The Post Office Girl
by Stefan Zweig

A Review by Ursula K. Le Guin

First published in The Literary Review, London, 2009

Artists work so hard, expending themselves with such unselfregarding energy, that it seems unfair to demand of them that they also be sick. But the 19th century notion that genius is illness laid the onus of malaise on artists, particularly writers and composers. Before long, if you didn’t boil your teenage brain in absinthe or withdraw to a cork-lined room, you were expected at least to indulge in alienation, alcoholism, bullfights, or suicide. German and Austrian artists started with an unfair advantage, in that their whole society was a bit toxic. Mahler, Richard Strauss, Thomas Mann, even Rilke: men of immense talent immersed in a cultural neuroticism, a wooing of perversity, disease, and death. Now, at this distance, their work appears stronger as it yields less to the mystique of hypersensitivity, ceases to swoon over the sick hero-self, and reports with sober clarity on their keen perceptions of a world out of balance. Mann’s story “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” the tiniest of household dramas, catches an entire historical moment in a few vivid, tender pages. On a larger scale, with a darker palette, but comparable emotional power and control, Stefan Zweig’s novel The Post Office Girl tells us a dark fairytale of Austria in 1926.

The book is an anomaly in Zweig’s work. His fame was based on highly “psychological” biographies, and to a lesser extent on his fiction, written in a high-strung, rather overwrought style. The Post Office Girl was not published, perhaps not finished, during his lifetime. Evidently he wrote most of it in the Thirties, took the manuscript with him when he fled Nazism to Brazil, and was perhaps still working on it there before he killed himself in a suicide pact with his wife in 1942. Forty years later it was published in German, and now, thirty years after that, in English. There is nothing dated about it. It strikes no self-conscious poses; the language is straightforward, precise, delicate, and powerful. The flow of the story, now lingering, now fast and lively, is under perfect control. A postmodern reader expecting linear exposition and descriptive passages to lead to “old-fashioned” resolution is in for a shock. Perhaps because the book is a work in progress, perhaps because Zweig’s conception of it was essentially ambiguous, there is no “closure” at all. The moral desolation of the novel is unsparing, accurate, and absolute. It is far beyond cynicism. It is as irrational and unanswerable as Dostoyevsky.

The story begins in a dreary Austrian village, where Christine, whose bourgeois family fell into poverty during the war, barely supports her sick mother by her soulless job in the post office. Suddenly, a telegram from the aunt who went to America before the war — and Christine is transported to the magical world of a luxury hotel in the Alps, where wishes she never knew she had are granted before she makes them. This long section of the book is marvelously written, bright as mountain air, vivid with delight. But the delight begins to be excessive, verges on hysteria. And so the reversal comes — again, wonderfully told, unforgettably real. Back down into the ashes, Cinderella.

And there she meets her Prince, Ferdinand, a bitter, bad-luck veteran of a lost war and a Siberian prison camp. Where can these two make a life together or find a life worth living?

Christine’s world consists of irreconcilable extremes — hopeless need, obscene wealth — and she, wildly volatile and helplessly impressionable, is tossed between these extremes with no chance of establishing selfhood. The villagers, even the kind, ugly schoolteacher who adores her, are hopelessly coarse, cowardly, and humdrum. Loathing them, she behaves as they do. In the Alpine hotel, the wealthy guests live solely for the immediate gratification of physical pleasure; adoring them, she learns within a day to behave as they do. There is no middle way in her world. There is no middle class. What Lao Tzu called “the baggage wagon” is simply not there. Nobody has a profession — they merely scrabble after money. Nobody looks beyond self or has the faintest spiritual striving or intellectual interest. All that, it seems, was burned away by the war and the dreadful postwar years of inflation and famine. She exists in an unspeakable poverty of mind and spirit.

Is this deprivation, this absence, what made Hitler possible: the void that Nazism filled? Missing from Christine’s world is the immense and apparently unremarkable middle element of life, the moderation of the middle class, whose ethical standards she follows by rote, but without any standard of intellectual or spiritual honesty to support the muddled, ordinary decency that adolescents rage at, sophisticates sneer at, saints surpass, and warriors, if they can, destroy.

The ultimate goal of war is to make slaves. Ferdinand the ex-soldier/ex-prisoner knows that. He knows he has been not only permanently damaged but permanently enslaved. At the end of the story he plans a desperate effort with Christine to escape the bondage they both live in. But at what cost? Perhaps they can buy justice, but can they steal freedom? What I see in their future, if they have any — and I don’t want to see it, because after all Christine is so vulnerable, so pitiable, so likable — is the two of them standing wide-eyed and enthusiastic amid vast, massed crowds, screaming Heil, Heil, Heil... But that is only what I see; what you may see, the author of this beautiful, risk-taking novel leaves up to you.

Spiral

NYRB Classics
April 15, 2008
ISBN 978-159017262


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