July 26, 2008

Stefan Zweig: The Post-Office Girl

Posted in NYRB Classics, Zweig Stefan at 3:31 pm by John Self

A new Stefan Zweig book is always a welcome prospect: so how about a new Zweig which is literally new – the first English translation of a book unpublished at the time of his death in 1942 (though it was released in Germany in 1982) – and as a bonus, comes in the lovely NYRB Classics format? Furthermore, at 250 pages, it’s a full novel rather than his usual story form. Say no more.

The Post-Office Girl (‘1930s’ is the best date we have for it) must be two or three times longer than anything else I’ve read by Zweig, and it shows that he can sustain his usual strengths of psychological truth and moreishness at novel length.

What’s particularly interesting is that, where Zweig’s usual form is to overwhelm the reader with immersion into the obsessive or passionate mindset of the protagonist, here, initially at least, he takes a more omniscient approach, scattering his gift widely around many characters, encapsulating them efficiently in a paragraph or two. An affair and marital break-up is despatched in a page and a half, and even passing characters are depicted in loving detail, such as the schoolmaster Franz Fuchsthaler, “a scrawny little man, anxious blue eyes hidden behind spectacles”:

For this quiet, unprepossessing, passive man who has no garden in front of his subsidized flat, books are like flowers. He loves to line them up on the shelf in multicoloured rows; he watches over each of them with an old-fashioned gardener’s delight, holds them like fragile objects in his thin, bloodless hands.

But quickly it becomes apparent that the central character is Christine Hoflehner, postmistress in the Austrian village of Klein-Reifling, who is thoroughly bored with her existence. It is 1926 and for years Christine has been in the same job, where “the hundreds of thousands of letters will always be different letters, but always letters. The stamps different stamps, but always stamps. The days different, but each one lasting from eight o’clock until noon, from two o’clock until six o’clock, and the work of the office, as the years come and go, always the same, the same, the same.”

Christine jumps – eventually – at the opportunity to visit her aunt Claire van Boolen in Switzerland, where she finds her life transformed by the social whirl and the new opportunities – and people – available to her.

And continually she asks herself in bewilderment, “Who am I? For years people on the street walked past without a glance, for years I’ve been sitting there in the village and no one gave me anything or bothered about me. …Is there suddenly something in me that was always there and yet not there, something that just couldn’t get out? Can it be that I was actually prettier than I dared to be, and smarter and more attractive, but didn’t have the courage to believe it? Who am I, who am I really?”

But even here the seeds of a turnaround are sown, as Zweig points out that although “she’s discovered herself for the first time in twenty-eight years … the discovery is so intoxicating that she’s forgetting everyone else.” Further than this it would be unfair to go (so don’t read the back cover: see below), but the story proceeds with Zweig’s usual combination of cruel logic and contorted emotion.

If the book’s moreish readability makes it seem at times less substantial – despite its greater length – than some of Zweig’s other works, then there is enough to make up for this in his skewering of class awareness, social shame and the desperation of reduced circumstances. The ending to me at first seemed rashly abrupt, but on rereading the closing pages I came to the view that it made a perfect marriage of ambiguity and inevitability.

Now a few quibbles with the edition from NYRB Classics (I know; I never thought I’d see the day). The back cover blurb is perhaps unique in that it reveals the entire plot right to the end of the book – a grave error, given that there are developments and switchbacks along the way which are a good part of the pleasure, as ever, in reading Zweig. On the other hand I would have welcomed a bit more background to the book, if not a full introduction then at least a translator’s note – where did the book come from, why didn’t Zweig publish it during his lifetime, and so on? (In fact NYRB Classics Editor Edwin Frank has written a little about it on their website, though this is not much more helpful, with its wild description of the book as “hardboiled, as if Zweig … had fortified himself with some stiff shots of Dashiell Hammett.”)

Finally I’m unsure about the title. The original is Rausch der Verwandlung. The last word I know from Kafka, but a rough Google Translate gives the whole as Noise of the Transformation. Edwin Frank prefers The Intoxication of Metamorphosis, which makes more sense. Both are more enigmatic and striking than The Post-Office Girl to be sure. Then again, the chosen title has a blank simplicity which appeals too, and an irony in finally reducing Christine to her social role however hard she wishes to escape it. Plus if we translated everything literally, then this post would be about a book by Stephen Branch. Sometimes publisher knows best then.

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14 Comments »

  1. I’m glad you’ve posted more on Zweig! Since Chess Story I’ve been excited to get my hands on more by him, and I am just about to start Beware of Pity, his longest work, I think, but not that long still.

    I’m still shocked that I didn’t hear of Zweig in all of my years of schooling, and I hope that his time is coming thanks to new translations – and your reviews! Of course, I will pass along what I find in Beware of Pity!

  2. kimbofo said,

    Oh no. Another author I must check out. I’ve really got to stop reading this blog, John! I simply can’t keep up with all the recommendations.

  3. Mrinal Bose said,

    Thanks for reviewing Stefan Zweig. Here is a famous quote by him: Every wave, regardless of how high and powerful its crest, must eventually collapse within itself.

  4. Isabel said,

    Would this be a good book for a book group?

    Is Zweig being sexist about commenting on Christine’s selfishness? What is so awful about having fun for the first time in your life or putting yourself first?

    I like your translations of the title better

  5. Rob said,

    Apologies if you’ve covered this elsewhere on the blog, but what would be a good starting book for reading Zweig?

  6. John Self said,

    Rob, I haven’t covered this I don’t think. My favourite Zweig is still Twilight, which is published in the UK along with Moonbeam Alley, and which I wrote about here. I’m not sure how readily available it is though. My first Zweig was Chess (that was a Penguin Red Classics UK edition; it’s also published in different editions as Chess Story (NYRB Classics, US) and The Royal Game (Pushkin Press, UK)) and it made me want to read more, so that has to be an option too. Finally I think Fantastic Night and other stories is worth a look, not least because you get five stories in one volume!

    Thanks for the comments, Trevor and kimbofo. Mrinal, excellent quote. Do you know where it comes from?

    Isabel, that’s an interesting question. To answer it I think would require spoilers but I don’t think Zweig is being sexist – it’s more to do with Christine’s immaturity and lack of experience when suddenly immersed in ‘the best’ that life can offer. Possibly a book group read, though I think Zweig doesn’t leave much ambiguity (except, very deliberately, at the end) so discussion material might be limited.

    • Ramona said,

      Not sexist? Hmmm. “Christine tried to think. It was all so sudden. She said, “On my own I don’t have the courage for anything. I’m a woman–I can’t do anything just for myself, I can only do something for someone else, with someone else. But for two people, for you, I can do anything. So if it’s what you want …” (p. 237)

      • John Self said,

        To suggest that that passage makes Zweig sexist is to extrapolate the character’s views of the limitations of her sex to the author, Ramona. One could by that token say Zweig was a repressed homosexual based on the character’s thoughts in Confusion.

        However I would need to read more around Zweig biographically to know for sure. I will probably read his memoir The World of Yesterday when it’s reissued in the UK later this year.

  7. Rob said,

    Thanks! That’s another couple of books for the list…

  8. Grant said,

    Pleased to see you reviewing Zweig again – it’s how I first came across your website. I was delighted to find that The Post Office Girl is (in my opinion) a major work as posthumous publications can be disappointingly slight. It reminded me of Robin Jenkins’ The Changeling in its examination of the agonies of inequality and the impossibility of going back.

  9. John Self said,

    Interesting you should mention The Changeling, Grant, as I started reading it earlier this year and gave up quite early on. Judging from my fellow blogger Stewart’s response to it, I should probably have persisted. I think my problem was that I kept seeing parallels to Bernard MacLaverty’s Lamb, a wonderful novel in my view, and I was (unfairly) comparing the two – a contest which in my mind anyway, Jenkins was never going to win.

  10. Tony S. said,

    I finally read “The Post Office Girl”. I can’t remember reading anything so thrilling as Christine’s glorious transformation during her vacation. I also loved Ferdinand’s justifications for robbing the Post Office – the Austrian government took everything from them and their families during and after World War I, so they are rightfully entitled to take some of it back. Makes sense. The book ends with Christine and Ferdinand planning the theft. Some people might be disappointed that the story doesn’t continue with the actual theft and get-away, but why go through all the details? A wondeful book.

  11. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comments Tony. Coincidentally, I saw in the bookshop yesterday that The Post Office Girl has been published in the UK, by Sort Of Books. It has a quote from Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys on the front, consigning lightweights such as Nicholas Lezard to the back cover where they belong.

    As I mentioned above, I was disappointed by the lack of any introduction or other critical apparatus in the NYRB edition. Fortunately Sort Of have remedied this for their edition, which contains an afterword by William Deresiewicz, which I will read soon and comment on in a postscript to my review. Interestingly, and in reference to your comment on the ending, Tony, Deresiewicz makes the point that the book is possibly unfinished.

  12. hunter zweig said,

    my name is hunter zweig i was looking behiend my family’s last name and found out about this author his name wasent orignally not a zweig no idea what it was but i know he bought or somehow got the last name so he could leave the country and move to africa or somewhere to escape the proscution of the jews i now he is jewish and he got the zweig name to escape the 3rd rite …………hope it was helpful


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