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 The Post-Office Girl was found among his unpublished papers, "in considerable disarray," according to the eventually published Rausch der Verwandlung's afterward.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)

The Cinderella Who Wasn't

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig is a Cinderella story of sorts except she isn't rescued from her poverty after the clock strikes midnight and all the beautiful things are lost.

Christine, the post-office girl, is whisked away to a posh resort in the Swiss Alps on the invitation of her aunt who is feeling guilty for not helping her sister's family during World War I. Christine gets a glamor makeover, new clothes, and a borrowed aristocratic reputation. For eight days she gets to experience the freedom and pleasure that money brings. Her exuberance and gratitude combined with her artlessness make her a popular breath of fresh air among the young and the old. But the petty jealousy of a "friend" who reveals to all that Christine is really a penniless girl from a village near Vienna, prompts Christine's aunt to hastily send Christine back home.

The aunt, you see, is an imposter herself. She used to be as poor as Christine but through planning and scheming and the patronage of wealthy men, she was able to remake herself and land a wealthy Dutch husband who has no idea about her true past. Terrified that Christine will inadvertently lead the unforgiving spotlight of money and class to focus on her, she uncompassionately sends Christine home offering her nothing but a bald-faced lie.

Christine is devastated. She sinks into a deep depression until she is revived by Ferdinand, a bitter war veteran she meets through her brother-in-law. Ferdinand understands her loss and longing. Together they find a certain comfort in their mutual unhappiness and hopelessness which leads to a surprise ending.

Reading Christine's story is like watching the Wizard of Oz where everything is black and gray at the beginning and end, but in Oz, everything is in glorious technicolor. But technicolor turns out to be like crack and it is surprising how fast Christine becomes addicted. Her aunt's intended kindness in the invitation to the Alps turns out to unintentionally be even more cruel than neglecting her family during the war when she could easily have helped. The really sad thing is that Christine could probably have found some modicum of happiness had her aunt never sent the invitation. In Christine's village there was a man, equally as poor as her, who shyly but truly loved her.

The Post-Office Girl was a good book. It was not an uplifting read though. But are books about class, money and morals ever uplifting especially when they are about a person who learns what she is missing?

The Post-Office Girl

I finished The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig last night and the first words out of my mouth were “wow.” I didn’t expect that ending at all but it was perfect and has made me think constantly about the characters as I went about my day today. What did I think happened afterward? There are so many scenarios I can envision but let me start at the beginning so you’ll know what this book is about.

Christine Hoflehner lives in a small town in Austria and works for the post office. Every day it’s the same, work to make a meager living, take care of her invalid mother and live with nothing to look forward to. The Great War has left the family without some of their family members, without money and without dreams.

It seems that all around life is the same for everyone in the small town. Every thing is regimented and Christine’s days all fall into a pattern.

“Her hand with its pale fingers will raise and lower the same rattly wicket thousands upon thousands of times more, will toss hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of letters onto the canceling desk with the same swiveling motion, will slam the blackened brass canceler onto hundreds of thousands or millions of stamps with the same brief thump. Probably the wrist will even learn to function better and better, ever more mechanically and unconsciously, detached more and more completely from the conscious self. The hundreds of thousands of letters will always be different letters, but always letters. The stamps different stamps, but always stamps. The days different, but each one lasting from eight o’clock until noon, as the years come and go, always the same, the same, the same.”

Can’t you just feel the desperation at the monotony? Christine’s fortune is about to change though when she receives a telegram from her aunt, who due to a scandal had left the country and stayed out of touch for many years. Aunt Claire is now married to a wealthy man and as they take their vacation in the Swiss Alps they invite Christine to join them.

At first the young woman is a bit hesitant to go but upon arrival and after she is taken under her aunt’s wing, and is shown how to dress and how to live a different kind of lifestyle, a new Christine begins to emerge, a confident young woman who is finally living life.

“In her giddiness, unable to imagine that everyone isn’t burning with enthusiasm, isn’t in a fever of high spirits, of passionate delight, she’s lost her sense of balance. She’s discovered herself for the first time in twenty-eight years, and the discovery is so intoxicating that she’s forgetting everyone else.”

Unfortunately Christine’s newfound exuberance will be cut short. A bit of vile gossip and before she knows it, she’s back in her old life. But having tasted something new and so wonderful will only make her former existence even more unbearable to endure. The second part of the story is filled with all the hopelessness and bitterness that fill Christine’s thoughts but strangely this doesn’t feel like a depressive story. What happens next is that there is quite a bit of suspense as Christine meets a young man who is also filled with the same kind of desperation she feels and their lives will take some unexpected turns.

I really loved this story for the writer’s ability to capture such highs and lows in the characters and for giving us a picture of what Europe must have been like for many people after the Great War.

I have to say that in the couple of years that we’ve had this online book discussion group going on we’ve read some amazing literature and every year at least one of the Slaves choices ends up on my Favorites of the Year list. I’m sure this book will be on it for ’09.

Cross Posted at Bookgirl's Nightstand

Stefan Zweig

In lieu of a review as I mismanaged my reading schedule, a few biographical details about Zweig. Stefan Zweig is a little-known author these days, although when he was alive and at the height of his fame, he had to barricade himself in his house at Salzburg to keep his legion of fans at bay. His books were translated across the world, although he was better known for his biographical writings (on Erasmus, Balzac, Marie Antoinette, Mary Queen of Scots, Kleist, Tolstoy, Dickens) than his fiction. He was also a friend of any number of famous cultural figures, including Freud and Rilke – after a conversation with Rilke he wrote ‘one is incapable of any vulgarity for hours or even days’. This excitable, idealistic Zweig is much in evidence in his youth. As the rich second son of a millionaire textile manufacturer, he was able to devote himself to the causes that interested him, and art was the guiding star of his life. He had joined with a group of aesthetes in Austria during his teenage years and was devoted not just to the concept of art but to a vague, if stirring, political belief in a united, harmonious Europe. He declared himself not Austrian, but a European, and in this optimistic frame of mind reported that ‘The world offered itself to me as a fruit, beautiful and rich with promise.’ It seems scarcely conceivable that less than thirty years later, he and his second wife would die in a joint suicide pact.

Part of the problem – although by no means all of it – was that Zweig was Jewish. Initially he didn’t think this counted for anything. His family was not religious, but they were prosperous, educated and assimilated. His memory of his youth was entirely free from anti-Semitic slight; indeed his race was something that he entirely discounted. Not that he was ignorant of the Jewish question, rather he dissociated himself from the Ostjuden, the Eastern Jews who were migrating from a hostile Russia into what would eventually become an even more dangerous Western Europe. Such distinctions were not destined to last. By 1933 the Nazis were burning his books, in 1935 an opera by Richard Strauss, The Silent Woman, was closed down after only two performances because Zweig had written the libretto. In 1938, the Nazis destroyed his library in Salzburg, but by that point, Zweig had been driven into exile in London. He had begun to believe that Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was directed at him personally and he never really recovered from this paranoia.

But other discontents were stirring. It was in the thirties that his 20-year marriage to one of his fans, Friderike (they met through the letters that she wrote to him), broke down when he fell in love with his new secretary, Charlotte Altmann, who was a clichéd twenty-seven years younger. In her biography, Friderike explained how Zweig longed for space and for silence to create, something that her two children and her sociable lifestyle prevented him from enjoying. Zweig begged for a divorce on the grounds that he wanted to regain his ‘student’s freedom’, although within the year he had married Lotte. It might have been peace that Zweig was after, but given the brief interlude between this point and his suicide, peace regained clearly didn’t hit the spot. Instead it might be a blissful return to a former point in time that really appealed, nostalgia for his student days confused with a longing for a youthful, optimistic state of mind that he could no longer summon up. It would not be the first time that a man, feeling something had turned inexorably sour in his life, decided that a change of woman might provide the answer.

If it wasn’t love that went wrong on Zweig, if that was a smokescreen for a deeper discontent, we might look instead to the strongest guiding force in Zweig’s life, which was his belief in humanism. Humanism is a kind of moral philosophy, a perspective on life that affirms the dignity and worth of all people and the supreme belief in human intelligence as the source of all solutions to the problems that beset mankind. It proposes the need for a universal morality that would guide and inform all human conduct, but chooses not to trust to the supernatural or the spiritual for answers. The ultimate goal of humanism is to make life better for all individuals, but it doesn’t necessarily believe that is easily achieved; instead it looks to the community to work together to provide support and sustenance.

There is something beautiful and idealistic and almost noble about the humanistic stance. It’s also managed to be the dominant moral philosophy in the Western world between the Renaissance and, oh around about the end of World War II. All those years, people believed they held the key to the good life in their hearts, if they looked carefully enough. They believed as well that life was continually getting better, and that eventually, man would reach a state of perfection. Humanism was also deeply bound up with culture and the arts, the finest expression of humanist knowledge. Humanism had its problems, undoubtedly, not least of which was that this was a philosophy created by, held by and explored by men; half the world was rigorously excluded from its all-encompassing claims. But there is a nobility to it that our modern day philosophies lack. Now we’re in the era of post-humanism – the belief that the answers to all our problems lie beyond the human domain, in the world of technology and science. We’ve given up on ourselves as the agents of our own rescue.

Stefan Zweig believed in civilization – that beautiful faith in intelligence and artistic understanding to promote harmony, insight, communal well-being. He believed that there was a natural understanding between people of similar education and ability. He was thrilled to be part of an intricately interconnected group of artists whose mutual acclaim he assumed to be second nature. We might call him naïve, as much artistic achievement was ever fueled by jealousy, rivalry and enmity. But there is a fragility that Zweig always identified in his fictional characters as well as his biographical ones, a recognition that civilization might not always be the solution, that one might be too nice, too charming, too civilized for one’s own good. It provided the real spike of interest in his work, but it may also have tormented him in reality. The jury is out as to why Zweig and Charlotte took their overdose of barbiturates, in what should have been a peaceful exile in Brazil in 1942. Zweig ought to have had some inkling that the Nazis were not going to be allowed to overrun Europe as he feared. But the Second World War destroyed, for many artists, some fundamental belief in the humanity of the human race, and the possibility that truth and beauty might make a better world. Certainly those beliefs have been rarely in evidence ever since. The enormity of such a loss might well be behind the enigmatic words Zweig wrote in his final note, thanking the people of Brazil and saluting his friends:

‘May it be granted them yet to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before.’