Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Post Office Girl

Shakespeare & Co. in Vienna is one of my favorite bookstores. It's not huge, but they have a wide range of books and I've never made a bad purchase there. I read Stefan Zweig's autobiography (The World of Yesterday) about fifteen years ago; since then I've read it multiple times. It is a moving description of growing up in Vienna before World War I. He wrote a few brief novels ("Letter from an Unknown Woman" among them- the book is much better than the movie), but mostly essays and biographies. Most famously, in 1935 he was Richard Strauss' librettist for The Silent Woman. When the Nazis told Strauss to take Zweig's name off the opera's program, he refused. The opera was banned after three performances.
His longest novel, The Post Office Girl, wasn't translated into English until last year. In was found among his papers when he died. Zweig and his wife committed suicide (they were refugees from the Nazis) in 1942 in Brazil. The Post Office Girl does not end in double suicides, but it certainly starts going down that road. The time is the 1920s in Austria when much of what the war didn't destroy, the ruinous inflation did. Christine works in a post office outside of St. Polten. Her aunt, who ran away to America two decades earlier, is vacationing in Switzerland. She buys Christine a train ticket, and she goes to visit an Alpine resort for eight days, where her fellow hotel guests assume that she's upper class. Christine can't get enough of the clothes, the food, the attention that young men pay to her. A series of misunderstandings result in her being sent back home, and her vacation has ruined her for her old life. She meets up with an old war buddy of her brother-in-law's, Ferdinand. His outlook on life is similar to hers (he's struggled to build any kind of existence after two years in a Siberian POW camp and an injured right hand), but is barely subsisting on whatever jobs he can eke out. In some ways the novel feels particularly poignant given the current economic crisis. And Zweig is very able to get in this provincial young girl's head.

Stefan Zweig photo via Wikipedia

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