Review: The World of Yesterday

Review: The World of Yesterday

The World of YesterdayThe World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Memoires often make the best travel books. I began this book in preparation for a short trip to Vienna, and quickly discovered that I had chosen well. Whatever your opinion of Zweig, The World of Yesterday is worth reading simply for the wealth of information it contains. Few history books paint so rich and full a picture of European culture during these transformative years—above all, in Paris, Berlin, and Zweig’s original home of Vienna—from the peaceful span preceding the First World War, to the Indian Summer of the interwar years, to the terrible hardships that led to the second great conflagration.

The last two autobiographies I read were of Benvenuto Cellini (whose beautiful salt-cellar is on display at the Vienna Art History Museum) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, two very different men alike in their narcissism. Whatever faults Zweig may have had, he was not a narcissist. This is the least personal of autobiographies, almost never mentioning Zweig’s so-called “personal life”—his marriages, private disappointments, and intimate friendships. Instead Zweig focuses his gaze outward, at the world around him, the cultural milieu, the slowly shifting tides of history.

By being so self-effacing, Zweig succeeds in producing a surprisingly insightful look at his world. A delicate, sensitive, and intelligent man, Zweig was extremely well-read, and knew virtually everybody—every famous European, at least—and so was in a uniquely advantageous position to write the history of his times. To give you some idea of his social circle, Zweig knew Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dalí (he even facilitated a meeting between the two when Freud was in London), he met Auguste Rodin, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and was friends with Richard Strauss, Benedetto Croce, Rainer Marie Rilke, Romain Rolland, and Maxim Gorky, just to name the names that come to mind.

Zweig’s history is largely one of tragic loss, as he repeats again and again. He begins his life in an affluent home, the son of a successful industrialist, in a period of calm stability and cultural efflorescence in Europe. He hones his writing skill, quickly gains success, meets several famous contemporaries, travels and sees the world, and then witnesses the body of European civilization tear itself apart for the flimsiest and most fatuous of reasons during the First World War. The war eventually comes to its bloody end, Austria and then Germany suffer terribly, Zweig meanwhile becomes one of the world’s most famous and most translated authors (although the English never liked him), and then Hitler’s rise begins, forcing Zweig to flee. The book ends just as the Second World War is commencing.

Despite the tragedy that Zweig lived through (and committed suicide during), it is impossible for me not to have life-envy. Here was have a man born into wealth, who had the time and resources to dedicate his whole self to his art, who could travel wherever he pleased whenever he pleased, who achieved instantaneous success seemingly without effort, who was able to meet and befriend all of his contemporary heroes, and who was even wealthy enough to collect manuscripts of his deceased idols—in short, it would be hard to imagine circumstances more favorable to the creation of a writer than those Zweig enjoyed. If you had asked me, before reading this book, to give my prescription for creating a first-class writer, I don’t think the result would be far off.

Yet for all his cultural capital, Zweig does not come across as pretentious or pompous. He is timid, uncharismatic, and even mundane. It is easy to imagine bumping into him on the street. (Though, as Hermann Kesten wrote, the Zweig of reality was far more eccentric than than Zweig of this book.) As a writer, he is skilled, consistent, and accessible. In a word, his prose is fluent: easy to read and digest, even in large doses. He is always interesting and never overpowering, like an excellent dinner guest. The one quality he lacks is humor—a serious deficiency, but not a fatal one. Perhaps the best way to describe Zweig is that he is a sophisticated middle-brow author, which might be why the high-brow world has had trouble accepting him; unlike Milton, Zweig intended to soar a middle flight.

It is hard to criticize Zweig—the champion of European solidarity, whose message is especially important now—who asks so little and never imposes his views. But I must say that he had several blindspots.

First, I think that his narrative of events is deeply colored by his affluence. Zweig—a rich, successful, cosmopolitan intellectual—simply cannot imagine why anyone would do something so insane as to start a war. How is he to travel to Paris or to attend the theater festival in Brussels if men are fighting? His explanation of the conflict—which comes down to thoughtless stupidity—is historically unsatisfactory. And even though I, of course, agree with his anti-war ideals, I couldn’t help thinking that his social status prevented him from understanding why less fortunate people might be dissatisfied with his wonderful world.

More generally, I think that Zweig’s life demonstrates why art should not be made into a religion. Zweig did not only love art, he worshipped it. His intense focus on the objects that artistic geniuses have touched—their manuscripts and notebooks and even their furniture—reminded me of the reliquaries of Catholicism. Every time he introduces one of his famous acquaintances, he writes a mini-hagiography, obsequiously describing even his subject’s face, manners, and expressions, as if artistic skill sanctified one’s mortal frame.

I personally found it all very distasteful—how, for example, Zweig fetishized every item that was in Beethoven’s room when he died. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, of course; but it makes it very easy to confuse aesthetic with ethical values. This confusion leads to the kind of political apathy Zweig succumbed to. When the beautiful is all that matters, why worry about tawdry things like social welfare?

Zweig had the attractive, but ultimately vain, notion that he could live aloof from politics. He never mentions anything even remotely political in his fiction; he didn’t even vote. Then he is surprised and dismayed that politics follows him everywhere. Granted, he does have a political stance: he is a pacifist, a humanist, and an internationalist. But this stance is not the product of reasoned consideration; it is the stance that allows him to continue his life as a traveling author unmolested. To steal a phrase from Michael Hoffman’s scorchingly hostile review, he is more a passivist than a pacifist. What Zweig wants from politics, in other words, is what would be necessary for him not to bother with politics.

Now, it is worth asking whether we ought to live in a world where we have no choice but to pay attention to the dreary doings of politicians. Be that as it may, Zweig certainly didn’t have a choice, which led to the irony of this most apolitical of authors structuring his autobiography according to political events.

All these criticisms notwithstanding, I think most people will find here a fundamentally sane, humane, and liberal book. For my part, Zweig supported the right causes, if not always for the right reasons. One thing, however, is left unclear: the relation of this book to Zweig’s suicide. Zweig, along with his wife, ended his own life not long after finishing this book. One might expect this to be his final message to the world; but as the translator notes, it is difficult to read this as a long suicide note. Zweig talks of a future, his future, with more books to write and years to live. The book even ends with a paean to life.

Whatever reason Zweig ended his life, one thing was certain: the Vienna of his youth, the Vienna he so lovingly describes here, is mostly vanished. If I can judge from my short visit, the city is entirely changed: Vienna nowadays is a city of tourism. Instead of the music-loving, critical, and discerning audiences Zweig describes in theaters and concerts, the city is now full of tourists who will pay periwigged salesmen to attend generic Mozart concerts, which run identical programs of greatest-hits that tireless musicians perform nightly. In the streets, English and Chinese are more commonly heard than German. Of course, Vienna is still lovely and full of cultural treasures; but these cultural treasures are of the past now, not the living present.

Did Zweig sense this change coming? Maybe not in so many words, but I think he knew that his world had forever passed into memory. There was no putting Europe back into the same postwar shape after so much destruction and death. That past now exists only in museums, grand old buildings, and books like this.

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Review: Saldavor Dali

Review: Saldavor Dali

Salvador Dalí: las obras de su vidaSalvador Dalí: las obras de su vida by Nicolas Palmisano
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Salvador Dalí is one of the few visual artists of the twentieth century with truly popular appeal. Granted, this probably had as much to do with his moustache and his antics as with his work. But his work is undoubtedly popular. You do not need to be an art history major to appreciate The Great Masturbator, for example; even the title is enough to produce snickers in middle school students. The Dalí Museum in Figueres, Catalonia—which Dalí created himself in an old theater during the last few years of his life—is the second-most visited museum in Spain, after the Prado in Madrid; and this is especially impressive, considering that Figueres is a small town, not very close to Barcelona or any other major city.

This book is one of those omnipresent omnibus collections of artists’ works, cheap enough for tourists to buy on a whim, portable enough for tourists to stuff in their rucksacks. For what it is, it’s done well: full of glossy, high-quality pictures of Dalí’s major works, with some basic biographical information. There’s nothing in this book that you couldn’t find online—the biography on Wikipedia is fuller than the one here—but having a physical copy of an artist’s work, even a cheap one, is undeniably appealing.

As many have noted, the striking thing about Dalí—which is true, although in a different way, of Gaudí—is the combination of radical innovation and extreme conservatism. Dalí was kicked out of his academy; his surrealism was avant-garde; and his lifestyle anything but traditional. Not only that, but he pioneered the role of the zany artist in the 20th century, making media appearances in bizarre getups. And yet, for all this, he was a genuinely religious man, reconciled himself enough with Franco’s reign to move back to Spain, and thought of himself as a Renaissance man in the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci.

It is worth noting that many other great artists and thinkers have exhibited this tension in different ways—Joyce, Stravinsky, even Marx—and, indeed, the desire to place oneself firmly within a tradition, while reserving the artistic right to innovate upon that tradition, strikes me as the defining mark of great geniuses. Only lesser artists see innovation and tradition as antithetical.

Dalí’s tension of traditional and experimental is illustrated in his particular brand of surrealism: the use of careful draughtsmanship to realistically render fantastical scenes. The solidity of Dalí’s paintings, achieved using familiar, traditional technique, is why his work has become so popular, I think. Nobody can accuse Dalí of drawing like a child. Unlike many works in contemporary galleries, his paintings are as visually engaging as any special effects-laden movie. Like the works of Hieronymous Bosch—an obvious precursor—Dalí’s paintings are so full of detail and bizarre images that they always entertain, even if their symbolic meaning escapes the viewer.

One thing this book did allow me to see is the remarkable consistency in Dalí’s work over the years. From his beginnings, before he was even comfortable calling himself a surrealist, to well after he was thrown out of the surrealist group and began interesting himself in Catholicism and quantum physics, the same clear aesthetic sensibility pervades his entire oeuvre. This is the reason for the oft-repeated accusation that he was an artistic one-trick pony. While there is some justice in this, as well as in the accusation that his publicity stunts trivialized his work, I think Dalí is easily one of the greatest painters of the last century. His works seldom have a great emotional impact; indeed, sometimes they produce only slightly amused nods. But he was a visual genius: there is no unseeing a work of Dalí, nor mistaking it for another person’s work. And unforgetability is, I think, the ultimate test of any artist.

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Review: The Magic Mountain

Review: The Magic Mountain

The Magic MountainThe Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ah yes, irony! Beware of the irony that flourishes here, my good engineer.

In my freshman year of college, I took a literature course to fulfill a core curriculum requirement: Sexuality in Literature. It was a great class; we read Plato’s Symposium, Sappho’s poetry, the Song of Solomon, Sade, and Sacher-Masoch. But of all the great books we made our way through that semester, the one that most stuck with me was Mann’s collection of short fiction, which included Death in Venice.

I was a negligent student of literature in high school. Only rarely did I do my assigned readings, and so I had a remarkably poor vocabulary. (In fact, a friend recently borrowed my copy of Death in Venice, wherein I underlined every word I didn’t know; “Man, your vocabulary sucked,” he said as he returned it.) So you can imagine what it was like for me to try and tackle the enormous erudition and sophistication of Thomas Mann. I was underprepared and overwhelmed. It was work enough to simply understand a sentence; unweaving his sophisticated themes and symbols was beyond my ken. Yet I still managed to enjoy the collection; more, I even savored it. The acute joys of reading fine literature, so alien before, were slowly opening themselves up to me.

The point of this autobiographical digression is that Thomas Mann has earned himself a special place in my reader’s heart. So it was with excitement and trepidation that I recently walked into a book store and bought a copy of his most iconic novel: The Magic Mountain.

Now, seven long weeks later, I have set myself the difficult task of reviewing this book. And, make no mistake, the task is difficult; for The Magic Mountain is perhaps the most ambiguous and elusive work of literature I’ve ever read. Even perhaps more so than Ulysses, the novel is a throwing down of the gauntlet, a tremendous, impudent challenge to any would-be critic. So I hope my reader will excuse me if this review it a bit disorganized, a bit slipshod, as I wrestle with this novel’s hydra heads in no particular order.

The premise is simple: Hans Castorp, a likable, if simpleminded, young man visits his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, in a sanatorium for a three-week stay, and ends up staying seven years. All of the action takes place on the titular mountain—a reference to a sentence in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, where Nietzsche is himself referring to Mount Olympus—as the young, impressionable Castorp gets sucked into the environment. He toys around with ideas, he listens to learned discussions, he befriends interesting personalities, he acquaints himself with death, he falls in love, he indulges in food and alcohol—in a word, he dabbles. He almost entirely forgets about his former life as an aspiring engineer “down there” in the “flatlands”—as the residents of the Berghof call the hustling, bustling world of the healthy below.

When characterizing the style of this novel, one falls naturally into paradoxes: the book is both carefully realistic and deeply allegorical, it is both poetic and prosaic, both lyrical and didactic, both ironic and earnest, both knowing and naïve. Mann accomplishes this feat of ambiguity by adopting a narrative voice of the most gentle and subtle irony. Mann’s own opinions of any of the ideas and characters presented in the book are difficult, if not impossible, to guess at. Simply put, Mann takes no sides; he never professes unguarded allegiance or admiration; everything, in short, is coated in an understated mocking humor. And this ambiguity is summed up perfectly well in the person of our protagonist Hans himself, who dabbles in all things and commits to none, and who is constantly vacillating in his dilettante fashion.

Perhaps as a result of this essential abstruseness, the novel seems to make reference to everything at once. Dostoyevsky often comes to mind, as Mann involves his characters in long philosophical debates, à la The Brothers Karamazov. And like Dostoyevsky’s fiction, Mann creates characters which are allegories for certain philosophies of life: we have Settembrini the rational humanist, Naphta the religious radical, Madame Chauchat the symbol of lust, and, my personal favorite, Mynheer Peeperkorn the hedonist. But then suddenly the novel will take a distinctly Proustian turn, as the narrator indulges in long, lyrical discussions of time, music, and the passing seasons. We sometimes get doses of Faust or even Don Quixote, as Hans, our would-be scholar, our wandering knight-errant, trundles about with Joachim in tow, often getting himself into farcical situations. And then suddenly Dante will appear, with Settembrini as Virgil, Madame Chauchat as Beatrice, and the sanatorium itself as the Mountain of Purgatory—where the patients come to be purged of their sickness, rather than their sins.

What is so arresting about all of these literary parallels is that Mann manages to evoke them in the context of story wherein—it must be admitted—almost nothing at all happens; at least, nothing out of the ordinary. There’s no plot to speak of, no major obstacle to overcome, no central struggle, and even no consistent theme. Rather, the story is episodic in nature (here we are reminded of Cervantes again), and is quite realistic to boot. In fact, on the surface, The Magic Mountain is a fairly conventional novel; at least, it isn’t nearly as difficult to read as either Proust or Joyce. Mann’s sentences, though sometimes long, are rarely rococo; and his dialogue and characterizations are, on the surface at least, rather orthodox. Again, here we see Mann as a master of subtlety, evoking the whole Western cannon in the course of a conversation between a patient and his doctor.

Now let me try to unravel some of the themes heard in Mann’s great symphony. One obvious theme is that of sickness and death. Hans encounters a wide variety of attitudes towards illness during his stay. First, we have the medical staff, represented by Dr. Behrens, who sees sickness and death as just matters of business and biology—a matter for science. Contrasted with Behrens, we have Dr. Krokowski, the aspiring psychologist, who sees sickness as unrequited love, as a product of mental tensions. Then, we see Settembrini’s proud disdain of sickness, for it the enemy of vital human life, of social progress. Castorp is inclined to see something poetic in sickness—a kind of ennobling suffering, which parallels the genius’s intellectual struggle. Naphta is wont to praise sickness, for it weakens man’s love of the flesh, and turns his attention to the ascetic Spirit. And we cannot forget the dutiful Joachim, who hates sickness, because it prevents the accomplishment of one’s duty.

Amid the great themes of the novel, we also encounter innumerable smaller motifs. One is that of music. Castorp becomes obsessed with a gramophone; the narrator speculates on the experience of time in music and literature; Settembrini famously calls music “politically suspect.” Another is politics, as the reader gets absorbed in the intellectual clashes between the humanist Settembrini, who champions liberalism and enlightement, and the caustic Naphta, who is a monomaniacal Christian-Marxist-Hegelian. Mann also displays his talents in evoking sexual tension, as Castorp eyes the alluring Chauchat for months and months, just as Aschenbach observed Tadzio.

But perhaps the major theme of this novel is time. In the Berghof, time is experienced differently. Down below, in the flatlands, time is measured in days, hours, minutes, seconds. Up here, in the sanatorium, time is measured in weeks, months, years. Time forms the whole basis of their stay; for their sickness is often likened to a prison sentence, a sentence which is constantly increased. Their day is carefully divided into segments—five meals, “rest cures” (which consist of just laying down for hours on end), and little strolls. They regularly measure their temperature—holding the thermometer in their mouths for seven painful minutes—and chart their fevers through the passing weeks, hoping to see it normalize. One is often even reminded of Einstein’s theory, for time seems to be supernaturally stretched out, dilated and distended, up in the mountain.

Connected with the leitmotif of time is that of acclimatization. When Castorp arrives, he is a stranger in a strange land. Everything is unfamiliar to him. His habits are all out of sync; he finds the patients’ behavior odd and uncanny. But slowly Hans gets used to things (or, as it’s put by Behrens, he gets used to not getting used to things). The reader, too, experiences a sort of acclimatization, as we acquaint ourselves with the Berghof and its many residents. The world of rest-cures and the half-lung club are, to us as well, strange at first, but gradually become intimately familiar. How much the reader himself has gotten used to things is made clear when Hans gets a visit from his uncle. Hans’s uncle goes through the same process as did Hans when he first arrived; but whereas we were outsiders for Hans’s arrival, we are locals for his uncle’s. We are inclined to laugh at the uncle’s incredulity and foreignness; we are now part of the knowing club, and can wink to each other when the flat-footed visiter from the flatlands commits a faux-pas.

Because so much of this novel has to do with getting used to things, it almost demands to be read slowly—a little bit at a time, over many weeks. Indeed, I was almost dismayed at how much time it took me to get through; for not only does the novel take a long time to read, but it feels long. This book simply revels in its own length. One can even go further and say that the experience of reading the novel—to a degree that is almost eerie—mirrors the experience of Castorp as he stays in the Berghof. I picked up the book from the bookstore in almost the same spirit as Castorp when he arrived to visit his cousin—a casual impulsiveness. And gradually, inevitably, I got absorbed in it, entranced by it. I too committed more time than I expected to toy with ideas, to acclimatize myself to a strange place, to put normal life on hold and indulge in an aesthetic experience.

When the reader gets to the 700th page, and reflects that he has been with Hans Castorp for seven whole years, and has gotten to know so many characters so well, he, too, may feel that he has gotten himself a little lost. The atmosphere of the novel, so rich in ambiguity and so full of ideas, may also awake some lingering sickness of soul, or maybe just make us a little dizzy. And now, as I take my leave of the book, I am, like my companion Hans, thrown back into the hustle and bustle of the buzzing flatlands, expelled from the rarefied air of The Magic Mountain—a little wiser, a little more experienced, and, with any luck, a little healthier.

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Review: Pride and Prejudice

Review: Pride and Prejudice

Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jane Austen’s tools are tweezers and a nail file. Tolstoy built cityscapes; Dostoyevsky dug sewer systems; Joyce made funhouses; Kafka put up prisons; Cervantes created carnivals. Austen crafts ivory figurines, incredibly lifelike portraits that fit in the palm of your hand.

When you read Pride and Prejudice you see the novel in its barest form. Her prose has no pyrotechnics, her descriptions have little poetry. Word-play, fantastic events, bizarre characters, cliff-hangers, and elaborate plots are similarly absent. When you read this book you realize that these tools are not only unnecessary, but can distract from the craft of the novel.

In all of the annals of social science—the ethnographies of anthropology, the studies of sociology—there has never been an observer of social life more keen than Ms. Austen. What we have here is one of the best accounts of marriage customs ever written. That information alone would make this book invaluable.

But of course, this is no academic treatise; it is a novel, and a brilliant one at that. Unlike other authors, who use the dialogue to present information about the plot, for Austen the dialogue is the plot. It is a story of information and misunderstanding. Who thinks what, who knows what, who tells what to whom—all form the intimate tapestry of events that propel this book forward to its merry conclusion.

Austen also excels at omitting unnecessary information. She never tells instead of shows. She does not beleaguer the reader with descriptions of personalities, or even of appearances. Descriptions of setting are similarly kept to the barest minimum; in fact, they are almost apologetic.

The scenes of our greatest struggles and triumphs aren’t always aboard a whaling ship or before the gates of Troy. Sometimes they are conversations held over the soft plunking of a piano-forte

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