritual whole, taking the Vienna he loved and recalled as its model, and the essays are a clarion call for peace and unity. Far ahead of his time, he envisaged a union of European countries where there were no borders and people from all nations could mix freely and exchange ideas, in a celebration of European culture and its possibilities.
And it’s culture that is the watchword here; for Zweig was not interested in the economic unit we’ve become nowadays, but in the union of the mind. Pre-WW1 Vienna was his image of perfection, a cultural state he lauds at several points during the book, and he hearkens back to this age repeatedly. His essays are informed by his yearning for this lost Europe and his great wish for it to be reborn.
The cynical amongst you might wonder what relevance this can possibly have nowadays, but in a world where civilisations are crumbling, intolerance is once more on the rise and culture is under threat, Zweig’s plea for us to understand one another is remarkably timely. Europe itself is struggling with all kinds of crises which are exacerbated by suspicion and mistrust, and it is only if humans can get past this that we’ll progress.
There is no longer any pacifist organisation to speak of and barely any will to form one. Even the artists and intellectuals are weary of signing manifestos, for they know well enough how absurd it is to wave a scrap of paper at an onrushing locomotive.
The presentation of the essays in chronological order makes for a fascinating read, as we watch the evolution of Zweig’s thought, his gradually diminishing hope for a successful future for Europe and his poignant evocation of the Vienna he recalls. Despair finally gripped the author in South America, when the resolution of the War looked hopeless and he could see no future for himself in the world that would follow.
“Messages” is an essential and timely book from Pushkin; a reminder of what a wonderfully talented and varied writer Stefan Zweig was, and also an opportune look at how the hopes and dreams of the past have not come to fruition. Zweig was a humane and thoughtful writer and thank goodness his work is now back in favour!
(Many thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy)