“How much time, how much lost time, and yet in the space of a second a single thought took him back to the very beginning.”
Stefan Zweig’s novella Journey into the Past is a poignant story that shows how time and distance erodes memory and love. The story begins with Ludwig who has an assignation with an older widow, the wife of his former, now deceased employer. They embark on a train in Frankfurt and travel to Heidelberg. The story then goes back in time.
Ludwig suffered a “childhood of humiliating poverty,” and he scrapes by his student years with great sacrifice, working as a private tutor, supporting an “old mother and two sisters in a remote provincial town” on his meagre income. After he finishes his studies, he’s employed, marginally at first, by Privy Councillor G, an industrialist. Later the Councillor, who is in poor health, asks Ludwig if he will come and live with the family in his villa. At first Ludwig refuses:
Coming to adulthood as a private tutor in the distasteful ostentatious houses of the nouveaux riches, feeling that he was a nameless hybrid being somewhere between a servant and a companion, part and yet not part of the household, an ornamental item like the magnolias on the table, placed there and then cleared away again as required, he found himself brimming over with hatred for his employers and the sphere in which they lived, the heavy, ponderous furniture, the lavishly decorated rooms, the over-rich meals, all the wealth that he shared only on sufferance.
Ludwig dreads actually living in a house with his employer. He is familiar with the “ironic, mocking looks of the maid,” and the “hurtful remarks of impertinent children [and] the even more hurtful pity of the lady of the house when she handed him a few banknotes at the end of the month.” Moving into his employer’s home means that Ludwig will have to give up the one thing he prides himself on, his independence, and while his lodgings may be shabby, at least it’s far away from the hurtful looks of the servants. His “title of Doctor [is] cheap but impenetrable armour.”
In time Councillor G’s health becomes so poor that he is bedridden and with this change in circumstance, Ludwig agrees to move into his employer’s home. Imagine his surprise when he is treated with insight and compassion by his employer’s wife. They grow close and fall in love. Fate intervenes when the Councillor decides to send Ludwig to Mexico to set up a branch of his business there. It will be just two ‘short’ years and it’s a wonderful opportunity for Ludwig. Ludwig and the Councillor’s wife don’t know how they will bear the separation. They are in love. They have not had sex but they have come close to it. The wife promises that they will have sex one day ..
So there’s Ludwig stuck in Mexico when WWI breaks out and an “iron curtain descends between the two continents, cutting them off from each other for an incalculable length of time:” But life goes on for Ludwig, and the memory of the Councillor’s wife dims. Fate once more intervenes and Ludwig returns to Germany 9 years after his departure. It’s a frightening new Germany with swastikas,” banner of the Reich” flying in the breeze. But there’s unfinished business between Ludwig and the Councillor’s wife, now a widow.
Journey into the Past reminds me of Age of Innocence. Both books involve couples who are in love but who cannot be together. Circumstances divide and separate them, but the passage of time offers a second chance. Will that second chance be taken? Spoiler alert: I found Ludwig’s insistence rather ugly and definitely immature. Is this a unrequited love story or a story of sexual passion in the guise of love? And if it is love, time and distance have a corrosive effect.
4 responses to “Journey into the Past: Stefan Zweig”
The Age of Innocence is a really interesting comparison, Guy. I read the Zweig ten years or so ago, so the details of the central relationship are a bit fuzzy in my mind by now. I’ll have to dig it out and take another look…
I read this one years ago and not much has stuck with me, but good to read your review as a reminder.
I read this years ago and the details of the story are fuzzy. I only remember that I loved it.
I liked it–didn’t love it. But then I like/not love zweig mostly.