Reading as scree-running, reading as sex – Stefan Zweig’s Journey into the Past


Walking and reading; walking and writing: the two binaries are trotted out with predictable regularity. Whether it’s the alert passivity of the flâneur, or the active self-absorption of the rambler, the act of self-propulsion seems deeply linked to the verbal. Both possess an obvious linearity and velocity, that nevertheless allow for a wider and more various perception. You and your feet go forward, and that forward momentum frees your eyes and your mind to wander off on either side, or elsewhere altogether. I wrote about this myself in an old post: Cars, trains and feet: talking, reading, thinking.

But I’ve been wondering, just recently, if walking is the most appropriate analogy to reading we can find. The thought occurred, and an alternative, while reading Stefan Zweig’s novella Journey into the Past, which I’ve had in its lovely new Pushkin Press edition for a while, but not cracked open until this weekend. I read it in a gap in reading my latest Melville House novella, Christopher Morley’s charming Parnassus on Wheels – for the simple reason that I had too few pages left of that book to last a train journey, and wanted something else shortish to while it away.

After its enigmatic opening section, in which a man and a woman share a train journey, themselves, in freighted silence – they are reunited after a long time apart, but are prevented from expressing themselves to each other, and to the reader, by the busyness of the train carriage… after the uncertainties of this opening section, I read it quickly, slipping down the pages with eager ease. Or even – slipping the pages down, as if they were gulps from a tall glass of water on a cold day. I was reading it quickly – too quickly perhaps?

Look at a page of the Pushkin Zweig, on the right, next to one of the Melville House Morley.

zweig morley

Bigger print size; nine words to the line, rather than 11; 26 lines to the page, rather than 33. See, too, how the Zweig is written in long paragraphs that often run to more than one page, while the Morley is more basically paragraphed, with more dialogue. So partly your eye slips down the page for operational reasons, though there is a difference to the prose style too. As Clive James says in his assessment of Zweig in Cultural Amnesia – talking here about how even the beginner can read him in the original German –

the impetus makes the syntax unmistakeable. Much of his prose rhythm is poetic in the raw sense of being laid out with the specific, point-to-point vividness of verse.

It is easy to read, or rather easy to read quickly, partly because it deals in abstractions: there is little that is concrete, that you must pause to visualise in your head. Here is a passage picked at random from the Zweig, from the middle of a pages-long paragraph:

He had imagined another kind of reunion with her for too long, on too many nights by the camp fire in his hut beyond the seas, for too many years and too many days – he had envisaged the two of them falling into each other’s arms in a burning embrace, the final surrender, a dress slipping to the ground – he had imagined it too long for this friendliness, this courteous talk as they sounded each other out to ring entirely true.

To put it harshly, this is mush. If it wasn’t lulling you into a readerly slumber for a definite and thus-far-hidden purpose, it would be mere romance. You want to know what happens, of course, which is nothing to be ashamed of, and Zweig’s prose is intimately involved in stoking that desire. Or, not stoking exactly: his sentences are like the air pressed by a bellows into the fire in the grate. They give it oxygen, keep it lifting, building.

What happens when the eye slips down the page, then, is not quite like walking. You don’t take these sentences at a stroll. It is something quicker than that, especially because, with few paragraph breaks, the sentences tend to dissolve in the pages themselves – it is one long flow, like a river, or a cliff face. You read quickly, your eye sliding down the centre of the page, picking up key words as you go – imagined, reunion, nights, fire, years, days, burning embrace, surrender, dress to the ground… you barely need the connectives to make sense of what’s going on here.

Not like walking, but then like what? I thought at first of rock-climbing, where your passage up the rock face is made not steadily and regularly, but in leaps and pushes, according to the hand- and footholds on offer – here, then there, then up to there, then up again. But rock-climbing is too slow, and too concentrated – there is no opportunity to look around yourself, to dissolve the abstractions into the story they are supposed to illustrate – and of course with rock-climbing the direction is wrong. You’re moving upwards, not downwards.

Then I thought of river-running, skipping from boulder to boulder down a river or stream, and this is more like it, but still you have to look carefully where you’re going: one false step and you’ll end up in the drink.

So then, I thought: how about scree-running.

An effortless downward movement, in part of your volition, but with every step given greater affect, and covering a greater distance, because of the slippage of the gravel and rock fragments under your feet. It doesn’t really matter where your feet land on the scree slope: the ground accepts them and helps them onward, downward. You can’t slow down, you have to take it at speed. It is exhilarating and slightly dangerous, a game on the edge of control.

There are different kinds of reading, then, and this one is like scree-running. Writing that is too easy – almost too good – for its own good. (I’ve mentioned Tobias Wolff’s Old School before now as an example of a book I read quicker than I wanted to.)

But there is another aspect to Zweig’s novella that affects its reading, and for that I can go back to that earlier quote, and the idea of Journey into the Past as a romance. This is that there is something potently erotic about the frustrated desire that Zweig sets at the heart of his narrative.

The couple in the story are Ludwig, an engineer turned successful businessman, and the widow of a wealthy industrialist who gave him his big break in life – we never know her name, a fact that only adds to the breathless eroticism of the story, for these two are meeting again after nine long years apart, Ludwig having travelled to Mexico on the industrialist’s business, and then been stranded there by the First World War. Just before his departure, tripped into a crisis by Ludwig’s sudden dispatch halfway across the globe, the two of them declared their love for each other, stopping short of consummating their passion by her insistence that she wouldn’t sleep with him in her own house.

“I couldn’t do it here, in my own house, in his own house. But when you come back, yes, whenever you like.”

Ludwig is, in other words, ‘on a promise’ – and it is with a sinking heart that I note, after flitting about the internet as I write this piece, that the story was filmed recently with Rebecca Hall and Alyawn Rickman (as the cuckold-in-waiting, I hasten to add, not Ludwig)… and that the film was actually, unforgivably, titled The Promise, my god…

Ludwig, then, is on a promise, and the reason that film title is so poor is that makes explicit what is kept – just about – respectable in the novella. (‘On a promise’ is an awful phrase, as we’ll get to in a moment.) She said that she will sleep with him. He has spent nine years lusting after her, and now they are back together. They are sat together in a train carriage, unable to speak for the respectable types crowding them from every side, and he is lusting after her still, preparing to receive his reward, to cash in his promisary note, and while he waits, he plays back to himself (and us) the whole sorry story, like it’s some kind of delaying tactic, putting off the moment of consummation…

For it’s clear that, in narrative terms, we and Ludwig are in the same boat. He is this close to getting his oats, and so, increasingly, are we. The coming coition is the end point of the narrative – whatever happens after it is irrelevant, or of cursory interest only – and everything is driving, hurtling, careering towards that. In other writers’ hands this situation would lead to a sense of frustration, the pent-up desire turning to anger and violence, but that’s not what Zweig is about. His prose is foreplay, and concerned with arousal. That’s why we read it so fast. That’s why our eye slips down the page, from noun to noun, letting the other, lesser words slip under our heels like so many fragments of rock or stone, as they speed us on our way.

Now, obviously, this model of narrative is highly gendered, and it is that lifts Journey into the Past out of the realms of romance into something more troubling. Ludwig, it turns out, has forced that promise back out of her, nine years down the line. Back then, she gave it freely. Now, really, must he hold it to her? We’re all grown adults here, after all.

Yes, he must. Despite his better nature, and the fact that he is married, now, himself, with a family, he allows the imperative of that promise, given years ago, to override the situation the two of them find themselves in today. The imperative has become a prerogative – which is precisely how the sex drive (the male sex drive?) works.

‘On a promise’ isn’t intrinsically a gendered phrase, but it certainly seems to me that it overwhelming plays into the way that men negotiate and facilitate sex. Which means that we can read Zweig either as a politically neutral psychological study (the same goes for Letter From an Unknown Woman, which I read straight after this, along with The Royal Game) or as a politically loaded study of how men get what they want, and what they must trample in themselves as well as others once they are set on that route, once they are caught in its momentum – though ‘caught’ too seems to absolve them of any moral responsibility for their actions.

In this reading, the sex drive (the promise) has a goal, it has an end, and everything is oriented towards that end, everything is put to the service of that goal. Coition, fruition, orgasm becomes not something desired, or needed, but something owed. It no longer needs to be desired, because it exists, and merely needs to be rendered up. It is Zweig’s revelation of the pscyhosocial mechanism that creates these thoughts that makes this such a great and compelling work – his prose is an engine that drives his protagonist, and his reader, towards their own blessed annihilation. You want to get there, but you can’t slow down your accelerating approach. Reading, like sex itself, that exists on the edge of control.

One comment

  1. Valerie Stivers-Isakova

    I love your photos of the books in situ. And it’s funny I think about books as having a shape all the time, but don’t usually think of the different active qualities of how I’m reading them. I might be a totally literal person with three settings: absorbed, slightly annoyed, no longer reading.

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