One of the more notable North American releases in the past few months (in my world) is Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl. I chanced upon his Chess Story (same translator) a few years ago when I indulged in one of my favourite activities: bibliomancy with the New York Review of Books Classics catalogue.
That was about two to three years ago and when I read it then…I didn’t quite get it. Why, I dunno, you read the synopsis on the site it sounds simple enough. Scenes from the book linger and crop up in my conscience from time to time: a Slavic yokel playing chess in a dingy tavern; a Nazi interrogator questioning someone in a (possibly red) hotel room; some odd, hostile confrontations on a ship. I didn’t dismiss because I concluded that neither the book nor I were quite ready for each other but could perhaps reunite in a few years; then I could decide if there was something to this Zweig.
The Post-Office Girl gives no such problems. William Deresiewicz noted, in his review for “The Nation”, that it represents a “radical departure” for Zweig which could partly explain why he never published it before he committed suicide. One can be a bit suspicious since the German edition published decades before revealed that the manuscript was in “considerable disarray” before the editor/s put it together but the NYRB edition mentions no such awkward beginnings and is curiously without an introduction. Whatever it is it turned out to produce a novel that enthralled from beginning to end for shifting reasons.
Reviewers are hesitant to call literary works “page turners” especially the ones placed at the purer end of the spectrum. (All translated works reside there except for Swedish mysteries.) It calls to mind easy (in the most plebeian sense, connect-the-dot prose, lots of action and suspense ie car chases, boom boom, “races against time”, or for the “reader-who-loves-books-about-books” demographic an amateur retread of a Victorian classic with a “mysterious author/book” plot. Zweig’s prose here isn’t easy but the way it comes together is accessible. An intense interior drama is played out by Christine a twenty-eight year old post-office worker whose long-lost relative, flush with American wealth, snatches her from soul-sucking civil service drudgery to upper-class opulence. Zweig matches his prose perfectly to unfolding events, giving readers a continual thrill albeit one tinged and eventually overtaken by dread. One doesn’t need to read the book’s synopsis to suspect how Christine will make out.
Zweig (and the editors who put his drafts in order) sets the scene masterfully. His meticulous description of a post-office building in post-WWI Austria not only pulls into the scene but effectively conveys the anti-human, bureaucratic government best at depleting any vitality from the bulk of its citizenry. When he describes Christine he takes on that perspective and we see not only how the government views its people but to some extent how she views herself and her circumstances.
…this interchangeable fixture “civil servant” is a member of the female sex…has the bureaucratic designation of postal official. Not much more of her is visible through the wicket than the pleasant profile of an ordinary young woman, somewhat thinlipped and pale and with a hint of circles under the eyes…a few slight lines on her forehead and wrinkles under her eyes. Still, this young woman…is easily the freshest thing in the Klein-Reifling post office; she seems good for at least another twenty-five years of service. Her hand with its pale fingers will raise and lower the same rattly wicket thousands upon thousands of times more, will toss hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of letters…Probably the wrist will even learn to function better and better, ever more mechanically and unconsciously, detached more and more completely from the conscious self.
Zweig is adept at evincing different places and points of view. One feels as if one is there in the cramped room observing her mechanical, mindless movements with a tense stomach and a furrowed brow. I more or less remain in this state until Christine’s rich aunt vacations in Austria with her rich American husband and a sudden remembrance for long-lost relatives. Christine’s mother is too ill to accept the invitation to spend time with time with them at a luxury hotel in the Swiss Alps she offers her daughter in her stead. It takes many hours for Christine to get past her “confusion, fear and mistrust” to muster up the slightest excited flutter.
Her stay in the Alps dominated by the word “transform” in its various forms. Christine is an unassuming, endearing, trusting character, readily sympathetic because of her personal history. War interrupted her comparatively carefree childhood, her brother died in the field, then her father died from an illness the family could not afford to treat. The so-called best years of her life have been marked by constant struggle with no bright future to look or even wish for in Austria’s depressed economy and bloated government. Her sudden ascension into luxury is a shock to her system — one to which she initially shrinks from. It is her aunt’s generous shopping trips and uncle’s affable, lively demeanour that soon put her at ease; and the other young guests’ easy acceptance of such a pretty, obviously well-dressed girl combines into an intoxicating mix. (The German title translates to “The Intoxication of Transformation”.) Here she is after an innervating walk in the mountains.
Intoxication surges in her again as she enters the lobby. It seems stuffy here now; everything is too close, too heavy. She tosses…whatever is confining and oppressive…and wishes she could tear the clothes off her tingling skin. The two older people at the breakfast table look up in surprise as she approaches, her step light, cheeks glowing, nostrils quivering, somehow taller, healthier, sleeker than yesterday…”I don’t know the name of the mountain, but I went up there, oh” (she takes a deep breath) “it was wonderful.” Her aunt looks at her with admiration. “What a glutton for punishment you are! Out of bed and straight up into the mountains without breakfast…Anthony, just look at her, she’s transformed.”…Christine [is] unaware how quickly and hungrily she’s eating and how much…She’s too carried away to notice her aunt and uncle smiling more and more broadly…further encouraged by [their] kind faces…she spreads her arms wide…and her elation bursts out of her: “Oh, Aunt, I never knew what it was to really breathe.”
Zweig picks up the pace to keep up with Christine. The novel is written in third person but he reaches for and brings out her every thought and emotion so directly that at times one hardly notices the difference and is swept along in her euphoria.
But how could she think, when would she think? She has no time to herself. No sooner does she appear in the lounge than someone from the merry band is there to drag her along somewhere — on a drive or a photo excursion, to play games, chat, dance….The pageant of idle busyness goes on all day. There’s no end of games played, things to smoke, nibble on, laugh at, and she falls into the whirl without resistance when any of the young fellows shout for Fräulein von Boolen, for how can she say no, and why would she, they’re all so warm, these fresh-faced guys and gals, young people of a sort she’s never known, always boisterous and carefree, always nicely dressed in new ways, always joking, always with money to spend, always thinking of new things to do;
You can already guess what dangers lurk. She becomes involved in a harmless deception that a malicious member of her “merry band: roots out and spreads, causing her aunt to drop her as quickly as she picked her up. Yet there were other dangers that would have felled dear Christine sooner rather than later. What jumps out as one reads of her revels is how stunted she was, in some respects, how she reacts to everything as though she were a giggling teenager fending off boy’s advances for the first time.
It’s a point Zweig stresses and as the plot develops one sees how she and the others are different mix of young and old. Christine, unused to such sensual experience, is naive about both its pleasures and requisite risks but older in her long-accustomed familiarity, with work, responsibility and hardship. The others are the complete opposite: jaded, cynical, artificial and flippant about all things sensual yet childishly ignorant about anything unrelated to leisure. Christine’s aunt so effectively forgets her less than illustrious origins — she left before the war so she missed the worst of it — that she leaves her niece to run about with little guidance besides introducing her to the “right” persons. As Christine becomes more popular and less attentive to her guardians her aunt and uncle simply grumble about how late she and her friends are for dinner and the noise they make at the table. That the scenario may be a little out-of-joint since Christine is near thirty never seems to trouble them at all.
Part one ends on a low deeper than the hole Christine looked out of at the beginning but the emotional upheavals are not over. They take on a darker cast in part two. The synopsis gives away a part of that plot but The Post-Office Girl, if nothing else, proves that the journal is almost always more riveting than the destination. Readers get a shock or two before the end and it is just as nail-biting as reading of Christine’s fall from upper-class grace. You may close the book biting your lips, with a stone-like object lodged heavily in your stomach but it will be worth it.