New York : NYRB, c2008.
I've had a bit of a slow start to my reading year, but have just been electrified by this fantastic novel. It was a stunning, powerful book which I couldn't stop reading, despite the slightly odd cover. It's edgy and despairing and beautifully written.
It's the story of Christine Hoflehner, a 28 yr old provincial post office clerk in Austria. It's post-WWI; her life has been stunted by the war, which has taken up the years of her youth. She lives in one musty attic room with her mother and spends her days at her enervatingly boring job, sitting behind a grille in a small office, alone all day. Her married siblings don't visit often, rather leaving Christine in charge of her invalid mother. This dreary life changes when they receive a telegram from her Aunt Klara, who had emigrated to the United States before the war and is now a wealthy woman. Klara is visiting a resort in Switzerland and wants them to join her. Christine goes to the posh resort, arriving with one small straw suitcase, wearing her provincial yellow coat. Her aunt makes her over, cutting her long braids into a glamorous bob and buying her stylish sporting clothes. Christine discovers a whole new youthful self and for one glorious week is the belle of the resort, sought after and feted by all. Then, all crashes down around her when her aunt and uncle, on the strength of a whispered rumour, suddenly decamp and send her home.
This giving and snatching away of a better life embitters Christine. She can't stand the people, the impoverished surroundings or the awful job she holds in Klein-Reifling; rage at poverty crushes her and the future looks bleak and endless, worse than before her experience of wealth. On her arrival home she discovers that her mother has died, but this is just another burden laid on her shoulders. She buries her mother and disperses the wordly goods, paltry as they are, among the siblings. Then:
At last they've gone. Christine throws the window open. The smell is suffocating, the smell of stale cigarette smoke, bad food, wet clothes, the smell of the old woman's dread and worry and wheezing, the awful smell of poverty. How terrible it is to have to live here, and why, who's it for? Why breathe this in day after day, knowing that there's another world out there somewhere, the real one, and in herself another person, who is suffocating, being poisoned, in this miasma. Her nerves are jangling. She throws herself down onto the bed fully clothed, biting down hard on the pillow to keep from screaming with helpless hatred. Because suddenly she hates everyone and everything, herself and everyone else, wealth and poverty, everything about this hard, unendurable, incomprehensible life.
The second part of the novel deals with Christine's readjustment to life back in her small village, alone now. She is agonizingly unhappy and decides to splurge and go to Vienna on the train. She does so, but it disappoints; the high life is not available to her. Since her sister lives in Vienna, she decides to visit so the trip isn't a total waste. In the family's company she meets Ferdinand, an old war friend of her brother-in-law's, a man who spent six years in the war and as a POW in Russia. He is understandably a bit messed up, and the fact that there is widespread unemployment in Austria -- as a 30 yr old war veteran he must scrabble for temporary employment -- makes him very unhappy. He starts out pleased to have run across Franzl but quickly reveals his disaffection:
"No, my friend, I'm past that. I'm not going to buy the line that others are worse off, no one's going to convince me that I was 'lucky' because I've still got all my arms and legs and I don't walk on crutches. No one's going to convince me that breathing and getting fed is all it takes to make everything all right. I don't believe in anything anymore, not gods or governments or the meaning of life, nothing, as long as I feel I haven't got what's rightfully mine, my rightful place in life, and as long as I don't have that I'm going to keep on saying I've been robbed and cheated. I'm not going to let up until I feel I'm living my true life and not getting the dregs, what other people toss out or couldn't stomach. Can you understand that?"
Everyone looked up quickly. A loud "yes" full of feeling, had come from somewhere. Christine flushed when she saw them all looking at her. She'd thought "yes," she knew she'd felt it strongly, but the word had just slipped out.
Christine is the flame and Ferdinand the dry tinder, and when they meet the situation becomes combustible. They start meeting every weekend, but soon they realize there isn't money left for Christine to continue taking the train to Vienna weekly. Shame consumes Ferdinand because he has no money for her or any home to take her to, and they start to consider suicide. Then they get another idea...
I won't tell you what that is, because it is part of the genius of the book that every page is a surprise, further revealing the agonies of inescapable poverty. Reading this book is the perfect antidote to any La-Boheme-style romanticization of poverty. It reveals the ugliness, both physical and spiritual, that comes from constant want. It is shocking and yet, sadly, recognizable and relevant. This book is apparently a bit of an anomaly among Zweig's works; it is more desperate and raw than his earlier books. Not having read anything else by him yet, I can't comment on that, but on the strength of this one I am going to continue to search out his work. Interesting tidbit: this was unpublished at the time of his death (a suicide pact with his wife in 1942), and was only published in German in 1982. It is still immensely powerful, and was a truly memorable reading experience.