This is my review of The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig.
“The Post Office Girl” deserves to be more widely read. It has clearly not suffered in translation. The crystal-clear prose captures the changing moods of Christine, the young Austrian woman whose childhood and youth have been blighted by the effects of WW1. Running a village post office single-handed for a stifling bureaucracy, caring for a sick mother prematurely aged by war work, Christine’a life is transformed overnight when a rich aunt visiting from America casually invites her to stay at a luxury Swiss hotel. Christine is utterly entranced by the sudden immersion in wealth and apparent freedom. Her delight and eruption of enthusiasm and confidence attract fair-weather friends who imagine she is wealthy. When the aunt abruptly withdraws her hospitality, Christine returns to a dull routine made all the less tolerable because she has seen that the grass is greener! Then she meets a kindred spirit, Ferdinand, a young man who has been similarly embittered by ill fortune – the loss of his family fortune in hyperinflation, his years spent as a prisoner in Siberia which have left him disabled. The two then conceive a plan of action which will enable them to assert their freedom from the trap of their current lives.
Parts of this book make for gloomy “Jude the Obscure”- type reading, and Ferdinand’s self-absorbed rants did get on my nerves BUT my respect for the book was increased greatly through considering its context. Zweig was a wealthy Austrian Jew who was appalled by the destruction of European culture by the Great War and the rise of Hitler. Influenced by Freud (whom he knew personally) he was interested in the way that a chance event may trigger self awareness and a sense of being really alive. Zweig and this wife died in a suicide pact in 1942, so that it is haunting to reflect that he had his characters contemplate an extreme solution which he was prepared to carry out himself.
Although the relentless bleakness of some passages is at first repellent, Zweig has the power to enable you to view life from different perspectives, even to the extent of seeing a logic in apparent madness, and fulfilment in tragedy.