In November I participated in a blogging challenge put together by Mrs. B. of The Literary Stew and Honey of Coffeespoons; we all read and reviewed books from the gorgeous New York Review Books editions. One that intrigued me was Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl, which was reviewed by Danielle of A Work in Progress. I’ve felt for a while that Zweig was someone I should read; Austrian, 1881 – 1942, on the spot in the troubled Europe between the wars. But intimidating, too — these guys tend not to be cheerful. The Post Office Girl seemed approachable, though, so I dove in.
What a terrific novel! Our protagonist is Christine Hoflehner, a 28-year-old Austrian woman who serves as the “postal official” in a tiny Austrian village. Her life is dreary to an extent that not one of us noodling around on the Internet can imagine. (That’s what fiction is for, right?) A telegram arrives that changes her life: she is invited to join her aunt and uncle at a hotel in the Engadine, an Alpine valley in Switzerland.
There, Christine is transformed. Flattery, good clothes, good food, kindness, and high altitudes bring out a vivacious charmer. But, tick-tock, midnight strikes and Cinderella/Christine is ejected from the ball, sent back to the demeaning poverty of her previous life. Only now that she has been awakened to other possibilities, the discomfort, boredom, and ugliness that surround her simply cannot be borne. It is at this point that she encounters another character as disaffected as she — and with as little to lose.
It’s a bare enough outline. You could even think of The Post-Office Girl as a high-altitude Madame Bovary, but Zweig is less interested in psychology than in the cruel pressures of social conditions. The book is set in 1926 and things are going very sour in Austria. Zweig handles his narrative with a steely, focused fury. I especially admired the way he paced the book. The first section of the triptych moves — as it should, to demonstrate the deadliness of Christine’s existence — with the slowness of a clock before recess. The second, in the Alps, rushes headlong, and Zweig is especially good at conflating high-altitude exhilaration with Christine’s sensual awakening: “The path’s gradual turns and the buoyancy of the air draw her upward. A sprint like this warms the blood in no time. She tears off her gloves, sweater, hat: the skin should have a chance to breathe in this rousing chill, not just the lips and lungs… She should really stop (her heart is hammering in her chest, her pulse pounding in her ears, her temples throbbing).” And there is a stately inevitability to the third section where Zweig hits hard: “The vast power of money, mighty when you have it and even mightier when you don’t, with its divine gift of freedom and the demonic fury it unleashes on those forced to do without it…” Zweig cuts his tale short just before the resolution, a shocking choice that’s oddly satisfying. What happens next to his characters hardly matters: he’s made his point.