Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Post-Office Girl: Something is Gone Forever

Stefan Zweig, one of the most popular writers of the first half of the 20th century and the most-translated German-language author of the 1920s and 30s, completed two manuscripts and sent them off to his publishers shortly before he and his second wife, living in exile in Brazil during World War II, took their own lives. The Post-Office Girl was found among his unpublished papers, "in considerable disarray," according to the eventually published Rausch der Verwandlung's afterward.

I mention this first since The Post-Office Girl as it is concludes in an open-ended manner; Zweig may well have intended a third part to the story that wouldn't leave the reader guessing.

The portion of the novel that we have tells the story of a pair of young people who have had their lives profoundly diminished by the Great War and its aftermath.

Christine, the postal clerk in an Austrian backwater, ekes out a living, sharing with her invalid mother what presumably would have been an attic storage room in earlier times --the war has left a housing shortage in its wake and few jobs. She was a lively, happy girl of 16 when the war started; twelve years later she is without father, brother, expectations, or youthful desires. When Christine is unexpectedly summoned to vacation in the Swiss Alps with an American aunt she's unaquainted with, she approaches the trip as "just more work and responsibility."

"She has no courage, no strength left even for happiness," the narrator tells us.

It is only upon arrival, after her aunt has styled her hair, outfitted her in becoming clothes and jewels, that Christine realizes that life has pleasures to offer and she transforms into a popular carefree beauty, Christiane von Boolen, with "sheet lightning in her blood," a presumed aristocrat who only has a snatched moment here or there to wonder who she really is.

Midway through the vacation, Christine's humble roots are exposed and her aunt, afraid that her own sordid past will be uncovered and her reputation damaged, abruptly tells Christine that in the morning she's being sent back to the provinces.

All night Christine sits motionless in the chair by the table, her thoughts revolving dully around the feeling that everything is over; not an actual pain so much as a drugged awareness of something painful going on deep down--the way a patient under anesthesia might be aware of the surgeon's knife cutting into him. She sits there in silence, empty eyes on the table, but something's happening, something beyond her benumbed awareness: that new creature, the manufactured changeling that had taken her place for nine dreamlike days, that unreal yet real Fraulein von Boolen, is dying in her. . . . The gloves on her hands, the pearls around her neck, everything belongs to that other one, that murdered doppelganger Christiane von Boolen who is no more, yet lives on. . . . All she knows is that something has been taken from her, that now she must leave that blissfully winged self to become a blind grub crawling on the ground; knows only that something is gone forever.

Life back home is worse than before; she knows what she's missing. Visiting her sister in Vienna, she meets Ferdinand, her brother-in-law's war buddy.

Ferdinand also knows what he's missing. Born to wealth that's turned to ashes, he wasted his own youth in the war and then in a Siberian prison, losing the use of two of his fingers in the process. His dreams of becoming an architect will never come to fruition; he cannot find more than odd jobs and the government has its ways of assuring he'll never receive any disability or financial assistance.

Drawn together by shared bitterness and lack of hope, kindred spirits Christine and Ferdinand eventually decide to take their own lives, but Ferdinand realizes they have another way out of their meaningless lives--if they're willing to risk failure:

. . . "Christine, we have to start thinking of everything now, I told you it won't be easy, the other way would have been easier. But on the other hand I've never known, we've never known, what it is to be alive. I've never seen the ocean, I've never been abroad. I've never know what life is--always thinking about what everything costs means we've never been free. Maybe we can't know the value of life until we are."

Whether Christine and Ferdinand take the risk, or in an unwritten portion of the book develop moral compuntions to counteract how justified they feel in acting, the reader just doesn't know.

The Post-Office Girl was my first exposure to Stefan Zweig, but it won't be the last. I'm thinking I may give his fictionalized biography of Marie Antoinette a try. . .

(cross posted at pages turned)


Iliana said...

Susan thank you for posting that bit about how the manuscript was found. Oh, that really makes you wonder then about his intentions for the end. To be honest, I'm glad it remained as it is. And, like you, I'll be looking for more books by Zweig.

Stefanie said...

Interesting about the manuscript. I'm with Iliana on being glad we don't have and ending to the book. I like wondering.

Grad said...

Susan, I had heard that the manuscript was found and published posthumously; but, the idea that there might have been more to the story had Zweig lived is really intriguing and one I hadn't thought of before. Thanks for more food for thought.

Danielle said...

I also read that it was published much later than it was written and read a discussion where the question was raised that there might have been a third part planned--not sure if that's true. Did you read the NYRB edition or another? Mine had no additional notes on the text, which I found disappointing. At the moment I am also reading Beware of Pity, which is also excellent--not as dire that I am enjoying more than PO girl (though thought PO Girl was excellent).

SFP said...

I had the NYRB edition and was surprised that there was no forward--I've come to expect it from them.

I think it was in an article from The Nation that I read that the mss. wasn't as finished as the NYRB had indicated. I'm perfectly happy with open-ended books, and I think it works well here, but if Zweig had regarded the book as incomplete and was still working out how to finish it when he died, it only seems fair to note the message we take away from such an ending may not be what he'd intended for us to.