Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

The World of Yesterday

-Book Cover

The Beav bought me this book after reading it in French. It’s a memoir of Stefan Zweig’s youth and early adulthood in the years leading up to the Great War that brought the Europe he loved crashing down. Zweig is a great writer, and his life was fascinating. Everyone who was anyone in the literary or artistic world of the early twentieth century moved in his circle and seems to have counted him as a friend. By the time, the story moves to Paris I felt obliged to read for the names on display alone. The book felt like a history of the side-world I’ve spent years studying.

But ultimately, I had the same trouble reading it, I had reading Annie Dillard’s memoir late last year. There is so much privilege here, so much easy leisure. Yet Zweig gives no sense that he understands that others live much, much less privileged lives. There’s certainly so sense that his personal distinctions and achievements rest, as least in part, on that privilege. In fact, he casts himself nostalgically as a troubled, constrained adolescent trying to build for himself the independence he needs to put down his own roots and blossom, this while living off his family’s money. To take only one example, he launches a literary career by storming into the offices of the best publishers in Vienna despite his youth and inexperience as if he had the right to do so. And of course, because of his family and money, he did have that right. So, yes, he needed and had talent (a talent nurtured by the best schooling available). But privilege, not pluck turned the trick for him.

By the mid-point of the book, I was overwhelmed by the wealth, the class privilege, and the tendency to read both as an expression of personal worth. And I was angry. Which is no way to read a book.

Clearly, I’m losing the American talent for imagining class doesn’t exist, counts for nothing or, if it does, keeps nothing from anyone else. Good riddance.

Posted March 4, 2012