Novella a Day in May #11

Journey into the Past – Stefan Zweig (1976 German publication; trans. Anthea Bell, 2009) 84 pages

Although I’ve since read and blogged about The Post Office Girl, this was the first Stefan Zweig I’d read and at first I wondered why everyone rated him so highly as a writer. Then I realised what he was doing in Journey into the Past was immensely clever.

It tells the story of a love affair between a student, Ludwig, and the wife of his employer, who is not named. The story begins with them on a train in the 1920s, and with Ludwig’s thoughts travelling back into the past to remember how they first met before the First World War separated them.

At first, I thought the description of the affair overblown and naïve.

“From that first meeting he had loved this woman, but passionately as his feeling surged over him, following him even into his dreams, the crucial factor that would shake him to the core was still lacking – his conscious realisation that what, denying his true feelings, he still called admiration, respect and devotion was in fact love  – a burning, unbounded, absolute and passionate love.”

At this point I was thinking Zweig perhaps wasn’t for me 😉

But as the story developed – they admit their love but it remains unconsummated, he goes abroad and then war breaks out, separating them for longer than they ever anticipated – it dawned on me that this style choice was entirely deliberate and conscious.  What Zweig shows us is a world before modern technological warfare, a world that was brutally torn apart. These naïve young lovers are part of a society, a life, that was utterly destroyed.

So although we know they are reunited, it is not with the same youthful self-obsession or indulgent love that they had previously.

“‘Everything is just as it used to be, don’t you think?’ she began, determined to say something innocent and casual, although her voice was husky and shook a little.  However he did not echo her friendly, conversational tone, but gritted his teeth.

‘Oh yes, everything.’ Sudden inner rage forced the words abruptly and bitterly out of his mouth. ‘Everything is as it used to be except for us, except for us!’”

Journey into the Past is not a depressing book despite portraying losses that are glimpsed and barely articulated. It is about the impact of international conflict on the lives of individuals in the smallest, most profound ways. Zweig questions whether those loses can be overcome, and I still don’t know what I think.

I feel foolish for my initial impression of this novella: I hadn’t realised I was in the hands of a master.

21 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May #11

  1. I haven’t read this one but I have it. The only work of Zweig’s I’ve read is Post Office Girl – read it years ago and still think about it, mainly because of the parallels to his own life – so, so sad.

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  2. I love this review. A very thoughtful and considered response to the structure and style of this novella. It was turned into a film (A Promise) not so long ago, but the reviews were so poor that I couldn’t bear to go and see it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds such a powerful piece of writing. I haven’t yet read any Zweig but I’ve been meaning to since reviewing Summer Before the Dark about his time spent in Ostend in the summer of 1914. There’s a plaque to him on the outskirts of Bath which I pass regularly – he spent a few months in a house not far from where I live in 1939.

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  4. Spot on Madame B – I was exactly the same at first. It was only after reading a few of his works that I realised just how good a writer Zweig was. I think half the problem is that he makes it look so easy… Chess is magnificent, but then all of his short works are – I really must get onto his longer works though. And I second recommendation of Summer Before The Dark – great book! 🙂

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  5. This looks so good! Alas I must refrain from buying any more books at the moment as I’m hanging until payday, but I do have a couple of Zweig’s novels knocking around so I can always dip my toe in the water with those first.

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  6. Pingback: Novella a Day in May #31 | madame bibi lophile recommends

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