All I “know” about the life of late imperial/early republican Austria comes from reading Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. This novel is set in 1926, but Zweig didn’t finish it before his suicide in 1942 and it was published posthumously. It was the first of Zweig’s novels that I read, so I didn’t initially view him as a novelist of the leisured bourgeoisie and strange obsessions.
For this novel is mired in poverty and drudgery. The author of the foreword likens it to Cinderella, but it’s worse than that. At least the context of a fairy story tells you from the start that they will live happily ever after, and a fairy story doesn’t dwell on the smells, the mould, the everlasting mending and the shabbiness of life. There is no hope: the war has taken everything from the unlucky ones of a certain generation and their afterlife is a purgatory of eternal just-about-getting-by. (There are shades of Orwell’s The Clergyman’s Daughter, but I much prefer Zweig. Orwell does disgust well enough, but he doesn’t do pleasure.)
For 8 days in her 28 years, Christine experiences comfort and luxury and slips easily – as easily as she slips into the silk evening dresses – into the role of the happy, charming young woman she could have been if the war had not intervened. Her fairy godmother is her aunt from America and she whisks her off to a Swiss hotel, but she also turns out to be the wicked witch when she abandons Christine – henceforward dissatisfied and angry with her lot – and returns her to her dreary job in a village post office.
Zweig is just brilliant at capturing how both luxury and poverty affect your senses and takes you fully into Christine’s life and sensations:
In the fitting room, Christine peels off the hated rind like a dirty blouse. [Later] She hurries down the hallway to her aunt’s room; the cool silky fluttering of the dress makes the movement a pleasure.
Christine is far from perfect: luxury makes her thoughtless. But what does poverty do to her? The reader is introduced to Christine in her post office one drowsy morning – surrounded by the infinitely replaceable paraphernalia of officialdom . . . “the year changes, but the calendar remains the same”. She is doomed to another quarter century of the same dreariness until she, too, is replaced.
There is an anti-Prince Charming: Ferdinand, whose previous war-dominated life is the male equivalent of Christine’s. More active and less domestic, but at the cost of two extra years in Siberia and disfigurement. Their attempts at a romantic relationship with no money are heart-breaking (Orwell again – Gordon Comstock this time). When Ferdinand suggests suicide, it seems reasonable enough. When it occurs to him that robbing the post office might be a better – albeit short-term – solution, this reader was with him all the way. He prepares a plan; they both acknowledge that this will eventually end in failure but are willing to go ahead with it anyway . . . and there the novel ends.