July 26, 2008
Stefan Zweig: The Post-Office Girl
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is always a welcome prospect: so how about a new Zweig which is literally new – the first English translation of a book unpublished at the time of his death in 1942 (though it was released in Germany in 1982) – and as a bonus, comes in the lovely NYRB Classics format?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.