Recently, Der Spiegel suggested the relevance of World War I today while other media and even historians have speculated on similarities between the period around World War I and our time. Might there be some relevance indeed and, on top of that, even to Euroculture? Running roughshod over historical uniqueness by making comparisons with contemporary times is a dangerous business, not to say a dead end in the historical discipline. A hundred years ago it was extremely dangerous for the soldiers to go ‘over the top’ (climbing out of the trenches) in order to gain more territory. Let us now metaphorically go ‘over the top’ in the pursuit of historical relevance. Hoping to survive the many figurative bullets that may be fired upon this undertaking, we will find out how much ground and insight will be gained.
In the old park, in ice and snow caught fast Two spectres walk, still searching for the past.
Journey into the Past is a book about love, anger and shame.
The protagonist, Ludwig, a twenty-three year old man from a poor background, becomes a Councillor’s private secretary, moves into his mansion and falls in love with his wife. One day, the Councillor asks him to leave and run his business in Mexico. At this time, the Great War of 1914-1918 breaks out and events force Ludwig to stay longer in exile. Nine years later, Ludwig comes back to find a Europe that is no longer his and to meet the woman from his past. Will it be possible to go back? Does time make any difference to people who loved each other so passionately? Is it possible to bring back the past?
Nevertheless, this novella is not only about love; it also shows how the events of the Great War broke into people’s lives and forced them to live in a Europe they never signed up for and no longer cared for. A cultural cosmopolitism so much present in the past seemed to have vanished after the Great War. The author, Stefan Zweig, was himself a pacifist and, therefore, we often find references to the atrocity of war in his novels. As with many other Jews, the Austrian had to emigrate to avoid possible death. The writer, so highly acclaimed during the 1920s and 30s, was now forever condemned to live outside Europe. The cultural cosmopolitism, the old and civilized world of pan-European culture he cherished so deeply, became the memory of the past along with the development of the Fascist regimes.
During the 1920s and 30s, Zweig’s fame spread around the world and he was classified as one of the greatest writers, next to Thomas Mann. With time his fame faded, although he was never forgotten in Austria and France. Nowadays, in France, we can buy everything from Zweig’s biography and biographies written by him of figures such as Marie Antoinette, Tolstoy, Casanova, Romain Rolland and Sigmund Freud (the last two were friends of his), to analyses of his novels and novellas.
Moreover, Zweig is also a highly acclaimed master in describing women’s psyche. This subtle language with which he moves from one emotion to another, along with short but indirect phrases, make his prose extremely distinguishable from others. Amongst the most famous and loved masterpieces of his that so accurately describe women, we can definitely distinguish: The Post Office Girl – a Cinderella-like story about a girl who, after seeing the glamorous and fascinating life of the rich, cannot come back to the reality of poverty, an administrative job and shame over her poor existence; and Letter from an Unknown Woman (later made into a movie by Max Ophüls) – a nostalgic novella about a woman writing a letter to a man to inform him that they have a son together and that she has had to resort to prostitution to pay for their son’s education. In this, Zweig does not moralize, and something that could have been only a sappy romance turns into an exquisite fin-de-siècle Vienna drama. A third to distinguish is Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman – a hypnotic madame-Bovary-like story.
I discovered Stefan Zweig in Paris, on a forgotten shelf in a second-hand shop, and it was bliss. It seems like the French never forgot that there is so much power in a simple prose always on the border between kitsch and a masterpiece.
Stefan Zweig took his own life in 1942, in exile in Brazil.
Atka is from Poland and completed her studies in linguistics with a specialization in intercultural communication. She has studied in Krakow,
Paris, and Strasbourg, and is currently doing a research track in Japan. Atka has been researching Japanese literature and the influence of minority cuisines on those of ‘host’ countries. She carries her dog around wherever she goes, and eats way too much weird food.