Journey into the Past by Stefan Zweig
Amok and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Before reading these two books I did not know anything about Stefan Zweig. I took a chance on the author based on a recommendation and I was amazed with the quality of his writing.
I started with Journey into the Past. At a short 80 pages, I wondered how much of an impact the book would leave on me. In this short novella, Zweig’s story is comparable to a WW1 epic. It is a love story but also a story of Europe. Ludwig, an engineer with a humble past, falls in love with his employer’s wife. Their restrained passion is remarkably described as is the anxiety they both feel when Ludwig is accepts a business opportunity for two years in Mexico. Ludwig crosses off the days until he can return to his lover, only to be crushed by the outbreak of WW1. Almost ten years pass until he has the opportunity to return to Vienna to discover if the flame still exists.
Interestingly, WW1 and Ludwig’s long exile are only briefly glanced at but the skill with which Zweig writes really conjures the feeling of a long period of time passing. I feel much more familiar with the life in Mexico Ludwig was forced to create for himself than I expected I would be given the brief references provided by Zweig. Zweig also skilfully puts Ludwig’s long exile into perspective by the gentle aging of his lover with Ludwig noticing she walks slower up stairs. The timing of the story is also put into context by references to Nazi rallies and the approach of WW2.
In Amok and Other Stories the titular story reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is a story of colonialism and the narrative device of a story within a story is used. However, in this case the boat is sailing away from the darkness back to Europe. The narrator of the story spends a night listening to a doctor’s confession of how he ran amok at his station in the Dutch Colonies after an interaction with the first European woman he had contact with in many years. The doctor explains that natives use the word ‘amok’ to describe someone who cannot control his actions, usually being a danger to himself and others. As the story of the doctor’s unravelling intensifies, so too does the pace of the story. Perhaps this is why the cover image is a tile of a whirling dervish. Once caught up in this tale it was hard to put down.
After reading Amok, I needed to take a break before carrying on with the other three stories. Two of the three are rather short and it was the longer of the three, Leporella, that really grabbed me. Leporella is the story of Crescentia, a solitary and dour middle aged peasant from the Tyrol who was born out of wedlock and was raised by the charity of the church. Her unfortunate beginning set the tone for her life. Given the opportunity to leave her cook’s role in a country inn, she moves to Vienna and falls in love with the master of the house. He barely notices her but for Crescentia his presence in her life awakens an unknown spark. She lives vicariously through his actions and scurries about trying to please him. Surprisingly, this story starts to edge into thriller territory; think, ‘single white female’. It really was a page turner with a feeling of apprehension every time I turned the page.
Overall I think Zweig’s skill at writing is marvellous for with only providing the reader with hints he evokes an entire saga. In these three novellas he has mastered three completely different tales that each have their own unique pace and page turning qualities.
Journey into the Past and Amok and other Stories: both 5 stars
On my to read list:
The Royal Game. (Also published by Penguin with the name Chess). Another short novella I would like to read (94 pages). I would like to see how this compares to the other novellas I have reviewed.
Also, here are two full length novels by Zweig that sound interesting. I just hope I am not disappointed by the longer length as his novellas really seem perfect!
The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig. A slightly longer story at just under 300 pages. Post war romance in provincial Austrian town.
Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig. 464 pages. Love story against the disintegration of the Austro Hungarian empire.