Review: Journey Into The Past

Passionate prose from a classic writer


By Stefan Zweig (trans: Anthea Bell)
Pushkin Press £7.99

One of the most exciting developments in Jewish literature in recent times has been the rediscovery of some of the great mid-20th century central European writers, including Joseph Roth, Bruno Schulz and Stefan Zweig*.

Much of this, especially in the case of Zweig, has been driven by the enthusiasm of small, independent publishers and Journey into the Past is the latest Zweig to be published by Pushkin Press. It not only contains Zweig’s novella, but an excellent Foreword by writer Paul Bailey introducing Zweig’s art as a short-story writer, and an Afterword by the eminent translator, Anthea Bell, tracing the story’s history, from the original German version in the 1920s.

For years, Zweig was known in Britain as a biographer, a minor belle-lettrist and the author of Letter from an Unknown Woman, filmed with Joan Fontaine by Max Ophuls. But now a wave of new books has reinstated Zweig as one of the great European short-story writers.

Journey into the Past is a story of passionate love around the period of the First World War, set in a vanished world of telegrams, steam trains and steamships. Ludwig, poor and in his early 20s, rises in the ranks of an industrial company, and falls in love with his boss’s wife. They are separated when he is forced to go to Mexico for the company where he is stranded by the outbreak of war. Then he returns to post-war Germany in the hope of rekindling the romance.

It is a simple enough story but the art is in the telling. Almost from the start, the novella has a charged emotional atmosphere. Ludwig is bitter about his humble origins. Zweig writes of “the festering, scarred, sensitive part of his nature”. But from his very first encounter with his employer’s wife, he is struck by her empathy and understanding, which deepens and erupts.

Alongside the overheated intensity of the writing, though, there is a very different tone. Zweig’s choice of words is precise, sometimes troubling. When Ludwig puts his coat away in the wardrobe, it “looked like a hanged man”.

Towards the end of this powerful love story, Zweig evokes, with chilling prescience and barely a change of pace, the emergence of the brutal creed of Nazism.

And, though his widowed beloved tells Ludwig: “This house is your home”, nowhere is he at home. Not here, nor in Mexico. He is one of Zweig’s many homeless heroes, anticipating the tragedy of Zweig’s own later life as a refugee, which ended with his suicide.

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