In his memoir, The World of Yesterday, published the year after his suicide in 1942 at age 60, Stefan Zweig wistfully recalls the sense of security that “made life seem worthwhile” and that defined his parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Pre-WWI Europe, it seemed, was on an inexorably upward journey away from barbarism, whereas what came after proved to Zweig that his fellow Viennese Jew, Sigmund Freud, was right all along: civilization is “merely a thin layer liable at any moment to be pierced by the destructive forces of the underworld.”
But, as Zweig says so bluntly in one of his acclaimed novellas, The Post Office Girl, “happy people are poor psychologists.” And in the stories of this prolific writer—a humanist, pacifist, and aesthete of the highest order who by nineteen had published a volume of poetry and went on to write fiction, plays, and biographies and essays on Balzac, Stendhal, Dante, Tolstoy, Dickens, and many others—the human heart, especially as thwarted and buffeted by the mindless machinations of society, is scrutinized with an acuity informed by, and often bettering, his friend Freud.
The latest novella available to English-speaking readers, Journey Into the Past—found among Zweig’s papers after his death and now published by New York Review Books Classics in a masterly translation by Anthea Bell and with an introduction by André Aciman—is no exception. This dissection of an unconsummated love affair is bleakly affecting, its nuanced sadness leavened by a belief in an eternal, idealized romantic love that contemporary readers might justifiably envy, just as Zweig envied his father’s faith in the inevitability of world peace.
The opening pages of Journey Into the Past, in which a couple reunite at a train station, are suffused with a deceptive optimism. Thrilled to see each other, they’re annoyed by the presence of others in their train carriage, so desperate are they for an “intimate conversation.” We discover why as the thoughts of the man, Louis Ludwig, slide nine years into the past, to when he last saw “his beloved.” As a 23-year-old scientist, he had reluctantly moved into the grand house of his employer, a German industrialist, to serve as his private secretary. Reluctantly, because Louis’s humble past as a tutor to rich children, when he had loathed his status as “a nameless hybrid somewhere between a servant and a companion,” made him recoil from anything resembling such a life. But, persuaded by his ailing employer that his round-the-clock proximity was indispensible, Louis discovers that his new residence comes with a significant benefit: the lady of the house, his boss’s wife, with whom he instantly falls in love.
The object of our hero’s affections is given neither a name nor an age, but the impression is of a woman in her forties. Her appeal is explicitly Oedipal: she makes sure the neurotic and vulnerable Louis’s wishes “were granted almost as soon as he had expressed them, and granted so discreetly, as if by household elves.” Nurtured and grateful, at first he idolizes her as beyond sex, “pure and inviolable,” but faced with a sudden separation—Louis is given the position of overseeing a new mining venture in Mexico for two years—the pair allow their mutual desire to surge to the surface. Zweig’s descriptions here verge on the purple—there are burning trances, feverish longings, ecstatic frenzies—but the would-be lovers will remain chaste, until, she promises, he returns from Mexico.
Alas, it is not to be: while he is there WWI breaks out, and he is stranded abroad. Desperate to get back to her, he “immediately weighed up all the possibilities of smuggling himself across to Europe by some bold and cunning means, thus checkmating Fate” but is dissuaded from such recklessness. Years pass and he eventually marries someone else, but when a professional obligation brings him back to Germany, he cannot resist seeing “his lover of the past,” whose husband, she has explained in a letter, is now dead.
So can the past be resurrected? This is the agonizing question Zweig poses, and it becomes increasingly clear as the story progresses and the train speeds to the lovers’ destination—the picturesque city of Heidelberg where they plan to spend their first and last night together—that there can be no straight answer, even though Louis at first is hopeful. “Time is helpless,” he thinks, “helpless in the face of our feelings.” The reader is tantalized: who doesn’t want to believe that love can conquer all? We hope along with Louis that he can rescue his one chance for fulfillment, even while the story’s foreboding atmosphere and spellbinding temporal meshing seek to disabuse us of that naïve hope. Because Zweig, ultimately, is less in the business of providing solace than of reminding us that even humans’ most powerful emotions and determined volitions are no match for, in his words, “the dungeon walls of their destiny.”
André Aciman and Joan Acocella will be discussing Journey Into the Past and Zweig's other works at a New York Review Books Classics event next Monday, November the 29th, at 7pm. More details here.