Home > 20th Century, Austrian Literature, Short Stories, Zweig Stefan > Journey into the Past, by Stefan Zweig.

Journey into the Past, by Stefan Zweig.

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

This is going to be frustrating. Reading such a marvellous short-story, writing about it and not being able to quote anything of Zweig’s bewitching prose. That’s one of the inevitable limits of blogging in English while reading books in a French translation.

 Journey into the Past starts with an exclamation “Here you are!”. And yes, here we are, witnessing the reunion of a man, Ludwig, and a woman, whose name is never given, at the railway station in Frankfort. They are lovers meeting again after being apart during nine years. Can love survive such a long separation? During their journey in the evening train to Heidelberg, Ludwig recalls their love story, these years spent far from one another.

Their relationship starts in 1910 as the young Ludwig, 23, reluctantly moves in his rich and ill boss’ house to become his private assistant. He instantly falls in love with his benefactor’s wife, though he does not name the feeling until his boss decides to send him to Mexico to run the local branch of his company. His absence is due to last two years, but as WWI starts, an embargo on seas prevents him to come back to Germany.  

Zweig has a unique and sensual way to describe the internal mayhem created by young love, the overflowing of Ludwig’s body and soul when he finally admits to himself that he loves her, the mental fireworks in his head and explosion in his heart when he realizes that his love is requited. Zweig’s picturing of desire is sensitive and well crafted. In his worlds love throws a radiant light on places and circumstances. She is there. Her hostile home becomes his “home sweet home”; his job as a private secretary, half servant, half guest in this house, no longer looks like a degradation.

 War is the deus ex-machina of their lives. Once it closes all maritime routes and Ludwig is stuck in Mexico. Then it pollutes their reunion as a military march crosses their way nine years later. Zweig’s disgust for war leaks through Ludwig’s thoughts. “Haß, Haß, Haß” (Hate, Hate, Hate), Ludwig thinks while watching the demonstrators. It slaps in the air like military feet on the pavement. The French translation (“La haine, la haine, la haine”) sounds so soft compared to the hard German “Haß”. Can their love bloom again in the middle of this hate?  

Zweig’s prose is a delicate jewel. He has an overwhelming and yet simple way of portraying feelings. He perfectly catches how fleeting happy moments are, how petty details can ruin a mood and spoil a moment. Happiness is like a butterfly, beautiful, furtive and hard to catch and keep. Memories nourish Ludwig’s inner life in Mexico and help him going on with his life.

 I was blown away by Zweig’s prose. I’ve read Journey into the Past on a train, in a very noisy environment but I was more in that train to Heidelberg, Germany than in my train for Toulon, France. Definitely something which deserves to be read, no excuse, it’s only 70 pages!

 I bought this book because the cover caught my eyes. It is published in a mass paperback collection, Le Livre de Poche. This edition is unusual for this collection and I was surprised to discover the original German text just after the French translation and a long and documented foreword on the life in Vienna in Zweig’s times and relevant biographical details. Usually, Le Livre de Poche offers no dual editions and forewords are limited to one page. By the way, it confirmed that “Louis” was of course named “Ludwig” in the German text: I will never understand why translators should overdo it and translate names too. I expected a German name, “Louis” sounded so odd for a man living in Frankfort.

 PS : I have found another review by Kimbofo from Reading Matters and I have read it after I wrote mine.

  1. September 9, 2010 at 12:08 am

    This one is on my list. I read an Zweig earlier this year–a two story bundle called Twilight and Moonbeam Alley. Max recommended this writer to me.


    • September 9, 2010 at 9:28 am

      I’ll read your review on Zweig. I had already read “Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman” and “Confusion of Feelings” but they didn’t move me as much as this one.
      I also liked the part where Ludwig describes his feeling of being a poor teacher in rich families. I thought it interesting and it recalled me of the place Nick from The Line of Beauty had in the Fedden’s house.


  2. September 21, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    “Zweig has a unique and sensual way to describe the internal mayhem …” caused by many things. From what I’ve read of him I think that captures his essence actually. He’s very good at internal mayhem.

    I already have unread Zweig so I need to hold off on this one for a while, I’ll definitely give it thought once I’ve worked through those though.


    • September 21, 2010 at 1:30 pm

      I think you’ll like it, it looks like the kind of books you enjoy.

      Your last sentence is a nightmare to pronounce for a French native, all these tricky ‘th’ 🙂


  3. October 2, 2010 at 12:18 am

    I read Zweig’s novella Chess Story last year, Bookaroundthecorner, and liked it so much that I picked up one to two of his full-length novels soon afterward. A very striking writer. By the way, although I only discovered your blog not too long ago, I wanted to let you know that I’ve been enjoying it very much. Since I sometimes post in Spanish on my own blog, I guess you could say I’m particularly interested in your own choice to blog in a foreign language here and the adventures that ensue (i.e. not being to share your French Zweig quotes here). Anyway, best of luck with everything!


  4. October 2, 2010 at 7:29 am

    I have other books from Zweig at home, so more reviews to come.

    Thanks for commenting and wandering on my blog. I’ll visit your blog too. It’s interesting that you write in Spanish, a language I unfortunately don’t know. How is it for you to express your thoughts in another language ?
    With time, it’s getting easier for me to blog in English. I’m better equipped (dictionary of synonyms, book on literary terms, full English dictionary) and I’ve found people always patiently explaining things I don’t understand and gracefully giving me original titles of books when I need them to find a book in the French translation. I guess they’ll recognize themselves if they read this. Thanks.


  5. July 6, 2015 at 7:48 pm

    Wonderful review. I love your description of Zweig’s prose, it does sparkle like a delicate jewel. I fell for this novella in a big way when I read it a couple of years ago. Beware of Pity is a little different to this one, much more melodramatic and sweeping in scope. I’ll be interested to see what you think of it should you get a chance to read it at some point.


    • July 6, 2015 at 9:34 pm

      Thanks Jacqui.
      I’ll probably come to Beware of Pity one of these days. He’s a writer I want to explore.


  1. December 8, 2010 at 11:47 pm
  2. January 1, 2011 at 12:05 am
  3. November 16, 2011 at 12:37 am

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