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.
I’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.