Stefan Zweig was one of the major Jewish writers of interwar Europe. Raised in Vienna, his early journalism appeared in Theodor Herzl’s Neue Freie Presse. In the 1920s and ’30s, he published a series of influential biographies of such varied personalities as Casanova, Marie Antoinette, Balzac and Nietzsche.
Stefan Zweig was one of the major Jewish writers of interwar Europe. Raised in Vienna, his early journalism appeared in Theodor Herzl’s Neue Freie Presse. In the 1920s and ’30s, he published a series of influential biographies of such varied personalities as Casanova, Marie Antoinette, Balzac and Nietzsche. He was the author of novellas, and during Nazi rule, he completed a libretto for one of Richard Strauss’ final operas.
With this work, he was arguably the last Jewish artist to maintain a public career in Germany,though by the time of the opera’s fated opening night in Dresden, Zweig’s books had been banned and burned. Early in Hitler’s reign he chose exi le in London, where he spent the war year s in the company of such English literary luminaries as H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw and became a confidant of Sigmund Freud.
In 1942, after having begun a new life in Brazil, he and his wife committed suicide. In his suicide note, he reflected on the difficulties of starting over with the “world of his own language” and his “spiritual home” in Europe destroyed.
Left unpublished at his death was an untitled novel about a “post-office girl,” which was unlike anything else in Zweig’s oeuvre. The book appeared in German in 1982 and is only now available in English translation as The Post-Office Girl (translated by Joel Rotenberg and published by the New York Review of Books).
Offering a satiric portrait of European elites alongside a portrayal of young Christine Hoflehner, who maintains a village post office while nursing her bed-ridden mother, the novel opens as a Cinderella story. Christine, bound to the drudgery of minding a clattering telegraph machine and selling postage to surly farmers, is invited to join an American aunt who is vacationing on the Italian border. The invitation arrives, seemingly miraculously, over the office telegraph: “Christine Hoflehner, Klein-Reifling, Austria, Welcome, come any time, choose your day, wire arrival time in advance. Best, Claire – Anthony.”
Written in the 1930s with Zweig already fully aware of the danger of Nazism, his novel is a portrait of the years after World War I, when economic collapse devastated what had been the lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Under the tutelage of her aunt, Christine’s stay at a luxurious mountain resort feeds a newfound belief that she could become somebody else. Wearing newly bought clothes, her hair styled for the first time, she hesitates to look at herself in the hotel room mirror: “She holds her breath with sudden courage like someone about to take a leap, then determinedly lifts her eyes… Who is that? Who is that slender, elegant woman, her upper body bent backward, her mouth open, her eyes searching?”
What unfolds is a narrative of abandonment, intrigue and failed romance, which abruptly sends Christine back to her old life in the Austrian hinterland.
The second half of The Post-Office Girl traces Christine’s mother’s death, her isolation
from her family, and a frustrated romance with a returnee from a war-time prison camp. Made cynical by opportunities lost, Christine embarks on a series of dark decisions that seem, with hindsight, to mirror those taken by Zweig and his wife at the end of their lives.
The publisher s of The Post-Office Girl call it “fast-paced and hard-boiled,” comparing it to the detective novels of Dashiell Hammett. But one thinks first of the slick, dark narratives of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, like The Big Sleep. The greatliterary detective novels, like Zweig’s , are built of atmospheric nights, sleek automobiles andt rembling young ladies in danger of having their lives ruined by thoughtless strangers.
As in Chandler and Cain’s books, fashion,double-crosses and the victimization of the naiveby those with social power are central to what Zweig wants to show us. But the second half of The Post-Office Girl veers off in a much more serious direction, where it shares analmost Kafkaesque view of the collapse of European culture and order into tawdriness, bureaucratic rule-mongering, and the kind of political paranoia that Zweig encountered in Austria and German before his exile in England.
Readers may feel let down as the edgy energy and sheen of the novel’s early chapters give way to a truly dark conclusion. But the pay-off in sticking with The Post-Office Girl is a deepening of our understanding of life in central Europe between the wars. As new technologies and ideologies clashed with decrepit traditional orders, figures like Christine fell far and fast.
Norman Ravvin’s books include Hidden Canada: An Intimate Travelogue and the story collection Sex, Skyscrapers and Standard Yiddish. He is chair of the Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.