THE POST OFFICE GIRL by Stefan Zweig

Book Quote:

“And to think that it all turns on nothing but money, filthy, low-down, vile, despicable money. With a little money, two or three banknotes, I could have been among the blessed.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate (SEP 20, 2010)

Christine Hoflehner, the postmistress in a small village in Austria, seems an unlikely Cinderella. Coming of age in the crippling poverty prevalent in Austria after the First World War, she is now twenty-six, barely holding out on her meager salary as a state employee, without social life, without future. But then a fairy godmother appears in the form of an aunt who has married well in America, who invites her to stay with them at a luxury hotel in the Swiss Alps. Once there, she lends her fashionable clothes, buys her expensive accessories, and takes her to a beauty salon to complete the transformation. Drab no longer, Christine is now the belle of the ball, courted by the rich and titled of several nations. It takes a week or more before her personal clock strikes midnight, but when it does and she flees home in shame, she can no longer be content with the humdrum life she had left behind. This becomes the story of a Cinderella after the ball, with no prince to appear with the glass slipper.

The book’s German title, added by the publisher, is RAUSCH DER VERWANDLUNG (The Intoxication of Transformation), suggesting the heady change that comes over Christine in her grand hotel, but also implying the disillusionment that must inevitably follow. This is the subject of Zweig’s second part, which was left unfinished at his death in 1942. I have to admit that I found the ending unexpectedly abrupt, though I did not feel unsatisfied. It seemed to leave the outcome open, even optimistic, rather than continuing the downward spiral that was probable in real life. After some months of depression, Christine meets a fellow spirit named Ferdinand, a wounded veteran of the War returning from extended captivity as a POW to find a country unwilling to make any use of his talents. Now bitterly aware of the social inequalities that surround them, Christine and Ferdinand conceive a plan to start their lives anew, and it is on this note of muted possibility that the book ends.

It is a weakness, I think, that the two parts of the book have such a very different tone. The opening, aided by a racy translation by Joel Rotenberg making ample use of twenties American slang, reads almost like F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is all action and excitement. Just listen to Zweig’s evocation of the Jazz Age: “But the diabolical music drives everything along, strongly syncopated, lurid, lively and spirited and yet rhythmically precise, with a pleasantly slashing ride cymbal, a soothing fiddle, and a jarring, kneading, pummeling beat, hard and propulsive. The musicians are tawny Argentineans in brown jackets with gold buttons, and they play like fiends, in fact they look like fiends, like liveried and festooned demons, and every one of them seemingly out of his head.” Anyone who has ever lived for even a day beyond their means in a luxury resort will feel Christine’s enchantment, and anybody who has merely looked in from the sidewalk will know her subsequent pain.

In the second part, I think more of Steinbeck. Action is mostly replaced by description, interior monologue, and (once Ferdinand comes on the scene) impassioned speeches about political inequality. This section tells us a great deal about the kind of social conditions that would provide a fertile seedbed for National Socialism only a few years later. But it makes a less exciting story. Perhaps if Zweig had written a third part, he would have answered the heady opening with high-speed adventure of a different kind. But it is difficult to imagine any upbeat ending to the misery of those interwar years, that would drive Zweig into exile, see his books burned, and give birth to another War. This book may be unfinished, but so was history. Even as it is, this is a novel that will first intoxicate you, then open your eyes to reality — sobering yet undeniably important. Its belated publication is very welcome.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 17 readers
PUBLISHER: NYRB Classics (April 15, 2008)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? Not Yet
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia on Stefan Zweig

Kirjasto on Stefan Zweig

EXTRAS: Reading Guide
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another read from the past:

The Vera Wright Trilogy by Elizabeth Jolley

Partial Bibliography:

Nonfiction:


September 20, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Austria, Classic, World Lit

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