Christine Hoflehner has a stable job in an Austrian village post-office. It provides a steady income, even if the work is dull and her lifestyle modest. When she was just 16, the Great War snatched away Christine’s opportunities for anything better than modest and dull, and now at 28 she hardly remembers what it feels like to be really happy. Happiness is “like a foreign language she learned in childhood but has now forgotten, remembering only that she knew it once.”
When Stefan Zweig’s novel, translated by Joel Rotenberg, begins, Christine is given a chance to experience a couple of weeks of joy. Her aunt has invited her to come stay with her on holiday in Switzerland. And so, Christine, who no longer knows how to be happy, is able to experience the kinds of excitement she missed out on in her youth. After her initial awkwardness wears off—and with the help of her aunt’s fashionable taste—she’s drawn into the whirlwind of parties and excess. She dances and flirts and stays out late, relishing every moment.
She’s like a drunkard, aware of nothing but herself and her own state of exaltation … In her giddiness, unable to imagine that everyone isn’t burning with enthusiasm, isn’t in a fever of high spirits, of passionate delight, she’s lost her sense of balance. She’s discovered herself for the first time in twenty-eight years, and the discovery is so intoxicating that she’s forgetting everyone else.
This state of intoxication cannot last, of course. It was just a vacation, and the question that remains in the background as Christine finds (or loses?) herself is what will happen when she returns to real life. How will her new (true?) self live as a post-office girl? Can she avoid that fate entirely?
At the Swiss hotel, Christine takes on a new name, Christiane van Boolen, identifying herself with her uncle’s more distinguished family name and abandoning her modest Austrian one. This is the identity she wants to maintain because this is the self that knows happiness. I found it interesting that her previous experience of happiness ceased at age 14 because Christiane van Boolen often seems hardly older than 14. Forced by circumstance to grow up too soon, she now turns back time.
But it was those growing-up years that made life in the post office bearable. Christine Hoflehner learned to be mature during the war and to bear hard circumstances. Christiane van Boolen never went through that. In choosing to see Christiane van Boolen as her true self, the self she’s finding for the first time, she’s giving up on the strength that made her life possible. When Christiane sees trouble, she laughs it off or finds a quick escape. But Christine’s troubles must be endured.
This is a tremendous novel about the unfairness of life. The back cover of the NYRB edition notes that it “lays bare the private life of capitalism.” (Note: That back cover also gives away plot developments from the final few chapters.) Money provides all sorts of freedom, and Christine now understands just how pernicious the inequality is. There are scenes toward the end that hammer on this point, as Christine finds a friend who is as appalled by the system as she is. These are some of the less effective scenes in the book. It’s far better when it focuses on how these new experiences have changed Christine from the inside and how she learns to cope (or not) with her new understanding of the world.
One of the things I’m wondering as I think of this story is whether Christine would have been better off never to have gone to Switzerland at all. Was it better to have never seen what could be, to never find that other self? Somehow, though, it doesn’t seem right to say that. It feels like saying it’s better to be unaware of inequality, but what good is there in knowing things could be so much better when you’re powerless to do anything? Christine has no appropriate way to seize power over her circumstances, as the book’s final ambiguous chapters reveal. If she cannot learn to be content, what else is there to do?
The other night, I saw Man of La Mancha for the first time and wept openly and rather messily during the first reprise of “The Impossible Dream.” (and all subsequent reprises). In isolation, it’s not the kind of song that tends to get to the hard-headed realist that I tend to be, but the juxtaposition of Quixote’s hope and Aldonza’s tragedy got to me. And as I try to consider Zwieg’s book, some of the same questions I had about that story keep coming to me. Will Aldonza be better off knowing that she was, for a while, Dulcinea? Can she continue to be Dulcinea when her Quixote is gone? What would that even look like?
Christine is no Aldonza. Her tragedy is not nearly so dramatic, and her hopes not nearly so noble. Aldonza would probably be delighted to be in Christine’s place. But I sympathize with them both, and they both leave me with questions about the place of dreams and desire in our lives.
Zweig’s novel ends on an exasperatingly sudden note, a cliffhanger with no resolution. I think, for her, there can be no resolution. The path she’s set out on will never lead to contentment. What happiness she finds will always be tenuous. Maybe, for her, those fragile moments of happiness are worth the risk that she’s taking. I don’t think we’re meant to endorse her choice, but Zweig helps us understand it and fear for where it will take her. And so I do.