April 5, 2012

The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

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The Post Office Girl CoverWhen 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.

Ratings:

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15 comments :

  1. You have me wondering about posthumous books now. Are there any that are as good as the work published during the author's lifetiem? I can't think of any, except for those rare people who finished lots of work before they were ever published. Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole for example. There rest tend to be "of interest" to certain people, but not really the author's best work.

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    1. I haven't read anything else from Zweig, though now I want to, so I can't compare. I did read A Moveable Feast by Hemingway. It was problematic because his widow edited it. Recently, his grandson from another wife revised it, adding much that she had left out. Which was Hemingway's vision? Either or none of them? If he really wanted it published, wouldn't he have sent it to his publisher? I'm always skeptical of books where either the author or editor is missing from the final product, since I see it as a team effort.

      Then again there are some pretty terrible books from popular authors still living being published because they make money.

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  2. I didn't know about Zweig's suicide and that this book is possibly incomplete. So sad.

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    1. He wrote some other stuff, which I'm hoping to read someday.

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  3. I'm with you on the posthumous books things - if the author wasn't around for the final edits how can you really call it their work.

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    1. I feel like they need to have the last say.

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  4. Hmm, I don't know if this book would drive me crazy or I'd come out of it feeling like I'd really gotten something from it, as you did. It does sound fascinating, but whiny characters tend to wear me out.

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    1. It was very interesting. Lots of emotion.

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  5. The only posthumous book I've read is A Confederacy of Dunces, and I'm pretty sure that wasn't altered. I mean, it was like 800 pages, so obviously it wasn't edited down too much!

    Some authors have written more dead than alive. *coughvcandrewscough* ;)

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    1. I tried to read Dunces but it drove me crazy!

      And yes, those authors just keep going and going...

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  6. This is one of those books that has been on my shelf for about 5 years unread. I also have a couple other books by this author. Thanks for sharing all the detail about the author in addition to your review. I wasn't aware of any of this ---very interesting.

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  7. Stefan Zweig's non-fiction is now available in eBook form: http://www.plunkettlakepress.com/sz.html

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  8. It is frustrating when you cannot decide if you love a character or not..... i have often got that feeling of wanting to grab a character by collar and shake some sense into him/her...

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  9. i read this a few weeks ago for the nyrb book club and everyone in the group seemed to have mixed feelings about the second part of the book.

    the tone changed, the spirit of the novel changed. i didn't realize that this one was published well after zweig's death, but we did all know that he committed suicide, which at least for the group i read with, led us to infer what the ending would be. perhaps we're just pessimists!

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  10. I loved this book, and found the inconclusive ending rather appealing... lots of open area to speculate. I see Bonnie & Clyde... I found this book and its portrayal of what grinding poverty and lack of options can do to a person's spirit very timely...sadly enough.

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