Tag Archives: Stefan Zweig

Life is a Sandwich

Or at least, it should be. Not the upside-down open sandwich of thick Cheddar cheese that it is today, but a Scooby-Doo layered sandwich with lots of different fillings between many slices of bread.

I’m reading Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man at the moment. It’s the record of an Italian Jew’s 11-month incarceration in Auschwitz in 1944.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat has this got to do with sandwiches, I hear you ask.

I’m reading the book because it’s a set text in my daughter’s French lessons at school.

I’m reading the book, whereas my daughter (sshhh; don’t tell her teacher) has only read the first chapters and a cheat sheet. With Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday we managed no better: she read most of the required 30-page extract. I read the book.

For her, it’s a chore. For me, it’s fascinating.

I’m the one who should be attending her French lessons. She, meanwhile, is focused on finding a career. She’s chewing through her Cheddar cheese school years, and I’m chewing through that doorstep of bread.

You see? Wouldn’t it be great if life were a Scooby-Doo sandwich of learning and earning in alternate slivers?

‘Fascinating’ isn’t perhaps the word you’d associate with books about the war and the Holocaust. But if you’ve read these works you’ll know they address far more than an account of the horrors of wartime life. What fascinates me in both books is how they help us understand today’s cultural differences – and human behaviour – better.

In The World of Yesterday, when Zweig leaves Salzburg in 1933 and comes to London, his description of how he finds the English compared to the mainland Europeans is particularly interesting. After being surrounded by hate, stress and political embroilment for years, he was relieved to find that the English “lived more peacefully, more contentedly and were more interested in their gardens and little hobbies than in their neighbours.”

When I first came to France I was struck by how the French love a good, heated discussion about politics. Perhaps it’s just my background, but in England politics always seem to be a subject to avoid. Gardens and hobbies are much safer topics.

Primo Levi talks about the effect on humans when every civilised institution is taken away. For example, he says that although we all discover that perfect happiness is unrealizable, we don’t often stop to think that perfect unhappiness is just as unrealizable.

At one point he mentions how some Italian Jews gave themselves up to the Fascists or Nazis spontaneously, ‘to be in conformity with the law’. His words helped me to understand a cultural difference between the French and the English.

The French are very sensitive about World War 2. Of course they are: we were bombed, but they were invaded and ruled by Nazis. Imagine having to follow imposed laws that are contrary to your beliefs. A good citizen abides by the law. But what if the law is so obviously wrong? Wouldn’t you depend on your own values of what’s right and wrong – and teach your children to question rules rather than blindly follow them?

Now think about roadworks in France. Picture some work on a drain in a village street. For a short distance, only one traffic lane is open. There are temporary traffic lights: you know, the hand-pulled cart with the alternating ‘red for stop’ or ‘flashing orange to drive onward at your own risk’. The light is red, but there’s nobody opposite. Do you abide by the law and wait, or do you ignore the red light and drive on? And do you make a flippant comment about French drivers when the car in front jumps the light?

It could be the driver’s culture speaking.

Then again, he might just be in a hurry to buy a nice cheese sandwich for lunch.