The intoxication of transformation: Stefan Zweig, The Post Office Girl

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), The Post Office Girl. Translated from the German by William Deresiewicz. Sort Of Books paperback, 2009. First published in German, 1982

Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity (1938) – my post about it is HERE – relates how a principled but naïve young officer learns painful truths about himself and others as ‘an emotional abyss’ opens in front of him after a humbling social gaffe. Christine Hoflehner, the eponymous protagonist of The Post Office Girl, undergoes a similarly life-changing transformation as the result of a momentous experience. (Btw, what is it with referring to grown women – Christine is 28 when the novel opens – as ‘girls’ in novel titles?)

Zweig PO Girl coverThis novel was found among Austrian author Zweig’s literary remains after his suicide, but wasn’t published until 1982, with a title that translates as ‘The Intoxication of Transformation’. The MS was in considerable disarray, and had been tinkered with by Zweig over a number of years, raising the question whether he intended it to be published at all. The ending is abrupt, and leaves Christine facing a momentous decision that could transform her life even more dramatically than the first time. I quite like that the story is left open-ended – a firm resolution would have been too mechanical and neat.

The possibly unfinished nature of the novel is also reflected in its uneven quality and structure. Nevertheless, in Part One Zweig brilliantly portrays the stultifying, soul-destroying tedium of Christine’s job in a squalid, rural backwater village post office – and the translator does a pretty good job of rendering it all into English (although I found some of the Americanisms a little intrusive). This tone is achieved from the opening paragraph, which describes these village post offices:

… their sad look of administrative stinginess is the same everywhere…they stubbornly retain that unmistakeable odor of old Austrian officialdom, a smell of stale tobacco and dusty files.

That post-WWI bureaucracy (the novel is set in 1926), the narrative indicates, is what cripples Austria and prevents it from progressing into modernity and vitality: ‘Orderly and by the book – that’s the official way of doing things.’ In Christine’s microcosm of this bureaucratic fossil world ‘the eternal law of growth and decline is suspended at the barrier of officialdom’. Nothing ever changes, and her dreary, soul-destroying routine is governed inexorably by the unforgiving clock on the wall, and the clamour of her morning alarm-clock.

Her status as ‘civil servant’ consigns Christine to ‘a lower census class’, exacerbated by her being a woman. She’s a nobody, with no future, trapped in a world where there’s no hope of escape; everything will remain, for years to come, ‘the same, the same, the same.’ Her life is a kind of ‘waking paralysis’ in ‘a sleeping world.’ The similarities to fairy tales like Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty become increasingly apparent when the transforming event changes her life: an invitation from her wealthy aunt Claire to come and have a holiday with her in a posh Swiss hotel.

This aunt has a guilty secret that indirectly causes Christine’s brief glimpse of glamour and opulence to come to a shattering end. When she arrived at the hotel, Christine was dowdy and nervous, ashamed of her poverty and shabby appearance. Claire facilitates the transformation by lending her expensive, fashionable clothes, sending her to a smart hairdresser and beautician, so that the ugly duckling becomes a glittering, beautiful social swan.

This first part of the novel mercilessly exposes the shallowness and hypocrisy at the heart of this bourgeois, privileged world Christine has entered. She charms the smart young set with her ingenuous excitement and spontaneity, but this also brings about her downfall, when a jealous girlfriend takes revenge on Christine for turning the boyfriend’s head. The response of the hotel guests, previously so friendly to this innocent, unaffected young woman, is a reflection of its cruelty and moral corruption. Only a kind English general, a much older widower whose grieving heart is kindled into life by Christine’s naturalness, recognises her as what Henry James would call ‘the real thing’, and he gallantly stands up for her.

But the damage is done, and Christine is sent unceremoniously packing back to her former life of squalor and drudgery. The problem is now that she’s not just spiritually paralysed: she’s angry. She now knows what an alternative life looks like. Everything around her now fills her with ‘helpless hatred’:

Because suddenly she hates everyone and everything, herself and everyone else, wealth and poverty, everything about this hard, unendurable, incomprehensible life.

I was unsure where Zweig would take her from there. That quotation comes at the end of Part One of the novel, when there are another hundred pages of Part Two to come.

I found this second part overlong, but horribly powerful. Christine’s hatred seems to find a restorative outlet, and a glimmer of hope, recognition and romance appears – but that open ending leaves the outcome unsure.

The Post Office Girl has much of the bleak, existential angst of Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its setting of a war-blasted Europe in which some have prospered but many have become destitute and without hope, lost souls, hollow men. Inequality was fixed in the social system, and the indulgence and idleness of the privileged few was flaunted in the faces of the mass who had nothing, yet toiled hopelessly to enable the status quo to be maintained.

The anger that Zweig must have felt as a member of a Jewish family that was a victim of the persecution that followed in the wake of the post-war grief and social unrest is concentrated and unleashed in the form of Christine – a kind of working-class Emma Bovary with a much more justifiable motive to feel angry and unfulfilled.

That’s maybe where the weakness of the novel lies, too. It tends to preach. It’s a lesson that needs to be propagated, but it’s not done with much subtlety. But then, why should it be? Anger is rarely subtle. Injustice and inequality won’t be transformed as a result of polite debate; the forces that reject Christine from their elite world guard their exclusivity fiercely.

 

 

 

 

Truth v. falsehood: Sir Thomas Browne and fake news

Sir Thomas Browne, Christian Morals

 First published posthumously in 1716: it purported to be advice to his children, but ‘may be considered as advice on obtaining individuation and self-realization as much as Christian virtue’, with sections on appearance and perspective (Wikipedia). The following passage strikes me as particularly pertinent in these sad times when prominent leaders take ‘post-truth’ positions, where all commentary with which they disagree is ‘fake news’, while all of their utterances (including tweets) are presented as if unequivocally, unanswerably true. Britain’s implausible new Prime Minister, for example, asserted in his characteristically pompous, bombastic first parliamentary speech in his new role yesterday (heaven help us) that Britain under his premiership is about to enter a ‘new golden age’. Right.

An extract from this passage by Browne is an epigraph to Jocelyn Brooke’s wonderfully strange ‘Military Orchid’ trilogy (highly recommended), according to an entry in an old notebook of mine, as it obviously appealed to me when I copied it out in 2012. I seem to have mislaid or disposed of my copy of the book, so can’t verify this.

I’d like to think Browne’s argument supports a sceptical or suspicious attitude to all such groundless statements (or tweets), rather than advocacy for ‘anything goes’, ‘quodlibet’ or fake news. I offer it here as a hopeful spot of light in an increasingly dark world.

The notes at the end are what I had to check up online for clarification (I’ve emboldened these terms in his text; otherwise the orthography is as it appears in the first edition). I thought they might help readers follow Browne’s typically labyrinthine style and arcane references (see yesterday’s post on his contributions to the English lexicon. I also recommend the website dedicated to him and his work).

Pt II, section 3 (from the online edition at the Univ. Chicago website, taken from the first edition)

LET well weighed Considerations, not stiff and peremptory Assumptions, guide thy discourses, Pen, and Actions. To begin or continue our works like Trismegistus of old, verum certè verum atque verissimum est, would sound arrogantly unto present Ears in this strict enquiring Age, wherein, for the most part, Probably, and Perhaps, will hardly serve to mollify the Spirit of captious Contradictors. If Cardan saith that a Parrot is a beautiful Bird, Scaliger will set his Wits o’ work to prove it a deformed Animal. The Compage of all Physical Truths is not so closely jointed, but opposition may find intrusion, nor always so closely maintained, as not to suffer attrition. Many Positions seem quodlibetically constituted, and like a Delphian Blade will cut on both sides. Some Truths seem almost Falshoods, and some Falshoods almost Truths; wherein Falshood and Truth seem almost æquilibriously stated, and but a few grains of distinction to bear down the ballance. Some have digged deep, yet glanced by the Royal Vein; and a Man may come unto the Pericardium, but not the Heart of Truth. Besides, many things are known, as some are seen, that is by Parallaxis, or at some distance from their true and proper beings, the superficial regard of things having a different aspect from their true and central Natures. And this moves sober Pens unto suspensory and timorous assertions, nor presently to obtrude them as Sibyls leaves, which after considerations may find to be but folious apparences, and not the central and vital interiours of Truth.

Notes preceded by J: from Dr Johnson’s commentary to his 1756 edition of Browne’s text, from an online edition in Google Books. Others are adapted from the likes of Wikipedia

The Emerald Tablet, also known as the Smaragdine Tablet, or Tabula Smaragdina, is a compact and cryptic piece of the Hermetica reputed to contain the secret of the prima materia and its transmutation. It was highly regarded by European alchemists as the foundation of their art and its Hermetic tradition…Although Hermes Trismegistus is the author named in the text, its first known appearance is in a book written in Arabic between the sixth and eighth centuries.

The layers of meaning in the text have been associated with the creation of the philosopher’s stone, as well as with other esoteric ideas – which would have appealed greatly to polymath Thomas Browne.

Extract from Newton’s translation (from his alchemical papers, now in the library of King’s College, Cambridge) of the text’s beginning:

Tis true without lying, certain and most true.
That which is below is like that which is above
and that which is above is like that is below 
to do the miracles of one only thing.

Cardan: Gerolamo Cardano (1501 – 1576): Italian mathematician, physician, scientist, astrologer, astronomer philosopher, writer.

Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540 – 1609): French Protestant religious leader, historian and scholar. While travelling as a young man in England, he formed an unfavourable opinion of the English (surely not?). Their inhuman disposition and inhospitable treatment of foreigners especially made a negative impression on him (little has changed: see Brexit). He was also disappointed in finding only a few Greek manuscripts and few learned men.

Compage: consistency, solid structure; contraction of separate parts into a whole.

Quodlibetically: in academic contexts, ‘in the manner of a subtle or elaborate argument or point of debate, usually on a theological or scholastic subject.’ Here Browne seems to be using the adverb in the sense of its Latin root, ‘quodlibet’, literally ‘whatever you please’, hence its usage in music for a pot pourri or medley; so he seems to mean here something like ‘ambiguously’ or ‘in a randomly mixed way’. J: ‘determinable on either side’.

Delphian Blade: J – The Delphian Sword became proverbial, not because it cut on both sides, but because it was used to different purposes (i.e. ‘positions’ in discourse can be multivalent).

Royal Vein: J – I suppose the main vein of a mine

Pericardium: J – The main integument of the heart. Lovely word, ‘integument’.

Parallaxis: J – The parallax of a star is the difference between its real and apparent place

Sybil of Delphi, by John Collier, 1891.

Sybil of Delphi, by John Collier, 1891. Art Gallery of South Australia Website Webpage PictureOld source [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1077695

Sibyls leaves: oak leaves on which their notoriously riddling answers (‘singing the fates’) were written by the famous women oracles, like those at Delphi, or Cumae (who was consulted by Vergil’s Aeneas before his descent into the underworld – of which she acted as guide). The epigraph to Eliot’s The Waste Land is a quotation from Petronius about her longing to die. Browne appears to be invoking epistemological distinctions (as stated in Aristotelian logic) between assertoric propositions – assertions that are unreliable, speculative, possibly untrue or unverifiable, as opposed to apodictic ones, which are a priori (deduced from pure reason), clearly provable and logically certain.