Characters: *** (3 stars)
Character development: **** (4 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Writing: **** (4 stars)
Overall: **** (4 stars)
This is the first of Zweig’s books I’ve read, and after one taste I know it won’t be the last. Like Christine, our wilted heroine who gets a glimpse of high society and can’t bear to give it up, I’ve peeked into a new kind of world.
The post office girl of the title is not living a fulfilling life. The novel’s opening lines attest to this:
“One village post office in Austria is much like another: seen one and you’ve seen them all. Each with identical meager furnishings provided (or rather issued, like uniforms) during Franz Josef’s rule, all drawn from the same stock, their sad look of administrative stinginess is the same everywhere.”
Living in a dreary little town, caring for her aging mother, Christine doesn’t have the energy or the means to dream about a happier life. She goes meekly from one drudgery to the next, survival the only goal, and maybe a good night’s sleep. But when Christine’s glamorous aunt and wealthy uncle whisk her away to share in their luxurious vacation at a super (super) posh hotel in the Alps, her perception of life is shattered. Humble repetition is replaced with the gleaming, giddy swirl of delights these holiday-makers experience every day. Christine’s initial trepidation at being surrounded with so much careless opulence disappears in one memorable moment when a glimpse of her made-up self in the hotel mirror reveals a fashionable, alluring young lady. The magic of falling under own charm starts to work on all the other guests, and suddenly our post office girl is a star amongst the bright young things.
But things can not last. The Post Office Girl is divided into two parts, with a chasm of disenchantment separating them. We, the readers, have to suffer with the knowledge that Christine finds herself floating above while at the hotel – her effervescent joy is clouding her judgement. And falling from such dizzying heights makes reality so much worse. It is a soured young woman who returns to her desk job, and the change is so marked that one can barely imagine the same character. When Christine meets, by happenstance and a mutual friend, an equally bitter young man who scorns the trap of wealth and class as much as she does (but for different reasons), she finds the company that misery so craves. But the unhappiness that post-vacation Christine and post-War Ferdinand share builds up from the city’s grime into something more volatile. In questioning the set up of a society that seems to have failed them, they long for a chance to grab at a moment of the freedom they’ve witnessed in other people. They devise a plan. The reader wonders if things could possibly work out in their favor.
And that’s the story of The Post Office Girl.
Some dismally fun background info: The Post Office Girl was published posthumously. Zweig was an unhappy but fascinating fellow in his own right: an Austrian-Jewish writer living in Vienna, who wrote prodigiously in the years between wars. When Nazism began to gain a threatening amount of power, he and his wife relocated to Brazil, where they committed suicide. I knew about his demise before I read The Post Office Girl, so the gloomy middle section of the book seemed even more depressing. And then – once the book’s tone buoys hopefully a little bit in the last forty pages – I couldn’t shake the author’s eventual fate from my head while reading about the characters’ cheerful, fatal desperation.
Yet even while destitution and inescapable dissatisfaction molder within the characters’ hearts, a brisk energy blows through the pages like the Alpine winds which so invigorate Christine on her travels. The story has peaks of joy and clarity, interspersed with valleys of despair. It has a sense of humor marred by the cold injustice of poverty and wartime. When you think that Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” (a film I won’t apologize for loving) was inspired by Stefan Zweig’s writing, you might read with a weather eye out for a flash of the madly comic spark that kept picturesque absurdities piling up in that film. (I do want to read The World Of Yesterday now.) The Post Office Girl does have a fabulous hotel, fast cars, and stunningly delectable food. There are sharply sarcastic conversations to satisfy the wryest reader: in glamorous repartee during the first half of the book, then in pessimistic rants later on. But Zweig’s writing (in this particular book, at least) is more morose, ballasted by the weight of past violence and future hopelessness.
To the characters, everything comes down to money: the humiliation of any luxury being “too expensive”, or the mistreatment poor people must suffer without comment while the wealthy enjoy life instead of just enduring it. In reading the book, I too felt myself scorning the wealthy while lusting after wealth, but Zweig had a talent in letting his characters’ follies speak for themselves. We can sympathize with Christine’s rapture at the hotel while nodding wisely at the eventuality of her disappointment, because we aren’t struck so silly by the rarity of such happy surroundings. As readers, we probably see where this is headed, and when her whirlwind of a vacation comes crashing down at the novel’s midpoint then we know there’s still a long ways to plummet. Zweig made me think about how I experience luck, class, and work without forcing me to take a side. I could balk in horrified concern at the unhappiness of Austria’s most unfortunate citizens, and gaze agog at the lifestyles of fancy people who have the luxury of wardrobe-drama being the most important aspect of their day. Conversations on either side of the gap – the gap in society, and the gap in between the novel’s two parts – invite both sympathy and criticism. I’m glad I haven’t experienced either extreme.
The pacing of this book was a bit too jolting to keep me reading straight through: I got caught up in Christine’s initial transformation in the mountains but had to take a break when disappointment brought things back down to ground-level. The language itself is by turns gorgeous and grimy (Joel Rotenberg translated my NYRB edition). A first glimpse of glorious nature took my breath away, and the squalor of a cheap Viennese hotel made my skin crawl. The descriptions of wartime conditions are appropriately frightful, especially since we listen along through Christine’s sheltered ear. By the end of The Post Office Girl, I was quite ready to wash my hands of the whole turbulent lifestyle it captures, but I think it was just the right length to really capture the two sides of existence in Europe between world wars.
I don’t know what I’ll read next by Zweig, but if his insights here are anything to base my opinion upon, I expect more sharp observation of the facades and desperation that make people so endlessly fascinating.