Saturday, 29 August 2009

'Two spectres walk, still searching for the past.'

Journey Into The Past
by Stefan Zweig

After the triumph of Zweig's novel Beware Of Pity it was high time for me to enjoy some of his shorter fiction, the form that he is most feted for. John Self seems to have already reviewed most of it but he must have been distracted recently (those babies are rather dependent) allowing me to pounce quickly on this novella begun in the 1920's, published in German in the 1970's and only now published in English for the first time (after the discovery of the manuscript) with Anthea Bell's translation from Pushkin Press.

Paul Bailey provides the foreword and Anthea Bell a fascinating Translator's Afterword. Both of them place the work in its context, a book that may only be coming to us now but which was begun very close to the period in which it is set. Beginning just before The Great War the story covers a period of nine years; however it is not only time but also distance that has separated the two protagonists and the power of the book comes from the emotional force of such a reunion.

Perhaps influenced by the last book I read, I found great significance in the way that Zweig indicates the changing emotional states of his characters by their reaction to or perception of the space around them. At the beginning, chronologically, Ludwig moves into the home of his ailing employer, the Privy Councillor. Having come from such a low social status he is hugely intimidated by the opulent surroundings he finds himself in.

'All he had brought with him, even he himself in his own clothes, shrank to miserable proportions in this spacious, well-lit room. His one coat, ridiculously occupying the big, wide wardrobe, looked like a hanged man: his few washing things and his shabby shaving kit lay on the roomy, marble-tiled wash-stand like something he had coughed up or a tool carelessly left there by a workman...'

What changes his perception almost immediately is his meeting with the Councillor's wife. Her warmth and sympathy strike right at the heart of his insecurity.

'...how was it that her first words went straight to the festering, scarred, sensitive part of his nature, straight to the seat of his nervous terror of losing his independence...How had she managed to brush all such thoughts of his aside with that first gesture of her hand? Instinctively he looked up at her, and only now was he aware of a warm sympathetic glance confidently waiting for him to return it.'

From that first meeting he is in love with her, his passion of course contained because of his situation and also because he doesn't even consider the chance of it being reciprocated. Again, like The Glass Room this is a book filled with passion, and it is finally released when it is announced that Ludwig will leave to develop the business in Mexico, keeping him away from Germany, and from her, for two years. Her shock at this news is like the release of a cork and Zweig doesn't hold back when describing their lust for one another ('wild ecstatic frenzy', 'like animals, hot and greedy'). The ten days before his departure are a mixture of public reserve and private moments of stolen passion.

This is a story about memory though and the real strength of it is not the description and immediacy of the affair (which is being recalled for us during a literal journey) but the transformation of these feelings by separation. Whilst in Mexico and only a short time from his return to Germany (and to her) war breaks out and he has to remain where he is. It isn't until three years after it ends that he returns and Zweig shows so effectively the many and varied changes. That house for example, once so foreboding and humiliating, is now a space filled with memories of love and lust.

'Everything stood out in a significant way, speaking urgently of some memory. Here was the wardrobe that her attentive hand had always secretly kept in order for him, there were the bookshelves to which an addition was made when he had uttered a fleeting wish, there - speaking in yet sultrier tones - was the bed, where countless dreams of her, he knew, lay hidden under the bedspread.'

Zweig's undoubted skill is in the complex and nuanced emotional and psychological landscape that they have to negotiate with their reunion.

Germany too has changed and Zweig's pacifism shows itself again. Not only has war been the cause of their separation but the country when he returns seems to be gearing up already for its next conflict. Brownshirts and goose-stepping are a striking image, all the more so in a story started over a decade before the Nazis came to actual power. A homeland that had been a forward moving industrialised nation is depicted as one already running towards the logical consequences of nationalism. The consequences of this for Zweig are all too well known.


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