26 May 2011

Journey Into the Past (Stefan Zweig)

Journey Into the Past is a well written novella about love tested by years of physical separation. It reminds me of Henry James in the depiction of inner passions and conflicts, but with a more fast paced and electric prose. Not to say that James is less intense, but his is a kind of cold intensity that withers a flower in a single glance. Stefan Zweig's intensity is a fever-pitch evocation of desire and disappointment.

Ludwig, a man of humble beginnings, fell in love with his employer's wife, and she with him. They recognized their strong feelings for each other on the eve of Ludwig's departure abroad. He was sent overseas, in Mexico, to oversee a mining venture, a rare chance for him to improve his lot in life. The job will cost him two years away from Germany. Before his departure the lovers came to an understanding that they will renew their relationship when he returns to Germany. After two years, when he was just about ready to come home, the first world war broke out and transport to Europe was cut off.

Like James, class distinction between characters hangs like an oppressive weight. Early in the book the narrator Ludwig contemplates his new opulent surroundings, the house of his employer where he was asked to live:

All he had brought with him, even he himself in his own clothes, shrank to miserable proportions in this spacious, well-lit room. His one coat, ridiculously occupying the big, wide wardrobe, looked like a hanged man; his few washing things and his shabby shaving kit lay on the roomy, marble-tiled wash-stand like something he had coughed up or a tool carelessly left there by a workman; and instinctively he threw a shawl over the hard, ugly wooden trunk, envying it for its ability to lie in hiding here, while he himself stood inside these four walls like a burglar caught in the act. In vain he tried to counter his ashamed, angry sense of being nothing by reminding himself that he had been specifically asked for, pressingly invited to come. But the comfortable solidity of the items around him kept demolishing his arguments. He felt small again, insignificant, of no account in the face of this ostentatious, magnificent world of money, servants, flunkeys and other hangers-on, human furniture that had been bought and could be lent out. It was as if his own nature had been stolen from him. [12-13]

Being a member of the lower class ("His one coat ... looked like a hanged man"), in Ludwig's own mind, is like being a criminal ("like a burglar, caught in the act") and at the same like a victim ("his own nature had been stolen from him"). The book is characterized by this kind of inner speech, where the protagonist blurts out his emotional and mental angsts.

Ludwig's stream of feelings is in constant flux, undergoing metamorphosis. His self-awareness is fueled by suddenness, by uninhibited epiphanies.

   ... She shone down from another sphere, beyond desire, pure and inviolable, and even in his most passionate dreams he did not venture so far as to undress her. In boyish confusion, he loved the fragrance of her presence, appreciating all her movements as if they were music, glad of her confidence in him and always fearing to show her any of the overwhelming emotion that stirred within him, an emotion still without a name but long since fully formed and glowing in its place of concealment.

   But love truly becomes only love when, no longer an embryo developing painfully in the darkness of the body, it ventures to confess itself with lips and breath. However hard it tries to remain a chrysalis, a time comes when the intricate tissue of the cocoon tears, and out it falls, dropping from the heights to the farthest depths, falling with redoubled force into the startled heart. [19-20]

This is part of a longer passage sketching Ludwig's acknowledgment, at first, of a chaste love. The chrysalis in his mind is getting more desperate to get out and express its wings. He is conscious of his desiring yet its unfolding yields surprise.

And yet love is not only the kind of feeling that arouses Ludwig. It is but part and parcel of his strong sensitivities, his always startled recognitions. This passage comes right after his employer (the Councillor) offered him a new lucrative job, the job that will improve his station in life.

Then he had left the Councillor's study, still heated by the swirl of figures, reeling at the idea of the possibilities that had been conjured up, and once outside the door he stood staring wildly around him for a moment, wondering if the entire conversation could have been a phantasmagoria conjured up by wishful thinking. The space of a wingbeat had raised him from the depths into the sparkling sphere of fulfillment; his blood was still in such turmoil after so stormy an ascent that he had to be in control again, sensing his inner being more powerfully and as if separated from himself. [24]

This is reminiscent of a passage in The Wings of the Dove: "One had only to admit that her complaint was in fact but the excess of the joy of life, and everything did then fit. She couldn’t stop for the joy, but she could go on for it, and with the sense of going on she floated again, was restored to her great spaces."

Ludwig couldn't stop for the joy, he could go on and on, floating, but suddenly his eyes "fell as if by chance on a picture hanging over a large chest, and lingered there. It was her portrait." It was the portrait of his beloved, and realizing the implication of accepting his new job abroad, he once again underwent an extended epileptic-like seizure, a state of possession ("a blow struck through his whole body from the top of his skull to the bottom of his heart, a lightning bolt tearing across the night sky and illuminating everything"). The lightning singed his wings.

This is a pretty intense book, and what makes it intense is the fluid flow of the prose. The book is to be read aloud so as to savor the sentences, the lyricism, and the sentiments. Anthea Bell's translation captured the live-wire intensity of Zweig's poetry and the Jamesian lucidity of perception.

The second half of the book is where the "journey into the past" takes place, though every bittersweet journey here is already some kind of journey into the past. The present is always filtered by what happened in the past. Very aptly, the novella is in the past tense. The intimations of a new war in real time is in the past continuous. And even Ludwig's present thoughts are referred to in relation to the past: "The past always comes between us, the time that has gone by."

Journey Into the Past by Stefan Zweig, translated and with an afterword by Anthea Bell, introduction by André Aciman, New York Review Books, 2010. Copy from BookMooch.


  1. I haven't read any James in years and only one Zweig ever, Rise, but I enjoyed your comparison of the two writers here esp. since I don't think I would have ever thought to make that comparison myself! I'd like to read James' The Bostonians at some point (Patricia Highsmith "adapted" it for one of her Tom Ripley novels with great success from what I could tell), and I have Zweig's The Post-Office Girl buried under a mound of books somewhere. TBR camouflage and all that. Cheers!

  2. Richard, this is my first Zweig and what a great introduction to a hypersensitive style. I've heard a lot of positive things about The Post-Office Girl and if this short book is any indication, then the praise is deserved indeed. Haven't picked up James in a long time, too. If ever I read one, I'll probably go with The American. It's something I've been meaning to read... Maybe after the next doomsday prediction.

    Marías is arguably Jamesian.

  3. I remember a French mime group performing one of Zweig's works, which worked well.

    The novella 'Amok is his best work. Not sure I see the connection with James much, stylistically and in theme of alienation he's closer to Schnitzler and Kafka, surely, but then James bores me. I just don't get it either about his committing suicide about the state of the world when safe from the Nazi threat in Brazil.

  4. Hey, Kevin. Yes, the suicide was a mystery and there were many theories, none of them convincing. Translator Anthea Bell gave some possible reasons in her afterword. Also I think in the introduction by Aciman (though I skipped it). Zweig's memoir The World of Yesterday was said to offer clues about his thinking at the time.

    And yes, the James connection is not readily apparent. I'm thinking Zweig is how James will write when high on LSD. Hehe.

  5. Not read any Zweig, but have heard great things about him and with the addition of this post it is becoming more likely that I will have to investigate his works.
    Thanks, great post.

  6. Will be interested in the Zweig titles you'll read, Gary.

    Btw, I've finished Underground by Haruki. A great book.