After one particular night of slow dancing that ultimately resulted in me exploring the contents of somebody’s nightstand the next morning, a book was lent to me. Although this incident happened well over a year ago, I just somehow never got past the cover. Last month I thought that the Christmas break would be as good a time as any to give those pages a go.
The book, The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European by Stefan Zweig, is most definitely an excellent piece of literature, delineating, among other things, the concept of a European identity and its crisis during both of the world wars. Which makes it a very important work, especially relevant in the turbulent times of growing right-wing extremism and Brexit.
But naturally, the passage that really got my attention was Zweig’s account of Berlin. Which comes as hardly any surprise, since I just love to rummage through stories and try to retrace the antics of the past in the present Berlin. But it would have been a fruitless effort here – I found hardly any clues.
Zweig doesn’t really go into detail about what exactly happened during the one semester he had spent in Berlin as a student in the first decade of the 20th century. He does, in my mind, something even more powerful instead – he recalls the city’s spirit. He writes about suddenly finding himself in a world that could seem implausible had it been the setting of a book, depicting his time here as an ongoing spectacle run by tireless Berliners – a quite undefined crowd, made up of oftentimes rough individuals that seem to have one thing in common: none of them will ever miss a chance to boast about their most recent artistic endeavor.
I don’t know about you, but it indeed sounded most familiar to me. And even more relatable when I read about how Zweig transformed his fascination from actual works of art onto people. I let myself be fascinated too. For better or for worse.
I blame that fascination for making me drop my teetotalism and getting me stuck in unhealthy situations just because they could seem implausible had they been a book setting. Even the sheer fact of me being long overdue in returning that memoir goes to show that the idealized Berlin of free-spirited creatives thriving in a well-organized commune where all connections run smoothly is, I think, a utopia.
But Zweig himself acknowledges that not each of those colorful characters left quite the same positive impression on him. And I still can’t think of any other set of influences I would have exchanged Berlin for. Frankly, I think it’d be quite cool if in another hundred years this city and, indeed, its people – would still emit the same smelly charm inviting every stranger to just let down their guard.