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[389] The Post-Office Girl – Stefan Zweig

” In this instant, shaken to her very depths, this ecstatic human being has a first inkling that the soul is made of stuff so mysteriously elastic that a was found among Zweig’s paperssingle event can make it big enough to contain the infinite. ” (I 66)

The manuscript of The Post-Office Girl was found among Zweig’s papers after his death, in which he committed suicide in a pact with his second wife in Brazil, in 1942. The NYRB original is the first English translation of the book, which was first published in Germany in 1982. The novel tells the story of Christine Hoflehner, subject of the book’s title. In 1926, at age 28, she works as a post office clerk in a small village outside Vienna. Although the state job warrants a (barely) steady living and a pension, she lives a mundane life with interminable tedium. A life rigidly under the reign of state is one in which all objects, humans included, differ in their rhythm of attrition and renewal, not in their fate. For even human being, like a pencil, a lightbulb, and a chair, is dispensable and interchangeable.

What a fantastic world, where unspoken wishes are granted. How could anyone be anything but happy here? (I 61)

Like Cinderella being rescued from her chores to attend the party, Christine is saved by a telegram from a wealthy American aunt inviting her to stay in a Swiss resort where she and her husband are vacationing. Although she is initially self-conscious of her shabbiness and inferiority, fearing derisive look from other guests, Christine is quickly inured to a world of previously unimagined wealth and opulence: she is agog at the extravagance of shopping without concern for the cost.

Fear is a distorting mirror in which anything can appear as a caricature of itself, stretched to terrible proportions; once inflamed, the imagination pursues the craziest and most unlikely possibilities. (I 116)

Delirious with happiness, Christine is not aware that rumors about her former poverty has run berserk among hotel guests. When stories reach the alarming ears of her aunt, who is afraid that her own blemished past might come to light, she is quick to cut her niece loose and brings her idyll to a hasty conclusion.

Curiosity and hate, desire and envy alternated in her as she gazed at this world that was at once so far away and so familiar. (II 155)

After a taste of the luxury, reality is even more unbearable. It isn’t a goodbye, Christine reflects, it’s dying. Her dream not only turns into a repugnant farce, she is forced to get back to that Christine Hoflehner who has long been dead (because in Switzerland she became Christine van Boolen). A chance meeting with Ferdinand, a disaffected young man who fought with her brother-in-law during the war, turns into a relationship based on disillusion and mutual sympathy. Together they conceive a plan to overcome their harsh fate.

The Post-Office Girl depicts lives embroiled in the bleak interior worlds that are rife after the First World War. Poverty crushes all the feelings in people like the world-weary lovers, whose lives have slid into meaninglessness. The questions “who am I?” and “why am I here?” frequently come up in the story—before and after Christine’s extravagant idyll. What is more hopeless than her situation is that after being given the chance to experience high life, it’s quickly taken away from her for good. Maybe she’s better off not given that opportunity at all. From there the novel takes a decidedly dark turn, although the second part is somewhat overwritten. It depicts the ruined souls’ downward spiral into tragedy. Zweig finds a universal story of psychological struggle, spiritual testing, as well as class conscience in a bitter but humane indictment of social inequality. The frightening sense of a premonition–the horrible turn of events–hangs over one’s head to the very end.

257 pp. NYRB Original Classics. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]