Archive for the ‘Stefan Zweig’ Category

Journey into the Past

November 9, 2009

journey into the past

“There you are!” So begins the latest Zweig novella to be made available in English by translator Anthea Bell and Pushkin Press. Zweig’s fiction has provoked a similar response from many readers, seeing something in his work that is perhaps lacking in much modern literature. Certainly, the form is appealing – easily consumed in one sitting, and benefiting from that intensity of experience. At the heart of the appeal, however, is probably raw and unembarrassed emotion, not always expressed openly, but felt deeply.

In Journey into the Past the emotion, as so often, is love. The novella begins by reuniting Ludwig with the woman he has loved for nine years while they have been separated, first by the necessity of him travelling to work in Mexico, and then by the First World War. All the old emotions seem to be in place:

“…he felt that she was the only person really present, removed from time and space in a strange trance of passionate bemusement.”

When Ludwig first met her, she was the wife of his employer, a man much older than her, confined to bed, who hires Ludwig to work as his private secretary. Their relationship is only friendly until Ludwig learns he is to be sent to Mexico and given the responsibility of building a new branch of the company in that part of the world and harnessing the available raw materials. At the thought of leaving, he realises how much he has come to love her:

“My God, he said to himself, leaving her. Like a knife, the thought cut through the proudly swelling sail of his delight.”

The image of travel sabotaged is not misplaced: most of the story is presented to us in the form of memories occurring as the pair travel together to Heidelberg on the train. This is the literal journey into the past, as they return to a place they remember with fondness. When he reaches Mexico one of the ways he attempts to put her from his mind is “by exhausting himself physically with long rides and expeditions into the country.” Time itself becomes a journey for him:

“And like a man chopping trees down in the jungle, he chopped into the wild and still impenetrably menacing time ahead of him with berserk strength and frenzy.”

His love is not unrequited. When she hears the news of his imminent departure, she, too, cannot hide her feelings. Their love, however, is never consummated – only on the last day does this almost happen, but:

“…when in that moment of surrender, the gift of her body was almost his, then in her passion, she stammered out a last plea, ‘Not now! Not here! I beg you!’”

Instead she promises that she will be his when he returns to Germany. It is perhaps this moment, as much as anything, that he seeks to recapture. However, when they find themselves in the same room nine years later, she again resists him:

“And so irresistibly did her own strength dominate his will that, just as in the past, he obeyed her without a word.”

And so, in a sense, the past is recreated – not the passion, but the ‘almost’ moment, and the journey that follows, down the stairs “to the reception rooms, through the front hall and to the door.” In response to this, Ludwig suggests the journey to Heidelberg, a place where they were happy together before they admitted their love to each other. They are greeted there by marching crowds – “a patriotic demonstration of veterans’ associations and students in support of the Fatherland” – a reminder that Germany itself at this time has an uncomfortable relationship with its past. To the couple, this echo of the war only serves to remind them of their separation. His earlier thoughts – “Time is helpless…in the face of our feelings” are replaced with a sense that:

“The past always comes between us, the time that has gone by.”

The novella finishes with a beautiful image. Watching their shadows he at first sees:

“…the shadows ahead merged as if embracing, stretching, longing for one another…”

But this is only an illusion:

“Neither she nor he was the same any more, yet they were searching for each other in a vain effort, fleeing one another, persisting in disembodied, powerless efforts like these black spectres at their feet.”

The final lines are ambiguous, but, once again, Zweig has given us a beautifully rendered relationship, in this instance defeated by time.

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