Here surely is what Joseph Conrad meant when he wrote that above all he wanted his readers ‘to see.’ In The Post Office Girl Stefan Zweig explores the details of everyday life in language that pierces both brain and heart.
Born in 1881 into a rich Austrian-Jewish family, Zweig was the embodiment of pre- and inter-war Viennese intellectual life. A biographer, essayist, memoirist, short-story writer and the author of one finished novel, Beware of Pity, he delivered the oration at Freud’s funeral. During the Thirties, Zweig wrote The Post Office Girl, originally Rausch der Verwandlung (The Intoxication of Transformation). The English title is better. In his informative afterword, William Deresiewicz writes that Zweig tinkered with this novel for years and never finished it. He and his wife killed themselves in 1942, dying hand in hand in Brazil. The manuscript of The Post Office Girl was discovered after Zweig’s death.
The story is poignant, painful, and must be one of fiction’s darkest indictments of how poverty destroys hope, enjoyment, beauty, brightness and laughter, and how money, no matter how falsely, provides ease and delight.
In 1926, in the backwater Austrian town of Klein-Reifling, Christine, age 28, single-handedly runs the dingy post office. Pale, faded and careless of appearance, she endures a grimly repetitive existence tending her rheumatic mother in their cramped attic room. She can remember the last time she laughed, felt happy, and contented — years before the Great War that ruined her family’s life.
From the first pages, long before we meet Christine, we see how awful her life is. As if in slow motion Zweig shows us the office’s rickety desk, the single chair, the dried-up ink in the well, the crushed pen nib, and the posters advertising long-closed exhibitions. There are also the ‘unmistakable symbols of [the State’s] power and reach’: the safe in the corner and the gleaming telegraph. Christine worries every night that she may not hear the alarm in the morning She exchanges occasional kisses with a threadbare, devoted schoolteacher, married to an invalid wife.
Then, one day, there clatters from the telegraph the first telegram Christine has ever received, 12 words from her mother’s long-lost sister, who has become a rich American, inviting her niece to spend a week or two with her in a luxurious Swiss hotel. She havers, feels little happiness, but decides to go — and everything changes. From her train she is staggered by the icy glare of the Alps — Zweig is fascinated by light — but rightly worries that her barely presentable coat and skirt, her shabby little straw case, and her humble shoes mark her out as a churchmouse. And how right she is! In the hotel’s limousine from the station she notices the other guests’ ‘metallically gleaming tank turrets of wardrobe trunks made of luxurious Russian calf, alligator, snakeskin and smooth glacé kid.’ The little girl opposite fondles a tiny dog with a hand that is ‘rosily manicured and sparkles with a precocious diamond’. Precocious — the perfect word for a small child’s jewel. Christine notices that each umbrella in the limousine has ‘a different exquisite and extravagant handle,’ wholly unlike the ‘cheap fake horn’ of her own umbrella.
But when she reaches the hotel her aunt takes her in hand, lends Christine some of her own fashionable dresses, and has her beautifully coiffed and made up in a salon, from which she emerges smelling fabulous and with her neck showing for the first time. With great tact her aunt shows Christine how to carry herself, eat, dance, and chatter. Within a few hours money has cast its magic spell over Christine, enveloping her in a crystalline light. Transformed, she emerges as beautiful and sexy, can dance like a dream, never stops talking, and, dressed in her aunt’s silks, skims among the casually rich guests with their cars, jewels, and, above all, ease. She adopts an aristocratic ‘von’ prefix to her name. She scores two beaux: a young, handsome, discreetly lecherous German engineer, and an elderly, shy, retired English general and explorer, who wonders to himself if she could look after him in his castle.
She is, in short, a hit. And you know it will end badly. An envious minx pretends to be her friend and rumbles her: she is a poseur, not a ‘von’ at all, just a poor niece from nowhere. Christine is abruptly dropped by everyone, except the German who makes a final, nearly successful pass at her, and the general, who does his best to give her some face but abandons his hopes for her future in England. Her aunt, terrified about her own dodgy past, from which she escaped to America, is afraid that Christine’s bogus pedigree may reveal her own, and sends her home at a few hours’ notice.
After the Swiss dream, the never- changing town and office and the old admirer are more depressing than ever. By chance Christine meets Ferdinand, age 30, a man poorer and more despondent even than herself, a survivor of Siberian prison camps, handicapped in body and spirit. They fall for each other. She travels every Sunday to see him in Vienna. They try sex once.
Disaster! The squalid, hot-sheet hotel echoes all night with moans, screams and knockings. There is a police raid. Christine and Ferdinand flee. They meet every Sunday, but are too poor to go anywhere, and huddle, stupefied, in all weathers. For the first time they reveal themselves to each other. ‘Whether it’s deserved or not, honorable or not, poverty stinks,’ Ferdinand tells her. ‘Yes, it stinks. You smell it yourself, as though you were made of sewage. It can’t be wiped away.’ She tells him — the translation of this novel is invariably eloquent —
What makes you think I’m some kind of lady? If I were I wouldn’t understand a word you’ve said. I’d think you were overexcited, unreasonable, and full of hate. But I do understand you and I’m going to tell you why. Move closer. There’s no reason everyone has to hear this.
This novel is the Conradian ideal; its characters come alive as the frequent use of the present tense drives their story on. Christine and Ferdinand are trapped in their poverty, their stinking, unfair poverty, and one day he suggests they blow their brains out with his pistol. She agrees. But then he has another, pretty dangerous, idea, and she says ‘Yes’ to that, too.