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Journey into the Past, by Stefan Zweig.

September 8, 2010 11 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.

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