Magazine article The Spectator

Heartbreak Hotel

Magazine article The Spectator

Heartbreak Hotel

Article excerpt

THE POST OFFICE GIRL by Stefan Zweig, translated by Joel Rotenberg Sort of Books, £7.99, pp. 265, ISBN 9780954221720 £6.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Here surely is what Joseph Conrad meant when he wrote that above all he wanted his readers 'to see.' In The Post Office Girl Stefan Zweig explores the details of everyday life in language that pierces both brain and heart.

Born in 1881 into a rich Austrian-Jewish family, Zweig was the embodiment of preand inter-war Viennese intellectual life.

A biographer, essayist, memoirist, shortstory writer and the author of one finished novel, Beware of Pity, he delivered the oration at Freud's funeral. During the Thirties, Zweig wrote The Post Office Girl, originally Rausch der Verwandlung (The Intoxication of Transformation). The English title is better. In his informative afterword, William Deresiewicz writes that Zweig tinkered with this novel for years and never finished it. He and his wife killed themselves in 1942, dying hand in hand in Brazil. The manuscript of The Post Office Girl was discovered after Zweig's death.

The story is poignant, painful, and must be one of fiction's darkest indictments of how poverty destroys hope, enjoyment, beauty, brightness and laughter, and how money, no matter how falsely, provides ease and delight.

In 1926, in the backwater Austrian town of Klein-Reifling, Christine, age 28, single-handedly runs the dingy post office. Pale, faded and careless of appearance, she endures a grimly repetitive existence tending her rheumatic mother in their cramped attic room.

She can remember the last time she laughed, felt happy, and contented -- years before the Great War that ruined her family's life.

From the first pages, long before we meet Christine, we see how awful her life is. As if in slow motion Zweig shows us the office's rickety desk, the single chair, the dried-up ink in the well, the crushed pen nib, and the posters advertising long-closed exhibitions. There are also the 'unmistakable symbols of [the State's] power and reach': the safe in the corner and the gleaming telegraph. Christine worries every night that she may not hear the alarm in the morning She exchanges occasional kisses with a threadbare, devoted schoolteacher, married to an invalid wife.

Then, one day, there clatters from the telegraph the first telegram Christine has ever received, 12 words from her mother's long-lost sister, who has become a rich American, inviting her niece to spend a week or two with her in a luxurious Swiss hotel. She havers, feels little happiness, but decides to go -- and everything changes. From her train she is staggered by the icy glare of the Alps -- Zweig is fascinated by light -- but rightly worries that her barely presentable coat and skirt, her shabby little straw case, and her humble shoes mark her out as a churchmouse. And how right she is! In the hotel's limousine from the station she notices the other guests' 'metallically gleaming tank turrets of wardrobe trunks made of luxurious Russian calf, alligator, snakeskin and smooth glacé kid.' The little girl opposite fondles a tiny dog with a hand that is 'rosily manicured and sparkles with a precocious diamond'. Precocious -- the perfect word for a small child's jewel. Christine notices that each umbrella in the limousine has 'a different exquisite and extravagant handle, ' wholly unlike the 'cheap fake horn' of her own umbrella. …

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