Stefan Zweig
translated by Anthea Bell
Pushkin Press ($13)

by Jesse Freedman

At the climax of Joseph Roth’s Flight Without End (1927), the displaced Austrian lieutenant Franz Tunda attributes his sorrowful condition to a “chain of circumstances” beyond his control. Homeless, stateless, a man “without importance,” Tunda experiences the sort of suffering to which Stefan Zweig subjects the young Ludwig in his recently recovered novella, Journey into the Past. For Roth and Zweig, Tunda and Ludwig, victimization is never a mere accident; it is instead “by decree.”

Now available for the first time in English, Journey into the Past begins with a request that the aspiring chemist Ludwig serve as private secretary to a local Councilor. Hoping to escape the poverty of his youth, Ludwig accepts the offer, moving to the Councilor’s home in Frankfurt. Here he falls in love with the Councilor’s wife, described by Zweig as a “bourgeois Madonna.” Tragedy strikes, however, when Ludwig is sent to Mexico, where he corresponds with his nameless lover until that “disastrous day” in 1914 when events in Sarajevo triggered war across the continent. Ludwig returns to Germany nine years later, determined, for the remainder of the novella, to recover what Zweig labels “old history.”

Like Roth, with whom he shared Jewish ancestry, Zweig is wedded to a conception of the past in which individuals surrender to the weight and momentum of historical events. It is with “total indifference,” for instance, that Zweig characterizes the arrival of the First World War. But whereas Roth links the “hands of fate” with geographical displacement and the loss of identity, Zweig associates it, rather like Proust or Kundera, with remembrance. “Pitilessly,” he writes, the War “tore up . . . the lives and thoughts of millions.” The conflict produced “ash,” remarks Ludwig, grey layers of which cover the memory of his beloved.

Separated from the Councilor’s wife by the unyielding “rhythm” of World War I, but inspired, nevertheless, by reunion, Ludwig exists for much of this masterful novella in a space traversed by Tunda as well—one somewhere between resignation and expectation. Inhabiting a time “no longer real,” Ludwig demands confessions, responses to questions posed long ago. Sometimes, concludes Zweig, “the shadows” return; at other moments, however, they remain hidden, begging to be left alone. For Ludwig, memory and reality walk side by side, courting each other with a “kind of sick curiosity.”

Exiled to England following Hitler’s rise to power, Zweig—who took his own life in 1942, less than ten years after watching his books burn in Berlin—seems ultimately to have intended Journey into the Past as a lament: indeed, as Anthea Bella observes in her insightful afterward to this edition, it was for the “old, civilized world” of Empire and Monarchy that Zweig longed. Like Roth, Zweig praised the notion of “pan-European culture”—and just below the surface of Journey into the Past, he bemoans its untimely death.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010