I took a mountain of books on holiday with me and came back with two I really wanted to write about. Then life got in the way for a bit. Now I need to get on with it before I forget them completely…
The story of Zweig himself is interesting, as is the journey of this novella into English – sufficiently so that the book merits a foreword by Paul Bailey as well as a translator’s afterword from Anthea Bell. But what about the plot?
An engineer from a humble background, Ludwig fell in love with his employer’s wife and she with him – before they were separated by circumstances and by war. Now, nine years later, their unfulfilled passion is tested as the two reunite. Can the past, and their happiness, be restored – or have they been for ever undone by hardship and betrayal?
That could be the blurb for some big doorstop of a romantic novel, yet this is “literary fiction” and a slim novella of 124 pages (and that includes both foreword and afterword). So is that really what it’s about, or just the publisher in search of a hook? Well, yes that is a reasonable summary of the plot and to me some of the writing seemed more as if it belonged behind a different cover altogether. Opening at random we find this:
He had not drawn her to him, she had not drawn him to her. They had met as if driven together by a storm, falling clasped together into a bottomless abyss of the unconscious and sinking into it was like a sweet yet burning trance – emotions too long pent up poured out in a single second, inflamed by the magnetism of chance. (Page 56)
But overshadowing it all is war. The First World War bringing destruction and death, even disrupting Ludwig’s life from the other side of the world, and the impending Second World War, yet to come for the authors and characters but in the past for the reader. Zweig himself was a pacifist and his revulsion at the futility of war shines through the text. So is it actually really about the dangers of nostalgia and the need to learn from the mistakes of the past? The lovers’ night in Heidelberg is spoilt by a Nazi rally, after all.
Ultimately it’s both and this double meaning gives a hard edge to the romance, without which it would be tempting to write it off as slush. Sweeping romanticism not withstanding, there is a subtlety to Zweig’s prose that makes me think I probably missed a lot on a first reading.
All in all, I found this a rather confusing book and hard to pin down. It goes without saying that Anthea Bell’s translation is wonderful, so the faults must be those of the author. QED. Or maybe they lie in the reader. Some day I’ll have another go at it and see if I can make up my mind.