Mark Collins – Stefan Zweig, or, the Gulf Between Continentals and the English

Further to this post,

The English and Europe: Never the Twain?


how much has truly changed since that continental first wrote about England?

Between the World Wars Stefan Zweig, an Austrian of Jewish background, was one of the most successful writers in the world. He was truly a man of the European world; he committed suicide, along with his wife, in despair as an exile in Brazil in 1942–the year his memoir, The World of Yesterday, was published in German.

But the European world and the English one were quite distinct (Weltanschauungen? mentalités?) as this passage from the memoir (pp. 178-79) about time he spent in London in 1904, as a 22-year old recent graduate who had just spent a convivial time in Paris, demonstrates:

…I had planned to spend two or three months in England as a kind of duty–for how was I to understand and evaluate our world without knowing the country that had kept the wheels of the world on the rails for centuries? I also hoped to improve my rusty English–which has never become really fluent–by working hard at conversation and keeping lively company. My plan did not work; like all of us continentals, I had few literary contacts on that side of the Channel, I felt miserably inadequate in all the breakfast conversations and small talk at my little boarding house about the court and racing and parties. When people discussed politics I couldn’t follow them; they talked about ‘Joe’ and I didn’t know that they meant Joseph Chamberlain [see here]. Similarly I was unaware that a knight is called only by his first name after the honorific ‘Sir’, and for a long time my ears, closed as if by wax, could make no sense of the cabbies’ cockney accent. So I did not improve my English as quickly as I had hoped…I always had difficulty in finding company, camaraderie and cheerfulness, all of which came flowing to a visitor to Paris. I found no one with whom to discuss the things that mattered most to me, and to those of thee English who were well-disposed towards me I, in turn, probably seemed rather uncouth, tedious company with my boundless indifference to sport, gambling, politics and other subjects that interested them. I did not manage to forge close links with any group or circle…

…I learnt to drink ale, I smoked a pipe instead of the cigarettes of Paris; I tried to adapt in a hundred little details, but I never made any real contacts in society or literature, and those who know England only from the outside miss the essential part of it…When I was introduced to a club I didn’t know what to do there; the mere sight of the deep leather armchairs, like the atmosphere in general, induced a kind of intellectual drowsiness in me because I had not earnt such relaxation, like the others there, by concentrated activity or sport. An idler, a mere observer, unless he was worth millions and knew how to raise idling to the level of a high convivial art, was rejected by this city as a foreign body, while Paris happily accepted him…

More on London clubs:

By the way the recent movie, “The Grand Budapest Hotel“, owes something to Stefan Zweig. Plus a recent post with perhaps some relevance to trends brought out in the flick:

1928: The Subtlely Savage Soviet Union and Stefan Zweig, or…

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


3 thoughts on “Mark Collins – Stefan Zweig, or, the Gulf Between Continentals and the English”

  1. All very well and true in 1904 but we can’t live in the past. London today is more cosmopolitan than most European cities. We eat differently, happily watch Barcelona v Real Madrid on TV, speak more foreign languages, watch foreign films, travel in our millions all over Europe and the world and even wear European styles. What we don’t want is European-made legislation dominating our parliamentary system. Cultural exchange is great but not becoming a fiefdom of anonymous, unelected Brussels grey-men.

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