The Post-Office Girl

PostOfficeChristine Hoflehner has a stable job in an Austrian village post-office. It provides a steady income, even if the work is dull and her lifestyle modest. When she was just 16, the Great War snatched away Christine’s opportunities for anything better than modest and dull, and now at 28 she hardly remembers what it feels like to be really happy. Happiness is “like a foreign language she learned in childhood but has now forgotten, remembering only that she knew it once.”

When Stefan Zweig’s novel, translated by Joel Rotenberg, begins, Christine is given a chance to experience a couple of weeks of joy. Her aunt has invited her to come stay with her on holiday in Switzerland. And so, Christine, who no longer knows how to be happy, is able to experience the kinds of excitement she missed out on in her youth. After her initial awkwardness wears off—and with the help of her aunt’s fashionable taste—she’s drawn into the whirlwind of parties and excess. She dances and flirts and stays out late, relishing every moment.

She’s like a drunkard, aware of nothing but herself and her own state of exaltation … 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.

This state of intoxication cannot last, of course. It was just a vacation, and the question that remains in the background as Christine finds (or loses?) herself is what will happen when she returns to real life. How will her new (true?) self live as a post-office girl? Can she avoid that fate entirely?

At the Swiss hotel, Christine takes on a new name, Christiane van Boolen, identifying herself with her uncle’s more distinguished family name and abandoning her modest Austrian one. This is the identity she wants to maintain because this is the self that knows happiness. I found it interesting that her previous experience of happiness ceased at age 14 because Christiane van Boolen often seems hardly older than 14. Forced by circumstance to grow up too soon, she now turns back time.

But it was those growing-up years that made life in the post office bearable. Christine Hoflehner learned to be mature during the war and to bear hard circumstances. Christiane van Boolen never went through that. In choosing to see Christiane van Boolen as her true self, the self she’s finding for the first time, she’s giving up on the strength that made her life possible. When Christiane sees trouble, she laughs it off or finds a quick escape. But Christine’s troubles must be endured.

This is a tremendous novel about the unfairness of life. The back cover of the NYRB edition notes that it “lays bare the private life of capitalism.” (Note: That back cover also gives away plot developments from the final few chapters.) Money provides all sorts of freedom, and Christine now understands just how pernicious the inequality is. There are scenes toward the end that hammer on this point, as Christine finds a friend who is as appalled by the system as she is. These are some of the less effective scenes in the book. It’s far better when it focuses on how these new experiences have changed Christine from the inside and how she learns to cope (or not) with her new understanding of the world.

One of the things I’m wondering as I think of this story is whether Christine would have been better off never to have gone to Switzerland at all. Was it better to have never seen what could be, to never find that other self? Somehow, though, it doesn’t seem right to say that. It feels like saying it’s better to be unaware of inequality, but what good is there in knowing things could be so much better when you’re powerless to do anything? Christine has no appropriate way to seize power over her circumstances, as the book’s final ambiguous chapters reveal. If she cannot learn to be content, what else is there to do?

The other night, I saw Man of La Mancha for the first time and wept openly and rather messily during the first reprise of “The Impossible Dream.” (and all subsequent reprises). In isolation, it’s not the kind of song that tends to get to the hard-headed realist that I tend to be, but the juxtaposition of Quixote’s hope and Aldonza’s tragedy got to me. And as I try to consider Zwieg’s book, some of the same questions I had about that story keep coming to me. Will Aldonza be better off knowing that she was, for a while, Dulcinea? Can she continue to be Dulcinea when her Quixote is gone? What would that even look like?

Christine is no Aldonza. Her tragedy is not nearly so dramatic, and her hopes not nearly so noble. Aldonza would probably be delighted to be in Christine’s place. But I sympathize with them both, and they both leave me with questions about the place of dreams and desire in our lives.

Zweig’s novel ends on an exasperatingly sudden note, a cliffhanger with no resolution. I think, for her, there can be no resolution. The path she’s set out on will never lead to contentment. What happiness she finds will always be tenuous. Maybe, for her, those fragile moments of happiness are worth the risk that she’s taking. I don’t think we’re meant to endorse her choice, but Zweig helps us understand it and fear for where it will take her. And so I do.

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16 Responses to The Post-Office Girl

  1. heavenali says:

    I have been made aware of Stefan Zweig through other bloggers, and really must explore his work one day. I really like the sound of this novel, both the central character and the setting/time period appeal.

  2. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    This is interesting, because my husband (who is Swiss) is always threatening to go and “work in the post office” if things look like they’re getting dire — i.e. give up his dreams and just be a drone. I wonder if this is a general metaphor in Europe, maybe even derived from Zweig’s novel?

    • Teresa says:

      That is funny! The book was published posthumously in the 1980s (but written much earlier), so I doubt that’s where the idea comes from, but it’s possible that it’s a common idea that Zweig was drawing on.

  3. Hi, Theresa. I can easily see how this book diverges from so very many others. In returning the heroine to her own pre-luxury life, the author is diverging not only from the “happily-ever-after” sorts of tales comedy often prefers, but even from the more believable “just-a-step-up-from-here-at-a-time” sort of novel of “realistic” progress that a lot of authors try to bring off. It’s far more often true, I think, that a rich relative or associate brings someone into a milieu where they have no natural affinities, and the subject of the experiment emerges embittered. But most authors don’t go for that ultra-realistic solution in their plots. I can see why you find Zweig so powerful.

    • Teresa says:

      He seems to be riffing on a lot of the fairy-tale-esque rags-to-riches tropes that are out there. Some of the early chapters feel like stories I’ve seen a millions times, right down to the makeover scene. But he really gets at how those stories are fantasies.

  4. Annabel (gaskella) says:

    I really, really must read some Stefan Zweig – it’s not as if I don’t own half a shelf full – having good intentions. This one (which I do have) sounds quite dramatic in a small way.

    • Teresa says:

      This one hung around on my shelves for about five years before I got to it. My library is sadly lacking in Zweig novels, so I’ll have to on the lookout for more elsewhere.

  5. Great post! It got me thinking deeply about how profound is the happiness that contentment brings with it. The conundrum is, you need to have contrasts in life’s experience, before you can be content. You need to know the grass isn’t greener on the other side, but how can you know if you’ve never been there, and the sometimes you’re tricked to think it is greener. I haven’t read the Post Office Girl, however, my thoughts are, if the character wasn’t happy, prior to her introduction to the high life, then it seems that she had a choice between two types of unhappiness. It seems she was doomed. You can see how your post has got me going. I think it would be fun to sit down over a cup of coffe and discuss the ins and outs of this story and find a way whereby the character could find happiness. Thanks for getting my “little grey cells” working.

    • Teresa says:

      It really seems like happiness isn’t possible, that she was doomed, as you say. She actually does work out a plan for happiness in the end, but it’s so tenuous and risky that it’s hard to imagine it giving her what she wants.

  6. Alex says:

    Ever since reading The Royal Game I’ve wanted to read more by Zweig and this sounds intriguing, especially since it’s set in Switzerland (where I now live).

  7. Christy says:

    I think I’d heard of The Post-Office Girl several years ago, but then I saw that Wes Anderson dedicated the Grand Budapest Hotel to Stefan Zweig, and that also piqued my curiosity. According to an interview on the Guardian website, Anderson’s film was inspired by Post-Office Girl, Beware Pity, and Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday. Interview here:
    I think I’d have to pick the right mood for The Post-Office Girl, but I definitely want to give the author a go.

    • Teresa says:

      I still haven’t seen Grand Budapest Hotel, but it’s one my list. I usually like Wes Anderson’s movies, and this makes me even more interested in seeing it.

  8. Stefanie says:

    Loved your review! I read the book a number of years ago and really liked it. It is hard to know what is better, having that vacation or not. Christine will always have the memories from that happy time and maybe she will learn, when her life seems drab, to use those memories to help her through? That’s what I hope.

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