Review of The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

Book Review of The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

Many thanks to Sort Of Books for publishing yet another posthumous work by Stefan Zweig – even if as in the case of The Post Office Girl, Zweig’s intentions for the book were somewhat unclear.  In an Afterword, the the essayist and literary critic, William Deresiewicz, points out that Zweig “nibbled away at the Post Office Girl for years . . . and given that he chose his own time of death (by suicide) . . . it seems clear that he never managed to hammer the novel into a shape that satisfied him”.

Despite its less than perfect state however, we can be grateful for substantial segments of “classic Zweig”.  In some ways, it could be seen as a short story (although nearly 250 pages long) and that would allow us to be tolerant of its less than satisfactory ending.  We could then perhaps put its incompleteness down to modernism, or to an attempt by the author to create a deliberate literary enigma. 

Most readers will in any case be quite able to supply their own ending depending on whether they share Zweig’s doom-laden state of mind in 1940, or whether they choose to lift the novel into another sphere where some sort of happier ending is posited.

The story briefly, is of Christine, a Post Office assistant in a remote village in Austria some two hours by train from Vienna.  Christine has led a miserable life, suffering the pervasive poverty of Austro-German people after the First World War

She lives with her ailing widowed mother, and her life is one of endless drudgery and “making do”, until suddenly out of the blue, her mother’s sister who emigrated to America sends a telegram to say that she is arriving in Europe for a vacation and would Christine like to travel to the Swiss Alps to spend time in their hotel with them.

Christine dons her old yellow coat and travels with her straw suitcase to her Aunt Claire’s hotel in Pontresina, near St Moritz and is astonished at the affluence of her Aunt and her husband.  Aunt Claire gives her fanstatic new clothes, pays to have her hair and make-up done, effecting a total transformation in the dowdy post office official.  Christine enters fully into the life of the hotel, and is swept off her feet by the glamour of the social world and the opulence of her surroundings.

Alas (and there has to be an alas doesn’t there), things come to an abrupt end and she is sent off home with a suddenness that bewilders and shocks her.  Things can never be the same for Christine has now seen a better life and the old one has become repulsive to her.  She meets up with an embittered man who has also known nothing but poverty and hard work and the two of them plan a final escape from their cruel circumstances.

Readers of this book need to know a little about Stefan Zweig’s life in order to set it in context.  Zweig was increasing despairing of the effect Nazism was having on the world, and in South American exile, he and his wife planned and eventually carried out a double suicide.  The despair of these times comes across strongly in the novel. 

It is intensely depressing, the hopelessness of Christine’s situation towards the end being almost unbearable.  Her brief romance is carried out in terrible circumstances and has an outcome which humiliates her, and drives Christine and her lover down a dead-end road, at which point the novel finishes.

The reader will gain the correct impression that this work was written over a long period of time and was reworked towards the end of Zweig’s life.  At times it is typically passionate, with long lyrical passages describing the glamorous life in the Alpine hotel, and as in other works, Zweig loves to paint work-pictures of the cold crisp nights in the mountains:

Christine . . .facing the immense landscape with its swiftly changing unfurling play of colours.  First the clouds lose their radiant white, gradually reddening, subtly at the beginning, then more and more deeply as if provoked despite themselves by the quickening sunset.  Then shadows well up from the mountainsides, behind the tress, but now they’re massing together, becoming dense and bold, as though a black pool from the valley were rushing up the peaks, and for a moment it seems possible that darkness might inundate the mountaintops too . . . but now the peaks are glowing in a colder paler light: the moon has appeared in the blue that’s far from gone . . . 

The flowering of Christine under her Aunt’s tutelage is a joy to read, but the decline is bitter indeed and we can gain insight into how Zweig must have been feeling when he wrote the latter part of the story.

This book would not be a good place to start reading Stefan Zweig, but anyone such as myself who has developed tremendous admiration for his work will find this an extremely worthwhile addition to the canon of Zweig’s works in translation.  I am grateful to Joel Rotenberg providing such a fine translation.

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