The Post-Office Girl, Stefan Zweig (Joel Rotenberg trans.). NYRB Classics. 224pp, $14.00
Reading The Post-Office Girl is like trying to hit a slow-breaking curveball. You know the break is coming—you can intuit that the seemingly conventional story is going to drop on you in some way—but it hangs high for so long that by the time it does break, you’ve already swung blindly, thinking you knew how to read the book.
The novel begins simply. Christine is a post office official in post–World War I Austria, stationed in a provincial backwater. Her life consists of working her tedious job, taking care of her sickly mother, and scrounging by on her meager paycheck. Her life is one of mere subsistence after great loss, but the twist is that she is grateful for the stability after the ravages of the Great War. Then she receives a telegram from her aunt, who left the country years before and married a Dutch tycoon. Her aunt and uncle invite her to vacation with them in the Swiss Alps, and suddenly the novel turns into a Jamesian flowering of feminine potential. On this, the first vacation of Christine’s life, her aunt showers her with gifts and clothes, and she is introduced to the sparkling society of the hotel.
This long first section of the novel feels the most like James. Like Daisy Miller or Isabel Archer before her, Christine has a youthful, effervescent zest for life that’s unleashed by all the wealth and friendly strangers she encounters. Not yet habituated to luxury, she revels in every detail of it. In fact, the passages in which Christine tries on a series of new dresses narrate a sort of religious conversion. “Wonderfully guileless” is the judgment of one character. In this section, Christine’s personality and Zweig’s clean prose style are most equally matched. In Joel Rotenberg’s translation from the German, Zweig captures the fast-moving eye of the girl as she becomes infused with this new life, infecting the reader with the same quickness and sparkling appreciation despite the fact that we’ve heard this Cinderella story many times.
Zweig skillfully relates Christine’s family background, including their misfortune during the war and her aunt’s history, which closely parallels her own. Like Christine, she too covered up her checkered past to slip into polite society. Like Christine, she too alters her name to signify this class elevation. There’s a swift energy throughout, indicated by the mobility of the metaphors:
And 1919—twenty-one. The war has in fact ended, but poverty has not. It only ducked beneath the barrage of ordinances, crawled foxily behind the paper ramparts of war loans and banknotes with their ink still wet. Now it’s creeping back out, hollow-eyed, broad-muzzled, hungry, and bold, and eating what’s left in the gutters of the war. An entire winter of denominations and zeroes snows down from the sky, hundreds of thousands, millions, but ever flake, every thousand melts in your hand. Money dissolves while you’re sleeping, it flies away while you’re changing your shoes (coming apart, with wooden heels) to run to the market for a second time; you never stop moving, but you’re always too late. . . . Sleep, though, that’s still the one thing you can’t begrudge yourself, the only thing that doesn’t cost money: the hours when you throw your spent, wan, now gaunt, still-untouched body on the mattress, unconscious of this ongoing apocalypse for six or seven hours.
Of course, this happiness can’t last. Just as Christine is wearing out her welcome with her aunt and uncle—up all night every night partying, taking (in)discreet midnight drives with German engineers—it gets out that Christine is not some wealthy near-kin, as the young lady in question has accidentally implied, but just some country cousin they’re bestowing pity upon. And as soon as the truth rears its head, her aunt sends Christine back home. To add fatalistic insult to circumstantial injury, her old, frail mother dies just before she returns.
And here is where the curve ball of the novel breaks. The last one hundred pages of The Post-Office Girl see Christine go from heartbroken Cinderella to hopeless grist for the bourgeois mill. Her misfortune turns from a personal fall to a cultural one.
Resuming her life of clerkdom after the vacation and funeral, Christine is depressed and bitter, the true stricken blandness of her life now apparent. It’s in this gully that she visits her sister’s family in Vienna and meets Ferdinand, an old war buddy of her brother-in-law. Trapped in Siberia for two years during the war, his hand permanently crippled, and deprived of his soldier’s pension (among many other bits of bad fortune), Ferdinand’s battlefield woes mirror Christine’s domestic tragedies. No longer a communist revolutionary, Ferdinand embraces a personal brand of nihilism: “All I care about is me, and the only government I’m going to serve is my own work.” Ferdinand and Christine begin a relationship hobbled by poverty, unable to advance professionally. With no way to move their relationship forward, they resolve to commit suicide together.
The introduction of Ferdinand is a leap on Zweig’s part, and one that’s not entirely successful. Though the first half of The Post-Office Girl covers well-worn ground, the narration is associated so firmly with the character of Christine that her transformation feels true. By contrast, in the second half Christine’s misfortune is given a mostly economic and political sheen through the angry, bereaved ranting of Ferdinand; the novel turns diagnostic and also a little colder. Christine becomes a cipher and loses her effervescent charm; she seems to exist merely as Ferdinand’s audience. Part of this seems to fit with her chameleon-like character as established before, but it feels like the novel itself is losing its own personality in the wake of Ferdinand and the gripes he has. The novel loses its interest in character and becomes a diagnosis of political and economic aftershocks. This new focus is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s different than the one established within the first half of the novel, and here the constant attention to the character’s whiny poverty compares poorly with Christine’s first transformation. Ultimately, the novel becomes less a story of a girl who falls from a great height than a diagnosis of Austria after the war.
Strangely, the closest the book gets to recapturing the energy and warmth of the first half comes at the end in the form of Ferdinand’s detailed explanation of how he and Christine will commit a crime that promises to deliver them from both suicide and poverty. It’s a thrilling yet pedantic, almost sentimental drafting that echoes the novel’s finer moments. It’s here that Ferdinand becomes most interesting, more than an accumulation of complaints. There’s almost an innocent, childlike affection in the plan. In the section entitled “Appearance,” he writes, “In dress, conduct, and bearing, we must present the appearance of moderately well-off members of the middle class, because they attract the least attention. Not too elegant, not too humble, and in particular I will pose as a member of a class seldom associated with this sort of undertaking or with money: I will pretend to be a painter.” The form of this section, the way it flies away from conventional dramatic scenic structure and gives us a document created by one of the characters, seems to reinvigorate Zweig’s prose.
The plan is a précis for an exciting last third of a novel Zweig chose not to write, part The Bourne Identity, part The Portrait of a Lady, Part II: Isabel’s Revenge. It’s an exciting thought that the novel might have broken back toward the energy and detail that opened it. But with what Zweig chooses to give us, The Post-Office Girl feels lacking, both in narration and stylistic charm.
Contributing editor Barrett Hathcock lives in Memphis, TN, where he teaches creative writing at Rhodes College. His most recent fiction appears in [sic] magazine.
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