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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Journey into the Past

Stefan Zweig

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To purchase Journey into the Past

Title: Journey into the Past
Author: Stefan Zweig
Genre: Novel
Written: (ca. 1933) (Eng. 2009)
Length: 120 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Journey into the Past - US
Journey into the Past - UK
Journey into the Past - Canada
Le voyage dans le passé - France
Reise in die Vergangenheit - Deutschland
  • First published posthumously in 1987, as Widerstand der Wirklichkeit; more recently re-published as Reise in die Vergangenheit
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Anthea Bell
  • The NYRB edition has an Introduction by André Aciman
  • The Pushkin Press edition has a Foreword by Paul Bailey

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Our Assessment:

B : has some promise; underdeveloped

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 18/12/2008 Thierry Clermont
The Independent . 29/6/2009 C.J.Schüler

  From the Reviews:
  • "On retrouve là la plupart des thèmes chers à Zweig : la passion amoureuse contrariée ou impossible, la nostalgie d'un monde perdu (celui d'avant-guerre), la difficile résistance aux bouleversements de l'Histoire. Ajoutons la belle pudeur propre à ce chantre de la Mitteleuropa : tous les ingrédients y sont." - Thierry Clermont, Le Figaro

  • "Journey into the Past is vintage Stefan Zweig -- lucid, tender, powerful and compelling." - C.J.Schüler, The Independent

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Journey into the Past is a posthumous publication, a story only discovered a few decades after Stefan Zweig's 1942 suicide (though he did publish an early version of it in an anthology in 1929 -- apparently as a 'Fragment of a Novella'). In German it has been published in various collections of his stories -- under two different titles, at that -- but first in French and now English it is presented as a stand-alone text. Even here it is propped up on both ends by quite substantial supporting material -- an Introduction or Foreword (by André Aciman in the US edition and Paul Bailey in the UK edition), as well as a Translator's Afterword -- but it (and its limitations) are clearly exposed; this is a not-quite-novella (Zweig never did fill it out sufficiently) that would much more easily pass muster among other stories in a larger collection.
       Journey into the Past begins with a reunion in a Germany where the ominous Nazi presence can begin to be felt but is not yet at the forefront. Ludwig meets up with a woman he has not seen in over nine years at the Frankfurt train station, and they board a train to Heidelberg; their journey in the present soon gives way to an account of their past, which takes up most of the book.
       Ludwig was a poor but ambitious young man who studied chemistry and began work for "the famous industrialist G" after he graduated. He proved his worth and quickly worked his way up, and was offered the position of G's private secretary. Ludwig initially declined to "take up residence in Councillor G's spacious villa" -- not wanting to give up what freedom he had won for himself -- but when G became sickly he was left with no other choice. Predictably, Ludwig was immediately very taken by G's wife and, though it took a while, they eventually figured out that they were passionately in love -- but before things could go too far Ludwig was sent off to handle a major new corporate undertaking in Mexico. He was only supposed to be gone for two years, but then World War I broke out, and so he was stuck there much longer. Only now can he finally see the woman he was so madly in love with again -- and much has changed in the meantime, including their respective personal situations.
       Zweig seems to vacillate between making this a story of the weight and burden of class-difference, or a doomed-(not-quite-)romantic nostalgic wallow. Ludwig's class consciousness is certainly at the fore before he heads to Mexico. He's painfully aware of his background, and resents how he's been treated during his tutoring days in wealthier households; he doesn't want to move into G's villa because he fears to find more of the same -- and, indeed, when he moves in everything reminds him of his still rather lowly situation (if not station):

All he had brought with him, even he himself in his own clothes, shrank to miserable proportions in this spacious, well-lit room.
       G's wife is understanding and makes it relatively easy for Ludwig; still, it's an adjustment. In Mexico, on the other hand, he can and does truly establish himself: he's in charge, and there's no one to put him in his (former) place. Returning to Germany, and meeting up with his old flame makes for an odd clash of old desire and memories and the life he has made for himself.
       Their romance was nipped rather at the bud -- specifically before they got around to consummating things, as she had backed down at the near-last second:
"I couldn't do it here, in my own house, in his own house. But when you come back, yes, wherever you like."
       Instead of two years the gap between them stretches to almost a decade; nevertheless, rather than rekindling romance upon his return all Ludwig can do is come back to collect on that promise. Not that he puts it so baldly, or perhaps is even conscious of what he's doing at first, but that's what it amounts to, as their Heidelberg visit -- complete with parading Reich-banner-waving veterans -- ultimately leaves a very sour aftertaste.
       The woman tells Ludwig: "People may grow old, but they remain the same", and ultimately that is also a rebuke. Ludwig may have found success and come up in the world, but he remains bitter and small because of the class-shame he still hasn't entirely been able to shake off (as the return to G's house quickly demonstrates) -- and he takes it out on her, in the only way he can.
       It's not a very satisfying story, because it feels incomplete, a stunted novella, as though Zweig still remained uncertain what he wanted to make of it. The ugliness of the conclusion is effective, but Zweig vacillates too much in building up to it. With more meat to it this could have been a very powerful tale; as is, it feels too thin and frail, its finer elements (and there are many -- Zweig had a good eye and touch) largely wasted.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 January 2011

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Journey into the Past: Reviews: Stefan Zweig: Other books by Stefan Zweig under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Stefan Zweig lived 1881 to 1942.

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