Cultural critic Clive James has called Stefan Zweig “the incarnation of humanism,” and a fairer and more apt four-word assessment of the late Austrian writer and his work could not be imagined. Thankfully, New York Review Books Classics recently re-issued their third offering from this sadly largely forgotten author, his early 1930s novel, The Post-Office Girl, elegantly translated by Joel Rotenberg. (Even more amazing, this is the first time this evocative novel has been translated into English; Zweig's popularity has waned in various countries with the exception of France; to which I will simply say: Vive la France!)
The story concerns Christine, a twenty-eight-year-old provincial postal worker who lives in a small Austrian village; she has never gone anywhere or done anything. How could she? Like many women her age she has lost the best years of her life to the First World War, which warped her universe into the stark black hole that was post-War Europe; the same directionless epoch that would end in an even greater tragedy and ultimately rob the Continent of yet another generation (or two) of its youth. But Christine doesn't know what horrors await Europe, which makes Zweig's story—written after he, an Austrian Jew, fled the Nazis—only the more tragic.
At the start of the novel, Christine ekes out an existence that could not fairly be called living, working in the post office and caring for her ailing mother (her father and brother did not survive the war). One day she is invited to meet her rich aunt, who long ago moved to America, for a short vacation at a chic hotel in the Swiss Alps.
Like Cinderella, this mousy, fearful, unassuming young woman is transformed into an aristocratic princess, with a little help from her aunt, who oversees a metamorphosis that prefigures Extreme Makeover by several decades. Soon, retired generals and the idle bourgeois are obsessed with Christine. After a new friend misidentifies her as Christiana Van Boolen, her physical and emotional transfiguration is complete; she is now just another member of Europe's elite society.
In a beautiful and simple passage, Zweig offers a glimpse into Christine's mindset. “Just don't open your eyes, she thinks. If you do, it might go away. Don't question anything, just savor this Sundayish feeling of sitting back for once… Just let your hands fall into your lap, let good things happen to you.”
It is an artful passage. On the one hand the reader can practically feel Christine slinking back into her luxurious chair, slipping on her new identity like one of the fashionable gowns her aunt lends her. On the other, the psychological horrors of a world war are implied with one word: Sundayish. With that word alone we know what Christine has been missing ever since the war started.
Eyes shut, Christine allows herself a brief respite, a simple dream—and instantly the reader understands what a luxury such a moment is in her life—as she remembers the last time she felt like this: “She's a child, in bed, she had a fever for days, but now it's over and her mother brings some sweet white almond milk, her father and brother are sitting by her bed, everyone's taking care of her. In the next room the canary is singing mischievously, the bed is soft and warm, there's no need to go to school…”
Of course, this fantasy cannot last. After moving effortlessly in the rare air of the aristocracy, a jealous girl reveals Christine's secret. Her aunt, fearful that her own secret past—she was shuttled off to America after her affair with a rich, powerful man was discovered by her lover's wife—will be revealed, casts her niece back into the bleak world from whence she came.
Forever changed, Christine cannot go home again. Picking up the pieces of her old life is too difficult. After her mother dies, she finds that she can no longer bear the simple life of her provincial town or her family. Here the novel takes a radical shift as Christine's fairy tale comes crashing down. She encounters Ferdinand, a bitter veteran and friend of her brother-in-law, who has survived the war and Russian prison camps. He has no illusions left and has nothing to lose; and that makes him dangerous. “I'm not worried about doing damage, we'll just be recovering some damages for our entire battered generation,” he tells her, after hatching an elaborate plan to rob enough money from her job that they can both live abroad and on the run.
What makes The Post-Office Girl all the more poignant is that its author knew about life on the run and hopelessness and desperation; he ran away from his Austrian homeland, leaving his prized library behind (which the Nazis burned in 1938); first escaping to London, then eventually Brazil, where he and his wife both committed suicide in 1942. Christine and Ferdinand consider suicide but abandon the idea for a life of crime. After reading Zweig's work, you'll wish he would have done the same.
Joseph V. Tirella is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Portfolio.com, Esquire and Vibe.