The Post Office Girl

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Read 01/05/2017-05/05/2017

Rating: 3 stars

Poor Christine Hoflehner. Twenty eight years old and bereft of hope. She toils away in a rural post office, caring for her sick mother, her family devastated by the Great War and the poverty that engulfed Austria as one of the losers.

Her glamorous aunt, who has lived quite a life in the Americas and has largely escaped the trials experienced by her compatriots, has returned to Europe for a holiday. She invites her sister to stay with her at her luxury Swiss hotel. Christine’s mother is too ill, though, so the honour is transferred to Christine. Her lack of enthusiasm is brilliantly rendered by Zweig. There comes a point when you are caring for someone who is long term sick, when you are struggling to find enthusiasm to do your job, when everything feels like you’re on a treadmill of not being yourself, where even the promise of a holiday feels like hard work.

Why leave now and go and visit an aunt she doesn’t know, be among people she isn’t comfortable with? But my God, what can she do? That’s what Mother wants and it would make her happy if she went, so Christine really shouldn’t fight it. And why fight it anyway? She’s so tired, so tired. Slowly, resignedly, the postal official takes a sheet of foolscap from the top shelf of her desk, folds it carefully in the middle, puts a sheet of ruled paper underneath as a guide, and writes, in a clear, clean hand with lovely shading, to the postal administration in Vienna, asking that, for family reasons, she immediately be permitted to begin the vacation to which she is legally entitled and requesting that a substitute be sent next week. Then she writes to her sister in Vienna, asking that she obtain a Swiss visa for her, lend her a small suitcase, and come out so they can discuss a few things having to do with their mother. And during the next few days she slowly, carefully gets everything ready for the trip, without joy, without expectation, without interest, as though this were not her life but just more work and responsibility.

Oh, Christine.

She puts me in mind of the heroines in Anita Brookner novels.

I felt for her, having recently emerged from a prolonged pause in my own life, where I functioned but never really felt like I was living. I’m not a saint, you see, and found caring for my mum difficult to say the least. So I understood why Christine feels as though she’s lost a decade of her life, and why she is depressed about it.

There is hope in Christine’s world, however. It comes in the form of the local school teacher, whose wife is dying of TB in a sanitarium somewhere. He has been spending time with Christine and her mother, slowly falling in love with our quiet heroine. As he sees her onto the train at the start of her journey to Switzerland, he gives Christine a hand drawn map of her route, and another of the region where the hotel is located. You wouldn’t think that the giving and receiving of maps could hold such tenderness, but Zweig is a master author, and the scene made my heart melt. It’s like the love between Suzy and Sam in Moonrise Kingdom.

Hope grows as she makes her journey up into the Alps. Zweig’s description of Christine’s reaction to waking and seeing the mountains for the first time is glorious. He captures that wide-eyed amazement that the traveller feels when encountering a new landscape for the first time. I could quote another huge chunk of the book, but I’d rather you read it for yourself. This, though, bears quoting:

This contact with the overpowering is her first encounter with travel’s disconcerting ability to strip the hard shell of habit from the heart, leaving only the bare, fertile kernel.

On arrival at the station, where she is collected by a hotel porter, Christine immediately forgets her excitement and becomes instantly ashamed of her poverty. She cringes into herself on the journey to the hotel and, on arrival, tries to hide from the other guests in the lobby. The glamour of her hotel room further disconcerts her, and then the complexity of the lunch she shares with her aunt and uncle almost finishes her off. The agony is excruciating.

Christine becomes a project for her aunt. She dresses her, arranges a hair appointment and beauty treatment, and buries the pale, fragile Christine under a veneer of luxury. Through it all, Christine is uncomfortable but also hungry for more. Eventually a shift occurs. Christine is accepted by the socialites holidaying at the resort and, in a harmless case of mistaken identity, she becomes a different person. Over the course of a week, she experiences a life she hadn’t even dreamt of back at home, throwing herself into the party lifestyle of her richer peers, attracting the affection of an older man and the romantic attentions of a young engineer.

As with everything built on fantasy, Christine’s dream life has to end. She returns home early, her aunt reacting badly to some gossip and sending her away. At home, tragedy awaits her and Christine sinks into a depression that lasts a month.

Anyone who has had more than a moment’s monotony to live through will be moved by how Christine feels one weekend when she flees her home town for the bright lights of Vienna.

She didn’t know why she was going there, had no clear idea what she wanted, other than to get away, away from the village, from her work, from herself, from the person she was condemned to be. She just wanted to feel wheels turning beneath her again, see lights, see different people, ones with more intelligence and style, to put up some resistance to the whims of chance, not be trampled underfoot; to move again, feel the world and herself, to be a different person, not the same old one.

In Vienna, she can’t find the thing she thinks she wants. She ends up visiting her sister and brother-in-law. A chance encounter with an old war comrade of her brother-in-law’s provides something of what she needs. She feels recognised in his tirade about how the war has changed everyone’s lives, and not fairly or always for the better. Through this man, Ferdinand, Zweig lets rip on the Austrian government and the way it has abandoned those who served it faithfully during the war, who gave up years of their lives and then emerged into a broken society where families lost livelihoods, citizenship, dignity, all manner of things that others continued to benefit from. It becomes a different novel, a more political one, as a result of this character. Where I had felt fatigued by the descriptions of Christine’s experiences at the expensive resort among the vain socialites, I felt energised by this angrier turn in the story.

The ending of the book is deliciously ambiguous. It’s both filled with and bereft of hope. It’s couched in bleakness.

There was something about the translation that jarred with me, though. Something in the choice of language at times that seemed anachronistic. Americanisms, mainly, that didn’t feel right coming out of the mouths of 1920s Europeans.

It isn’t the book I expected it to be, based on its Wes Anderson connection, but it is a book worth reading. It was first published in 1982, forty years after Zweig’s suicide. It had lain undiscovered among his effects. The edition I read is its first translation into English, published in 2008. It adds depth to the theme of post-war disenchantment found in some of Zweig’s short stories. It was telling that Zweig had no opportunity to edit the novel, because there are passages that felt clunky to me, and could have done with some refinement.

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