Saturday, January 7, 2012

Journey into the Past

Every time I am afraid that I have exhausted Stefan Zweig's novels, I manage to turn up another. The two best places to find them are at Shakespeare & Company in Vienna (it is quite easy to spend a lot of time and Euros there), and at St. Mark's Bookshop in the Village (equally distracting, but they have much better sales. I always find something good).
I recently finished reading "Journey into the Past," by Zweig (translated by Anthea Bell). I have read several wonderful novels published by the New York Review of Books in the past years; it makes me feel guilty about not subscribing.
All of Zweig's work deals with loss, the novels as much as his autobiography, "The World of Yesterday." I have a ratty old paperback of it, bought from a sale rack of a now defunct bookstore on East 23rd Street. Zweig's lost world came to an end in 1914, with the beginning of World War I; not, as one might assume, with his exile from Austria in the 1930s.
The introduction (by Andre Aciman) told me that Zweig published a draft of the story in a fiction anthology in 1929. The longer version (it is 81 pages) was found in typescript in London after Zweig's death. Zweig had given it two titles: "Resistance to Reality" and "Journey into the Past." Zweig's notes indicate that he preferred the latter.
In "Journey into the Past," Ludwig, the male protagonist, must leave the woman he loves (the wife of his employer), with whom he has shared kisses, to work overseas. He gets stuck in Mexico after World War I begins and must remain there. Nine years pass, the war has ended. Ludwig now has a wife and children. He must go to Germany on business (making it 1923, the year of the Beer Hall Putsch).
In the interim, his employer has died, leaving Ludwig's love a widow. The widow and Ludwig meet several times on his journey home. They confront some of the same questions that Gatsby and Daisy do. This couple can no more recreate the past in Germany than their American counterparts could in West Egg. Now, Zweig does not concern himself with money, power and social mobility in American life as F. Scott Fitzgerald did. Zweig does briefly acknowledge the looming threat of fascism and how it will destroy Ludwig's homeland (Zweig was Austrian). But both these writers identify this strange aspect of the human condition: that if we try hard enough we can recreate the past, and that this effort will a. work and b. make us happy. That we believe this is odd enough. But that we believe that it will work, even though we have failed at it before, is the strangest thing of all. To me, that is what makes Zweig's work so accessible. Aciman compares Zweig's ability to show us the most "ineffable states of being" to James Joyce's ending of "The Dead."

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