#35 of 2011 • Journey Into the Past, by Stefan Zweig
– translated from the German by Anthea Bell;
– with an introduction by André Aciman.
In remembering a poem by Verlaine – In the old park, in ice and snow caught fast / Two specters walk, still searching for the past – a chilling epiphany falls our hero Ludwig, one half of an ill-fated pair of lovers [what other kind of pair is there in the wretchedly real love story?]:
Had not those specters searching for their past been muted questions, asked of a time that was no longer real, mere shadows wanting to come back to life but unable to do so now? Neither she nor he was the same anymore, yet they were searching for each other in vain effort, fleeing one another, persisting in disembodied, powerless efforts like those black specters at their feet.
Unconsciously, he must have groaned aloud, for she turned. “What’s the matter, Ludwig? What are you thinking of?”
But he merely dismissed it, saying, “Nothing, nothing!” And he listened yet more intently to what was within him, to the past, to see whether that voice of memory truly foretelling the future would not speak to him again, revealing the present to him as well as the past.
A probable a theory as any from the introduction by Aciman: “But the voice does not speak, or we will never know what it might finally say. What we do know is that these two, like Verlaine’s erstwhile lovers, are locked in their eternal colloquy in a cold park. If they do not move, it is not for fear of spoiling the moment or of being disappointed, it is not even inhibition that holds them back. Rather, it is because time can and does indeed terrible crimes. It will kill the very best in us and insist that we are still alive.”
This gets me every time. I am in love with this love story, and I am in awe of Zweig’s micro-focus of his characters’ loving, and their losing of that love—and the possibility of getting it all back, of resuming. If all ardor were this breathless, this lyrical, this wretched! [A welcome alternative to Werther’s wretchedness, really.]
The rest of this post further extols this novella, and embarrassingly so at some points. For clarity’s sake: this is one little book that has wormed its way into my heart, because, dammit, it knows what buttons to push. Sasha, you and your love stories!
* * *
A man and a woman, almost/would-be lovers, reunite after nine years. To take a train ride. To travel to a city only fleetingly visited—perhaps, hopefully, to re-fan the embers of their love.
Separated all that time by unimaginable distance, they now felt this silent intimacy with redoubled force. Dear God, how long and far apart they had been—nine years and four thousand days had passed between then and this day, this night?
And we are soon enough plunged into the past—which is as overwhelmingly constant for us as it has haunted our two lovers, especially Ludwig. Ludwig, who falls in love with his benevolent employer’s young wife, who, thank God, professes to loving him back. Can you see how Zweig writes about that moment where Ludwig’s love becomes known to him for the first time?
Leaving her, oh God, leaving her—how could he have ever contemplated it, how could he have made that decision as if he still belonged to himself, as if he were not held here, in her presence, by all the bonds of his emotions, their deepest roots? Physical pain, a blow struck through his whole body from the top of his skull to the bottom of his heart, a lightning bolt tearing across the night sky and illuminating everything. And now, in that blinding light, it was impossible to realize that every nerve and fibre of his being was flowering with love for her, his dear one.
And can you see how simply Zweig writes about his dear one’s own quiet epiphany?
The realization that she loved him was also a farewell.
• The ardor of their early love: “Hand made its way to hand, lips to lips, the restless blood of one met its kindred blood in the other, each longed feverishly for the other, every nerve burned for the sensuous touch of foot, hand, dress, some living part of the yearning body.” Oh, my goodness.
• What are two lovers to do but to insist that they will see each other as soon as time and their responsibilities and their commitments admit? But their separation lengthens. And, as is sadly usual, there are different preoccupations. He starts a new life, succeeds at his job and his role as a family man. We hear nothing about her [hell, did I even get her name?], but she is trapped in the war Ludwig had left behind.
• But, they reunite. Nine years later, they reunite. But [again], as the reviewer of this article from The New Republic rather [enviably] astutely states, “a sense of larger forces against which individual hearts cannot effectually contend” plagues our two lovers even in their reunion nine years later. That, and the disconcerting fact that they have changed, and perhaps these changes go against what they want, what they thought they wanted all along.
“Everything is as it used to be except for us, except for us!”
The words cut into her. Alarmed, she turned again.
“What do you mean, Ludwig?” But she did not meet his gaze, for his eyes were not seeking hers but staring, silent and blazing, at her lips, the lips he had not touched for so many years, although once, moist on the inside like a fruit, they had burned against his own burning lips.
Do you remember? he demands.
“I have waited nine years, keeping grimly silent, but I haven’t forgotten. And I am asking you, do you still remember?”
They’re frozen, still. Even now, when the coast is clear and all that. When they have the chance to do as their hearts had willed. Had. That’s at the heart of this tightly packed, intensely introspective, oh-so-swoonable novella: Is there a point to all this? Do we go on loving? Do we admit that we stopped loving one another, that we may love again? Why should we—why even try? Do we still even remember?
• Imagine my surprise—and my giddiness—about three weeks ago, upon learning that the first Zweig I was about to read had the same translator as the book I just set down [and loved partly because of the rightness of its translation]. Are these two books the wonderful beginning of a bibliophilic relationship with Anthea Bell? I hope so, because the language in the two novellas leaves me no doubt of her awesome abilities as a translator.
• One of my favorite movies is Before Sunset, the sequel to Before Sunrise. I love them both so much, dammit. Aherm. In Sunrise, two strangers meet on a train, spend one fevered night together in the streets of Vienna—at sunrise, they promise they’ll meet again. In Sunset, it’s nine years later, they’ve made their own lives. Life happened, see. They meet again, at last. In this new meeting, they manage to talk about how they’ve been living, what happened to them after that train ride. From Roger Ebert’s review: “What they are really discussing, as they trade these kinds of details, is the possibility that they missed a lifetime they were intended to spent together.” What happened to their promise? What life could they have lived together, what, dammit, what? What happened to all those possibilities? Where you there in Vienna, in December? What’s going to happen next, Jesse?—Baby, you are going to miss that plane.
I stumbled upon this book in National Bookstore, and cried in raptures all the way to the cashier.