Stefan Zweig: “The Post Office Girl”

Quoc Tru Nguyen
December 19, 2019
Stefan Zweig: “The Post Office Girl”
Artists work so hard, expending themselves with such unselfregarding energy, that it seems unfair to demand of them that they also be sick. But the nineteenth-century notion that genius is illness laid the onus of malaise on artists, particularly writers and composers. Before long, if you didn't poison your teenage brain with absinthe or withdraw to a cork-lined room, you were expected at least to indulge in alienation, alcoholism, bullfights, or suicide. German and Austrian artists started with an unfair advantage, in that their whole society was fairly toxic. Mahler, Richard Strauss, Thomas Mann, even Rilke: men of immense talent immersed in a cultural neuroticism, a wooing of perversity, disease, and death. Now, at this distance, their work appears stronger as it yields less to the mystique of hypersensitivity, ceases to swoon over the sick hero-self, and reports with sober clarity on their keen perceptions of a world out of balance. Mann's story "Disorder and Early Sorrow;' the tiniest of household dramas, catches an entire historical moment in a few vivid, tender pages. On a larger scale, with a darker palette but comparable emotional power and control, Stefan Zweig's novel “The Post Office Girl” tells us a dark fairy tale of Austria in 1926.
The book is an anomaly in Zweig's work. His fame was based on highly "psychological" biographies and to a lesser extent on novels written in a high-strung, rather overwrought style. “The Post Office Girl” was not published, perhaps not finished, during his lifetime. Evidently he wrote most of it in the thirties, took the manuscript with him when he fled Nazism to Brazil, and was perhaps still working on it there before he killed himself in a suicide pact with his wife in 1942. Forty years later it was published in German, and now, thirty years after that, in English.
There is nothing dated about it. It strikes no self-conscious poses; the language is straightforward, precise, delicate, and powerful. The flow of the story, now lingering, now fast and lively, is under perfect control. A postmodern reader expecting linear exposition and descriptive passages to lead to "old-fashioned" resolution is in for a shock. Perhaps because the book is a work in progress, perhaps because Zweig's conception of it was essentially ambiguous, there is no closure at all. The moral desolation of the novel is unsparing, accurate, and absolute. It is far beyond cynicism. It is as irrational and unanswerable as Dostoyevsky.
The story begins in a dreary Austrian village, where Christine, whose bourgeois family fell into poverty during the First World War, barely supports her sick mother through her soulless job in the post office. Suddenly comes a telegram from the aunt who went to America before the war-and Christine is transported to the magical world of a luxury hotel in the Alps, where wishes she never knew she had are granted before she makes them. This long section of the book is marvelously written, bright as mountain air, vivid with delight. But the delight begins to be excessive, verges on hysteria. And so the reversal comes-again, wonderfully told, unforgettably real. Back down into the ashes, Cinderella.
And there she meets her Prince, Ferdinand, a bitter, bad-luck veteran of a lost war and a Siberian prison camp. Where can these two make a life together or find a life worth living?
Christine's world consists of irreconcilable extremes-hopeless need, obscene wealth-and she, wildly volatile and helplessly impressionable, is tossed between these extremes with no chance of establishing selfhood. The villagers, even the kind, ugly schoolteacher who adores her, are hopelessly coarse, cowardly, and humdrum; loathing them, she behaves as they do. In the Alpine hotel, the wealthy guests live solely for the immediate gratification of physical pleasure; adoring them, she learns within a day to behave as they do. There is no middle way in her world. There is no middle class. What Lao Tzu called "the baggage wagon" is simply not there. Nobody has a profession, they merely scrabble after money. Nobody looks beyond self or has the faintest spiritual striving or intellectual interest. All that, it seems, was burned away by the war and the dreadful postwar years of inflation and famine. Christine exists in an unspeakable poverty of mind and spirit.
Is this deprivation, this absence, what made Hitler possible: the void that Nazism filled? Missing from Christine's world is the immense and apparently unremarkable middle element of life, the moderation of the middle class, whose ethical standards she follows by rote, but without any standard of intellectual or spiritual honesty to support the muddled, ordinary decency that adolescents rage at, sophisticates sneer at, saints surpass, and warriors, if they can, destroy.
The ultimate goal of war is to make slaves. Ferdinand the ex-soldier/ ex-prisoner knows that. He knows he has been not only permanently damaged but permanently enslaved. At the end of the story he plans a desperate effort with Christine to escape the bondage they both live in. But at what cost? Perhaps they can buy justice, but can they steal freedom? What I see in their future, if they have any-and I don't want to see it, because after all Christine is so vulnerable, so pitiable, so likable-is the two of them standing wide-eyed and enthusiastic amid vast massed crowds, screaming “Heil”, “Heil”, “Heil”. But that is only what I see. What you may see, the author of this beautiful, risk-taking novel leaves up to you.
Ursula K. Le Guin: “Stefan Zweig: The Post Office Girl”
[in “Words Are My Matter”]
Ruined souls
John Banville applauds the return of a novel that directly addresses the turmoil of its time

In the years between the two world wars, Stefan Zweig was one of the most popular writers in the world, and probably the most widely translated. He wrote stories, essays, biographies, memoirs, and countless cultural and historical studies. Among his novels, the two that are best known are Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Post Office Girl, the latter published posthumously. He was born in 1881 into a wealthy Viennese merchant family; his father and mother were Jewish, but only, as he said later, through an accident of birth, for the Zweigs were thoroughly assimilated - or at least thought they were, until the Nazis arrived and informed them otherwise.
Stefan Zweig was certainly assimilated into Vienna's brilliant intellectual café world of the 1920s and 30s, and knew and was admired by most of the great European literary figures of the time (although Thomas Mann later dismissed him in his diary as a mediocrity). Zweig fled Austria in 1934, having recognised in Hitler the arch-enemy of that high European culture in which the writer had invested a passionate faith. He lived first in England, then in the United States, and settled, if that is the word, in Brazil in 1941 - the following year, he and his wife joined in a suicide pact; when their bodies were found, they were lying beside each other, hand in hand. In his last testament, Zweig wrote: "I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth."
Zweig's work is marked by a clear, fluent and expressive style, which translates easily and well, a paramount requirement for international success, but also frequently a millstone that can drag down the posthumous reputation of even a highly gifted writer. Nowadays, Zweig is almost a forgotten figure, certainly in the English-speaking world, although a few publishers are making a laudable effort to bring his work back into wider circulation, and Sort Of Books are to be congratulated on this fine new translation.
In his masterly essay collection Cultural Amnesia, Clive James makes a typically vigorous and, it is not too much to say, loving defence of Zweig as man and artist. In his culminating essay, James describes his own book as "really the story of the will to achievement in the face of all the conditions for despair", and takes Zweig as an exemplar of his theme. James notes with bitter irony that in burning Zweig's private library in Salzburg, the Nazis "knew exactly what he represented, even if some literary critics still don't".
At the conclusion of another, very different, masterpiece, Simon Gray's Coda, the fourth and last volume of The Smoking Diaries, the playwright seeks to put off for as long as possible a momentous visit to his oncologist by indulging in a hilariously frantic but also subtle and penetrating critique of Zweig's novel Beware of Pity. As time runs out and the spectre of "Dr Rootle" looms ever nearer, we realise that Gray is making a sly but wholly justified defence of his own method in these marvellous diaries when he says of Zweig that "finally no man can speak for the turmoil of his time unless he speaks from the turmoil of himself".
In The Post Office Girl, although the narrative voice is sufficiently impersonal to satisfy even the artistic strictures of a TS Eliot, Zweig certainly addresses directly the "turmoil of his time". The novel is divided into two parts so distinct from each other as to mark a rupture. Also, the abruptness of the ending suggests that the narrative was abandoned rather than completed. It is 1926, and the main character, Christine Hoflehner, in her late 20s, works as a lowly postal clerk in a small Austrian village. She has lost her father and her brother to the war, and lives in poverty with her mortally ill and despairing mother. Christine feels as defeated as her country. As the narrator describes it, the war has ended but poverty has not: "Now it's creeping back out, hollow-eyed, broad-muzzled, hungry and bold, and eating what's left in the gutters of the war."
One day, a telegram arrives from Christine's Aunt Claire inviting her to come to Switzerland for a holiday. Claire had emigrated to America 25 years earlier, after being paid off by the family of a rich Viennese businessman with whom she was conducting a scandalous affair; in New York she married a wealthy cotton merchant, and now she has returned on vacation to Europe and thinks to treat her sister's daughter to a little break from provincial life. Christine puts on her pathetically "best" clothes, packs her straw suitcase, and sets off into the Alps, expecting little, but with much in store.
Zweig captures with tenderness and sharp immediacy the sensuous awakening of a soul long held in hopeless thrall by financial and spiritual poverty. Aunt Claire showers gifts on Christine - silk gowns, jewellery, a transformative session at a beauty salon - and Christine responds at once, locating in herself the beautiful and charming girl that her life so far has hidden from her. At the grand hotel where she stays with her aunt and uncle she captivates the men but also, to her great cost, makes the women jealous. When it is revealed that she is not the mysterious "Christiane van Boolen", the name she has innocently given herself, but plain Christine Hoflehner the post office girl, her aunt, fearing her own humble and scandalous background might also be revealed, takes fright and sends Christine packing. Home again, Christine takes up her old life of drudgery and despair.
In part two, she meets Ferdinand, an ex-soldier and frustrated architect, one of the many ruined souls left behind in the wake of war. They have a brief liaison, but for people such as them there is no hope. Ferdinand loses his job, and makes the journey out to the village where Christine lives to tell her of his decision to commit suicide. Christine, with nothing left to live for, tells him she will die with him. However, they change their minds and decide on a different but hardly less desperate venture, and at the close of the book we leave them as they are about to leap, hand in hand, into a terrifying future.
The Post Office Girl is fierce, sad, moving and, ultimately, frightening. True, it is over-written - Simenon would have done it better, in half the space - but it is also hypnotic in its downward spiral into tragedy. In the figures of Christine and, especially, Ferdinand, Zweig gives us a portrait of a world coming horribly to an end.
John Banville's novels include The Sea (Picador). To order The Post Office Girl for £7.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to


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