Wednesday 6 May 2009

The Post Office Girl

My first book review!

This is a novel for today, an odd thing to say, considering it was written almost seventy years ago. It’s a tragic version of the Cinderella story, a version with no glass slipper and no Prince Charming; it’s a story of a girl taken to the heights only to be plunged back into the depths.

The author, Stephan Zweig, though not that well known in the English-speaking world, is probably the best late representative of the culture of old Vienna, that urbane, tolerant, sophisticated and brilliant world, swept away forever by the rise of the Nazis.

His oeuvre covered such a wide area of intellectual life: he was a biographer, playwright, journalist, short story writer and novelist. After Hitler came to power Zweig left his native Austria, taking refuge in England, America and finally in Brazil, where he and his second wife committed suicide in 1942 in a mood of despair over a possible German victory in the War. The manuscript of his second novel was found among his papers. Remarkably it was to be forty years after his death it was published in Germany for the first time, under the title Rausch der Verwandlung-The Intoxication of Transformation. In 2008 it was translated and published in English as The Post Office Girl.

Written in a simple, fast-paced and intoxication style, it tells the story of Christine Hoflehner, a woman in her late twenties who manages a small provincial post office in Austria, a country only just emerging from the trauma of the First World War and the economic and social dislocation that followed.

The action begins in 1926, when Christine is twenty-eight years old and living with her elderly mother, whose health has been ruined by her past experiences. The Hoflehners, once a prosperous and middle-class family, have, like so many others of the time, been brought close to ruin by the war and its after-effects. Christine, a poorly paid civil servant, recognises that life is passing her by; that her horizons are always likely to be confining and confined. Even so, there is a kind of resigned acceptance in this destiny. But then a telegram arrives from Clara, her rich American aunt, holidaying with her husband in Switzerland.

As if a fairy-godmother had appeared, Christine is lifted out of the tedium and poverty into a brilliant world, a world full of rich and glamorous people. Dowdy and badly dressed when she arrived at the luxury Swiss hotel where her relatives are staying, she is transformed in dress and appearance by her aunt. Hesitant at first, Christine is drawn into the delights of her surroundings. All at once everything is possible. Losing all inhibition, Christine enjoys the company of new friends, of men who find her beautiful and beguiling, of people whose life and experiences have been so different to her own. She learns to forget. But then the dream ends, abruptly and cruelly. It’s midnight; the clock is striking. Discarded by her aunt, she is thrown back into her old world.

It’s at this point that the full tragedy of Christine’s story is realised. What was tolerable before is now intolerable. Before there was nothing that stood in contrast to the tedium of her daily life; now there is. A gate was opened briefly, only to close forever. New forms of bitterness and despair set in only relieved, to a degree, when she meets Ferdinand, even bitterer than Christine. What follows is a love affair of a kind, limping and unsatisfactory, of two people bound by a mutual sense of rejection.

This is a fairy tale with no happy ending. In fact it might be said to have no ending at all. Remember it’s an unfinished book, and the last few pages read almost as if the author is outlining possible future developments. To that degree the conclusion, such as it is, might even said to be abrupt. But there again, this might conceivably have been what Zweig wanted. After all, life is abrupt. No matter; it’s one of those books that make a lasting impression, one that will stay with me for a long time to come.

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