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Stefan Zweig

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I hesitated about whether to pick up this book – I was inclined to read something that would cheer me up so that my mood matched the sunny weather, and I thought this novel might be ‘depressing’. However, I also thought it looked interesting and as soon as I started it, I became completely absorbed. A book that describes my feelings in beautiful writing, so that I feel understood and less alone, can never be depressing. Equally, a book that describes a life very different from my own, however difficult and sad, so that I become utterly involved with that person and completely forget my own worries, does not bring my mood down but leaves me feeling I have experienced something worthwhile.

The Post-Office Girl is set in Austria in the 1920s, where life seems to have been very harsh for people afflicted by post-war poverty and unemployment. The novel was written during the 1930s when the author was living abroad in exile from the Nazis and was only published after his death. It is about a young woman, Christine, who works in the village post office. She has experienced great hardship during the war, constantly worrying about money and working hard all day long to support her sick mother. One of the themes of the book seemed to be the waste of youth, both as experienced by individuals and for a whole generation whose lives were ruined by the First World War, and the way in which, even once the war-time suffering was apparently over, the people and the country found it difficult to recover.  This generation seem to feel that they were born at the wrong time, and even those just a little younger have more chance in life than they do themselves:

…these post-war seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds aren’t waiting quietly and patiently, waiting for someone to want them and take them. They’re demanding pleasure as their right, demanding it as impetuously as though it’s not just their own young lives they’re living but the lives of the hundred thousand dead and buried too… Surrounded by this coarse and lustful postwar generation she feels ancient, tired, useless, and overwhelmed, unwilling and unable to compete. No more struggling, no more striving, that’s the main thing! Breathe calmly, daydream quietly, do your work, water the flowers in the window, ask not, want not. No more asking for anything, nothing new, nothing exciting. The war stole her decade of youth. She has no courage, no strength left even for happiness.

Christine’s life suddenly changes when her rich American aunt and uncle invite her to accompany them on holiday to Switzerland. Immediately she is overwhelmed by a life of excess and pleasure, dresses in beautiful new clothes bought by her aunt, mingles with the wealthy guests at the hotel, and spends her time in a whirl of dancing and parties. The book really creates a sense of the elation Christine feels in her new life of luxury, evoking the kind of intense longing for wealth and happiness that only someone who lives in exile and deprivation can feel. The main focus is on how Christine is transformed by her new surroundings. Her appearance is altered within hours by the ‘makeover’ her aunt gives her (‘not even in a dream has she ever dared to imagine herself so lovely, so young, so smart’), the way people respond to her is different, she is popular and admired, men pursue her, and her personality becomes carefree, vivacious and even a little naive. It was rather difficult for me to believe that Christine could change so much within little more than a week and could forget her everyday life and sick mother so completely. But if this part of the book isn’t quite realistic (to me), it is gripping as a kind of fairy tale and an exploration of how people are affected by their surroundings, their social status and their wealth or poverty. I think everyone must know the feeling of being a slightly different person when you are removed from your usual routine or spend time with a new group of people, and are even given a glimpse of the kind of person you could be if your life took another course. This novel takes this idea to an extreme, focusing mainly on the effects of social class and wealth. Christine herself feels a sense of unease at how her identity has been disrupted, thinking ‘is there suddenly something in me that was always there and yet not there, something that just couldn’t get out?’ and when questioning her sense of self, ‘confidence turns into insecurity again’.

This part of the book and Christine’s relationships with the other hotel guests is completely absorbing (as is the whole novel), but then this wonderful but fragile new life comes crashing down and Christine is sent home to her lonely old life, sleeping in a damp attic and working at mindless tasks in the post office. She then meets Ferdinand, who was a prisoner of war in Siberia, and has also had his youth and plans for a career as an architect taken away from him by the war. I won’t give the plot away because part of the pleasure of this book is how you can get caught up in the characters’ stories, entranced by their adventures as if they were real people. But I will say a bit about Christine’s relationship with Ferdinand because it was quite moving, being based on an instant understanding and connection between them, and the way their experiences and reactions paralleled each other. It is clear that Christine can only feel love for someone who feels the same sense of anger and disappointment in life that she does. Like Christine, Ferdinand almost has two selves, the ‘before and after’ superimposed over one another:

But behind that face there seemed to be a second face, just as there was a second voice behind his angry one, a second face that appeared when he smiled, when the wrinkles lengthened and the aggression in his eyes softened to a glow. Then something boyishly docile came out, and it was almost a child’s face, trustful and sensitive. That was how her brother-in-law had known him, she remembered. That was how he must have been then.

I found it interesting that Christine seemed to feel a stronger desire for the men she met while living in luxury in Switzerland, even though she had fairly shallow relationships with them; she was somehow enabled to feel desire by the hedonistic, flirtatious atmosphere at the hotel and her own new feeling of liberation and excitement. She has much deeper feelings for Ferdinand but they are both too worn down to feel much passion, and their poverty often leaves them without a place they can be alone together. They recognise an ally in each other, having each found a sympathetic listener, someone who really understands what the other is feeling, and their relationship is formed by long conversations. Ferdinand has the same feeling of anger that the impersonal force of the government has taken part of his life from him: ‘We came into the world at a bad time. No doctor’s going to fix that, those six years of youth ripped out of me, and who’s going to reimburse me?’ Their relationship is hopeless but also has some beauty, as it’s essentially two people against the rest of the world and what could be more romantic than that? I would definitely recommend this book  – it is a completely addictive read and written with great intensity.

Again and again she returns to those Alps sprung overnight from her sleep, an incredible sight to someone leaving her narrow world for the first time. These immense granite mountains must have been here for thousands of years; they’ll probably still be here millions and millions of years from now, every one of them immovably where it’s always been, and if not for the accident of this journey, she herself would have died, rotted away and turned to dust with no inkling of their glory… Indifferent and without desires before, now she’s beginning to realise what she’s been missing.

 

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