Friday, March 27, 2009

Reading Journal: "The Post-Office Girl"

Stefan Zweig, The Post-Office Girl, translated by Joel Rotenberg. New York Review Books, 2008. $14.00.

When I was in Salzburg in October 2006, I was thinking, like most tourists, about Mozart. I visited his birthplace and his other residence the city, attended a concert of greatest hits at the Mozarteum, and ate Mozartk├╝gln in the marketplace. In my brief exploratory walks through the city, I probably passed the home of Stefan Zweig, on the Kapuzinerberg, without even realizing it. Zweig, one of the great European writers of the twentieth century, is not well-known in America—although that may change with the recent publication of several of his works by New York Review Books, including his intriguing posthumous novel The Post-Office Girl. The novel is elegantly translated into English for the first time by Joel Rotenberg.

Zweig was born in Vienna in 1881 and moved to Salzburg after the First World War. In Salzburg, he was well-positioned as a collector of rare music manuscripts, and amassed a stunning collection of autographs of works by composers from Bach to Berg, a collection which now resides in the British Library. In 1934, Zweig was forced to flee to England, where he lived in Bath and London, and became a British citizen. In that same year, he published a biography of Erasmus, for whom he felt a special affinity: the humane man of culture, the moderate in an era of radicalism. To Zweig, Erasmus was "the most eloquent advocate of the humanist ideal of friendship towards the world and the spirit." Unfortunately, in Zweig's day as in Erasmus's, radicalism seemed to get the upper hand. In 1941, as the Nazis were tightening their stranglehold on Europe, Zweig and his wife emigrated to Brazil, where a year later they committed suicide.

During the 1920s and 30s, Zweig wrote masterful short stories and novellas that often explored the profound consequences of the war for Austrian life and culture. In The Post-Office Girl, the bourgeois Hoflehner family has been reduced to poverty by the war; the youngest daughter, Christine, has nothing to look forward to in life but the dull routine of her job in a rural post office. But then a wealthy aunt from America invites Christine on a holiday in Switzerland, and everything changes...

But this modern Cinderella story is so simple, yet so devastating in its abrupt changes of direction, that I hesitate to give too much away. Zweig paints a vivid picture of a world of soaring opulence and crushing poverty, in which the best impulses of humanity—toward friendship and compassion and simple happiness—are lost among the pressures of too much or too little money.

One of the most sympathetic characters in the novel is Lord Elkins, a elderly English soldier staying at the Swiss resort. He's gracious and thoughtful, and taken with Christine's youthful high spirits. He's a widower who has lost everything in the war; he represents a Europe that no longer exists.
The idealism of his youth, a belief in the moral mission of mankind and the enlightened spirit of the white race that he took from the lectures of John Stuart Mill and his followers was buried once and for all in the bloody mire of Ypres and the chalk quarry of Soissons where his son met his death... But with this girl he's regained belief, a vague devout gratitude for the mere existence of youth; in her presence he sees that one generation's painfully acquired mistrust of life is fortunately neither understood nor credited by the next, and that each wave of youth is a new beginning.
But with every Cinderella story there is the stroke of midnight, and the shattering of the illusion.

Peter and Will on the Kapuzinerberg in Salzburg, October 2006

In a pivotal scene late in the novel, Christine goes on her lunch break to meet her friend Ferdinand along the Stations of the Cross in her small Austrian village: "She hurried on anxiously, almost running up the last steps of the Stations of the Cross path. Ferdinand was sitting on a stone bench under the cross. The man of sorrows hung high in the air, arms twisted by the nails, his head with the crown of thorns, slumped sideways in tragic resignation." As I read this, I remembered walking past the Stations of the Cross on the Kapuzinerberg, up to the monastery on the hill—past the house where Stefan Zweig himself lived.

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