When I started reading The Post Office Girl, there was something about it I didn’t know. It’s possibly incomplete. Possibly, because it was never published before Zweig’s death. In fact, it was found among his belongings when his apartment was cleared out. The posthumous book is becoming a pet peeve of mine, not quite as bad as abridgements, but an annoyance. I always wonder if this was exactly what the author had intended.
The Post Office Girl was published 40 years after Zweig committed suicide. I was unaware of this as I read it. When upon reading the afterward I discovered this, it made sense. It ends as if Zweig planned to go back to it some other day when he was feeling better about the world. He didn’t. He killed himself in 1942 because he couldn’t stand to live in a world of such ugliness.
Christine is the Post Office Girl of the title. She’s working a hand to mouth existence and lives with her sick mother in a sad apartment. Before the Great War, Christine’s family was well off. After the war, her brother and father were dead and her mother too sick to work. Christine only has her job because of a family connection. She hasn’t had any happiness since she was a teen, before the war began. At twenty-eight, she doesn’t imagine things will change…
Then she gets an invitation to stay at a fancy hotel with her aunt Claire and her husband for a couple of weeks vacation. At first, she’s afraid to go. What will these people think of her? Once she gets there, she has the Pretty Woman treatment paid for by her aunt. Suddenly, she’s a hot commodity and everyone wants to be near her. Lost in this whirlwind, she has no idea what a vipers’ nest she’s stumbled into. As quick as this dream began, it ends in abrupt confusion. It’s back to the old post office for Christine.
It was this first half of The Post Office Girl that I enjoyed the most. It reminded me of Summer by Edith Wharton. Both girls are bored and unhappy, yet how unhappy isn’t clear to them until something happens. Christine would have continued to live her life and not given a thought to the what-might-haves. As the reader, I was caught up in her glee and naivety as she flitted through the hotel ballroom night after night, even though I knew it was all going to end. Christine knows intellectually that it must end, but becomes bitter when it does. It was at this point that I couldn’t decide whether or not to feel sorry for her or kick her in the butt. She’s resentful that she doesn’t have the life of the rich and frivolous and that others do. She’s like a five year old stomping her feet and declaring, “It’s not fair!” It isn’t fair. The war took away her youth but it took away the youth and lives of thousands.
One of her contemporaries is Ferdinand, a soldier with more problems than Christine. At least she has a job. He had dreams of becoming an architect before the war, but poverty and years as a POW destroyed them. Now he works odd jobs with no hope of a future. Of course I sympathized with Ferdinand, he has it much worse than Christine. However, at this point in the story, I felt Christine disappear from the story as Ferdinand just talks at her about how the government screwed him over. She even says, “I’m just a woman.” She claims she can’t make decisions on her own. Or is it just Christine handing her fate over to someone else.
The book ends abruptly and it’s up to the reader to decide how their story ends. Can the reader cheer for them? Will it turn out alright or will they end up dead by the next chapter? What is a good ending in this situation? Zwieg leaves us with many questions.
I also wondered if this book was a warning. The economic situation in Austria after the war created Christine and Ferdinand. Neither are political. They’re just looking out for Number 1. Zweig, Jewish and run out of his country by Nazis, knew exactly what that situation wrought. He puts faces on the people who would eventually follow a madman. Is it a warning to the future to make sure this doesn’t happen again? If he had lived to see World War II end, would he have published it? We’ll never know. He escaped the Nazis to end his life on his own terms.
So, it’s not a happy story, but it’s an interesting one. It’s one that will stick with you. The writing in the first half of the story is tight. I loved the present tense, third person. Christine becomes a full-fledged human being; we know her thoughts as soon as she has them. You can see her sparkle in her borrowed clothes. The tiny details are Wharton-like. As the story descends further into gloom, Christine loses her distinctness. Ferdinand’s long speeches take over.