Deliver us from evil

<strong>The Post Office Girl</strong>

Stefan Zweig

<em>Sort Of Books, 265pp, £7.99</em>

Though it was apparently written in the mid-1930s, The Post Office Girl was never published during Stefan Zweig’s lifetime: the manuscript was found among his papers after his death in 1942 and was finally published in German 40 years later; it took another 26 years for an English translation to appear (it came out in the United States last summer). The wait has been due in part to the long eclipse of Zweig’s reputation, at least in the English-speaking world; he has received acclaim only in recent years, thanks largely to the steady efforts of the tiny independent Pushkin Press. But it must also owe something to a certain ambiguity: The Post Office Girl ends in mid-air, a decision having been taken, events about to be set in train. Had Zweig finished the story, or only abandoned it? This ambiguity is entirely appropriate to a book whose whole subject is dissatisfaction.

The girl of the title is Christine Hoflehner, who in the summer of 1926 is mistress of a tiny post office in a village a couple of hours’ train ride from Vienna. Christine’s dreary existence is divided into days spent on tedious chores – stamping letters, sending telegrams, entering figures in ledgers – and nights caring for her sick, unhappy mother. She herself is numb, too unaware of the possibility of happiness even to know that she is unhappy. She is nudged awake by a telegram from her aunt, who fled a minor scandal to live in America, married well, and is now visiting Europe with her husband. Christine is to stay with them at a Swiss resort, on her first ever holiday.

Once there, surrounded by wealth, pampered with clothes and the attentions of a hairdresser, Christine discovers that she is beautiful and free – discovers desire, too. This is a Cinderella story (clocks chime midnight, the old Christine is compared to an ugly stepsister), so it must come to an end. When rumours of Christine’s humble origins begin to circulate, the aunt – fearing that her own shadowy past may come to light – drops her, and she returns home in disgrace.

But as the song says, how ya gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree? For Christine, the brief revelation of happiness can only lead to misery. The most powerful passages in the book describe the new feeling that seizes her: hatred. Given Zweig’s nationality (he was Austrian) and the time in which The Post Office Girl was written, it is difficult not to read political parallels into the story – though the publisher’s blurb suggesting that the subject is “the human cost of the boom and bust of capitalism” is, I think, an instance of the tendency to project our own concerns on to stories of the past.

Certainly Ferdinand, a wartime friend of Christine’s brother who has returned from a prisoner-of-war camp in Siberia filled with bitterness, feels like a representative figure: it was other Ferdinands who were mounting putsches, putting on brown shirts. But Ferdinand and Christine do not threaten to go in this direction: united in anger, they conceive other ways of escape. Another mood begins to creep in; I’d associated Zweig with Joseph Roth as a backward-looking chronicler of Austria’s decline, but here he looks forward, to the American noir novels of James M Cain and David Goodis; and then the book stops, before the promise can be fulfilled.

Zweig traces Christine’s trajectory with great skill. At first, he describes her life in purely general terms as the representative of thousands or tens of thousands; but as she ascends towards the light, the narrative becomes increasingly personal, even intimate, as money and attention allow her to become an individual. Zweig is never starry-eyed. He makes it clear, for instance, that happiness does not make her a better person: on the contrary, finding a sense of herself, she loses much sense of those around her (which is why, when the axe falls, she is such an easy victim).

Zweig does pain better than pleasure, however. The early passages about Christine’s childhood, describing the Hoflehners’ gradual fall through the First World War into poverty and habitual unhappiness, though brief, are more deeply felt than the scenes in the Swiss hotel. They reminded me of George Gissing’s The Odd Women, another depiction of women’s lives shut down by poverty, and the most depressing novel I’ve read. Perhaps that pessimism is what put Zweig off publishing – he may have felt that he had gone too far. But it is that feeling which gives The Post Office Girl urgency, which takes it out of its period and makes it perpetually modern.

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload