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.