Some Kind of Life

Christine was taken aback. The man beside her had said just what she had been thinking all this time; he’d expressed clearly what she’d dully felt- the wish to be given one’s due, not to take anything from anyone, but to have some kind of life, not to be left out in the cold forever while the others were warm inside.

-Stefan Zweig, The Post Office Girl

Christine is the eponymous post office girl from Zweig’s lost novel who goes through a sort of reverse-Pygmalion predicament: plucked from grinding post-WWI German poverty by a rich aunt, turned into a Lady in high society, only to be ratted out as an imposter and returned rewound by her embarrassed relatives to a life that subsequently becomes unbearable by comparison. The man beside her is her lover, Ferdinand, sent back damaged from the Great War and passed around a series of stultifying busy-work jobs like her own. Both of them now live like Icarus: returned to earth and bitterly trying to forget those damned wings.

One reading takes the story as an illustration of the booms and busts of capitalism. Under the old European order a burgher never felt it unbearable to not be an aristocrat; but under capitalism, the life of a postal clerk is never enough. The problem is the Europe depicted in the story hasn’t fully embraced capitalism anyway- capitalism (or whatever we call it now) creates and embraces upstarts; it doesn’t root them out as in the old, ossified European society of orders. Christine really gets the worst of both worlds: the easily shifting fortunes of capitalism and the requirement to be “born into it” of the pre-capitalist order. With time, all of these people will be losers; she need only wait.

zweigI’m reminded more of assimilation and of Zweig, that spiritual aristocrat who led something of a charmed life- born into a wealthy Viennese family, writing came easy to him and he became one of the most popular writers in the world- before Hitler’s rise made it impossible to be both Austrian and a Jew. His passing into semi-obscurity after his untimely death was unfortunate, which has made Zweig’s rediscovery by contemporaries like that admirer of spiritual aristocrats Wes Anderson welcome news. In the shifting of historical epochs, Zweig found himself betwixt and between, unable to set down roots in any milieu, he moved permanently to that last, most universal one. But many of us can relate to the feeling that we are hiding among the ’eminent’ and trying to pass, so Christine and Ferdinand’s final choice to strike out against that society is both thrilling and hopeless.

Finally, we can’t read anything Zweig wrote today without positioning it in proximity to his suicide. He died in despair at a cultural and intellectual world that had been lost forever and replaced with intolerance and authoritarianism. (There’s something a bit like Socrates in that.) Christine and Ferdinand nearly do the same before deciding on robbery and flight from all society. It’s the saddest irony of the story- the world she wants so desperately to belong to is already hopelessly rotten and not worth living in. She (like her author) cannot see that it’s sometimes best to just lay low a while east of Eden.

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14 thoughts on “Some Kind of Life

  1. If Christine had never been lifted out of poverty and given a taste of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, would her existence as a postal clerk still taste so bitter? If so, a lesson might be that the wealthy ought to enjoy their luxuries out of public view, lest jealousy discontent the masses and the have-nots lose the comforting blindfold of ignorance.

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  2. Did you ever read Zweig’s memoir, The World of Yesterday?

    Jews in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire were in an interesting lot. Many of them were assimilated and loyal subjects to the Haspburg Empire and aspired to be proper and respectable members of the society. In many ways they were the society, Zweig spends a good early section of his memoirs basically stating that Viennese Jews were the people who attended the theatre, the opera, the ballet, and all the other artistic institutions that Empire was so proud of. They also were the leading art patrons and writers. Most of Kilimnt’s commissions came from wealthy Jewish patrons. Mahler was Jewish and so were many other 19th and 20th century Viennese artists. Plus Jews invented the most Austrian and Hungarian of all pastries, the Sacher torte and maybe the Dobos Torte.

    Yet there was still incredible anti-Semitism even if the Jews could get noble titles. Vienna was ruled by a notorious Jew-baiter named Dr. Karl Luger.

    There is an early Austrian novel and movie called City without Jews which is a satire about a Vienna like city going into free-fall economic decline when the city expels its Jews. The cafes are no longer patronized and neither are the artistic institutions or fashionable shops. The fillmmaker was murdered by an anti-Semite according to wikipedia and the Austrians lauded the murderer.

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    • The novelist, Bettauer, was murdered, not the filmmaker. And the case is definitely a good illustration of Austrian anti-Semitism in the years between the wars. The man who murdered him was an Austrian Nazi, and was never imprisoned for the crime, just briefly institutionalized.

      The full movie used to be online, but it looks like it’s been removed. You can watch some clips on YouTube, but the text will be in German.

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      • What is also interesting is that I think the Empire wanted Jews to be assimilated because they stood as a good example for those who did not want to be assimilated like the Slavs.

        There were plenty of poorer Jews from the provinces who were not assimilated though. Freud became more assimilated than his parents ever did and tried very hard to be a good middle class Viennese with an apartment in the inner-part of ring-strasse. There were still a lot of poorer and unassimilated Jews in the outerrings.

        There was a similar dynamic that happened in the U.S., Germanic Jews who came over during the mid-1800s were already very assimilated by the time the mass of Eastern European Jews came over and they did not look kindly on their unassimilated co-religionists. Many Reform synagogues held services on Sunday to be more mainstream until sometime in the 20th century and possibly post-WWII era.

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      • After World War I, we’re not talking about the “Empire.” We’re talking about the Republic, which was a political mess, which saw some unsavory elements take power which otherwise would have been largely unavailable to them in the pre-war empire, and which saw increasing attempts to blame Jews and Reds for the loss of the war and resulting hardships. Bettauer was killed by a Nazi in 1925, several years before Nazis took power in their northern neighbors and more than a decade before the annexation, yet his murder was essentially protected by the local government, which did everything it could to deny that anti-Semitism had anything to do with the murder in the first place. The political and social atmosphere at the time led those in power to essentially try to be on both sides, promoting Jewish involvement in Austrian society and culture, while at the very least not angering powerful anti-Semitic, nationalist groups that were becoming more and more powerful and a genuine political threat to a republic that wasn’t particularly well-situated to handle any sort of crisis, social or political.

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    • I have read his memoir, yes. As an undergrad, so I remember it more as a handful of scenes, but that is how I understand Vienna in that era, so it probably had an effect. Actually, a great book for understanding the impossible situation of Viennese Jews before WWI is the Arthur Schnitzler novel Road into the Open. I take the title to refer to what they didn’t have.

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