‘Journey into the Past’ by Stefan Zweig

JourneyintoPast

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 124 pages; 2009. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell.

A few days ago Gav from Next Read asked a pertinent question: What have you read that you wouldn’t if it wasn’t for a blog? I’ll admit I was stumped, because even though I know I have picked up loads of recommendations from fellow book bloggers over the years, nothing jumped immediately to mind. But since then I can quite happily say, Stefan Zweig.

Austrian-born Mr Zweig, who committed suicide in 1942, is one of those authors that crops up on book blogs all the time. I’ve seen countless reviews of his posthumously published novel The Post Office Girl and several references to his novella Chess, also published after his death. And only last week John Self reviewed Zweig’s Amok & other stories which prompted me to confess that I was a Zweig virgin. When I asked which book I should try first, John suggested Chess because “it shows him in full maturity as a writer”, but as it turned out it was Journey into the Past that caught my eye for no other reason than it was the only Zweig book on Foyles’ shelves when I visited on Friday afternoon. (Interestingly enough, Amazon claim that this book isn’t published until Tuesday, although it seems readily available from the Pushkin Press website.)

Journey into the Past is a quick read coming in at just over 100 pages but it’s the kind of story that lingers and I can see how it would be possible to catch the Zweig bug and want to read more of his work. This one has only just been translated into English, although it was published in German as Widerstand der Wirklichkeit (Resistance to Reality) in 1976 from a manuscript discovered 30 years after his death. But, as the translator Anthea Bell tells us in her Afterword, parts of it had been reproduced as early as 1929 in Vienna under the title Fragment of a Novella in an anthology of works by the Austrian National Association of Creative Artists. Even so, this makes it his final novella (unless other discoveries lie in wait) and for that reason you would expect it to be an accomplished piece of writing.

Indeed it is. It’s also very moving and is brim full of lovelorn angst, a perfectly delicious read that, in less masterful hands, may have come across as sentimental old claptrap. What we have is a love story between two opposites — an impoverished but incredibly intelligent young doctor, and a slightly older woman already married to a rich man — whose affair is never fully consummated before Ludwig is sent away and the First World War ruins his plans to return.

But the book starts where it ends: with Ludwig returning to Germany after an absence of nine years to see whether the woman he so passionately loved has waited for him as she once promised.

I’m not going to spoil the ending and tell you what happens, but it’s a near-perfect examination of how we glorify the past and cling onto the flimsiest of memories to move into the future. Or, as the blurb on the back of my book so aptly puts it, Journey into the Past “is a poignant examination of the angst of nostalgia and the fragility of love”. It’s also superbly written and filled with the kind of gentle nuances other novelists would struggle to emulate.

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14 thoughts on “‘Journey into the Past’ by Stefan Zweig

  1. Price is something I’m never going to understand, where a dinky volume like that can be the same price as some 600 page brick. In the end, it most likely comes down to economies of scale, where a larger publisher are better able to bulk produce the big books and put them out for the cheaper price, where a smaller publisher, with a limited print run, can’t pass on as many savings to the end product, if they are going to make any profit at all.
    As for Paul Bailey, he’s a writer, but he also seems to have a handy sideline in writing introductions: he’s written plenty of them for Hesperus.

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  2. I’ve read “Chess Story” and “The Post-Office Girl” within the last two years, both of them excellent. How nice to see another of his novels get a great review, and it is only 124 pages. I love short great novels.

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  3. this is my first response on your site. I’ve visited a few times to see what I could learn about australian lit. in any event, glad to see you reviewing Zweig. I’m reading “post office girl” right now–my first exposure to his work. I’m enjoying it a lot. For years you couldn’t find anything by him in the states but the NYRB recent brought out some of his work. I expect to read more by him.

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  4. I read The Post-Office Girl earlier this year and loved it. I’m working now on Beware of Pity, which is even better. I might have to break down and fork out the money for some of the Pushkin editions of his other works, since nothing else seems to be available over here by him. By the way–that was a good question–I wonder which books I wouldn’t have read had it not been for blogging. Graphic novels perhaps (though I read few enough of those as it is).

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  5. It’s actually a lot shorter than 124 pages, because the intro and afterword take up a substantial chunk of the finished book. It’s very easy to read in one sitting — and if you’re a fast reader it could easily be consumed in an hour or so.

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  6. Thanks for dropping by John and leaving a comment.
    I think we have NYRB and Pushkin Press, here in UK, to thank for bringing the English translations of his fiction back into print.

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  7. You’re the second person to recommend Beware of Pity. I know Tom at A Common Reader thinks very highly of this book, so it’s been added to the wishlist!

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  8. I am ardent reder of Zweig’s works,be it fiction or bios. He is the grandest of a writer, one who let you discover and rediscover so much about art and the human spirits.I have nearly all his translated works in English and remain insatiated even after re-reading them.I have translated his Masterful Autobiogrphy–the world of yesterday– in Hindi,my mother tongue.I am delighed to know about this new translation,thanks. I won’t be sleep properly until I get this one

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  9. I am sure you will enjoy it when you get a copy. I’m pleased to have discovered him and will be searching out his other stuff — am impressed you’ve read them all and managed to translate one of them!!

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  10. Stefan Zweig is the most wonderful writer!
    I’m sure you will absolutely love Beware of Pity (it looks like I’m the third reader to recommend it here).
    A breathtaking book. Definitely in my “top three favorite books of all list.”
    Like Danielle, above, thought The Post Office Girl was exceptional.
    I’ve read everything Zweig’s written, never disappointed.
    Best,
    Mara

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