Saturday, June 21, 2008
Stefan Zweig An Austrian exile who chronicled the personal and cultural costs of war
The Post-Office Girl
By Stefan Zweig
New York Review Books, 257 pages, $14
Stefan Zweig was a late and magnificent bloom from the hothouse of fin de siècle Vienna. He was a novelist and playwright, but also a biographer -- and, it turned out, a talented memoirist, whose melancholy "The World Yesterday" (1942) captured the golden, lost world of Freud, Mahler, Schnitzler and Klimt. The posthumous publication of a Zweig novel affords an opportunity to revisit this gifted writer.
Zweig himself was renowned across Europe in the 1920s and '30s for his literary tales of passion and obsession -- or, rather, obsessive passion and passionate obsession. But he also won many devoted readers with his wide-ranging and erudite critical studies. He wrote with equal mastery about subjects as diverse as Erasmus, Magellan, Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Casanova.
Zweig's books were translated into more than 40 languages, and most of his foreign royalties were sheltered from the inflation and menace of war. But the personal security that wealth seemed to bring was not enough -- Zweig, a Jew, had seen the foundations of his cultural Atlantis, Vienna, shaken by World War I, and with Hitler's rise in the 1930s he sensed a looming catastrophe. He fled to England in 1934, but not before writing the libretto for Richard Strauss's "The Silent Woman." Strauss enraged the Nazis by insisting that the name of his Jewish collaborator appear on posters for the opera's premiere in Dresden in 1935.
Zweig eventually moved from England to America before alighting in Brazil in 1940. By then he and his first wife had divorced, and he had remarried. From his vantage point in the rough-hewn Brazilian town of Petrópolis, it seemed that the ideal of cosmopolitan humanism could not survive the tides of barbarism. He was cut off from his "spiritual homeland," deprived of the books he needed to complete a magisterial study of Balzac and could only watch in horror as the world he had known destroyed itself. Despondent, Zweig put his affairs in order in 1942. Then he and his wife, Lotte, took fatal overdoses of veronal.
Zweig left behind a manuscript that he had been working on sporadically for more than a decade. The novel, published in German in 1982 as "Rausch der Verwandlung" -- or "The Ecstasy of Transformation" -- has finally been translated into English, by Joel Rotenberg, under a more pragmatic title: "The Post-Office Girl." It is a Cinderella story in a minor key, set in Austria between the two world wars. The fairy godmother-like character is a fickle woman, bestowing gifts and charms only to revoke them without warning. The character who serves the princely role is maimed by war and poorer than the would-be princess. There is no happy ending, but no unhappy one either.
At the novel's heart is an accounting of war's costs -- costs that are cultural as well as economic. As it happened, the fortune that the Zweig family made from textile manufacturing survived the ravages of World War I. But Zweig, a devoted pacifist, was especially attentive to the misery that the Great War wrought. He returned to the subject many times -- two of his best short stories, "The Invisible Collection" and "Buchmendel" (or "The Bookseller"), chronicle the destruction of the civilized arts, and in "Episode on Lake Geneva" he portrayed soul-corroding wartime exile.
In "The Post-Office Girl," however, Zweig broadened his focus from individual fates to the more insidious, pervasive consequences of the fraying of the social fabric. What social, economic and cultural security the Austro-Hungarian monarchy had been able to provide, albeit rigid and constricting, collapsed along with the empire. The wealthy and privileged managed to get by, often quite well, while the poor and those without connections were left with even fewer resources than before.
One of those stranded survivors in the novel is Christine Hoflehner, an old maid at 28. Her youthful optimism was lost when the family business failed in the war. Now she spends her days eking out a spare existence, divided between long hours at the post office in an Alpine backwater and caring for her sickly mother. She is so ground down by poverty that an invitation to two weeks at an exclusive Swiss resort from her mother's wealthy sister evokes only fear and apprehension.
Before she even arrives at the hotel, Christine is shaken from her apathy to a mortified self-consciousness when she realizes how shabby her clothes have become. But she manages to effect a rapid and intoxicating metamorphosis. One session in the beauty salon and a few of her aunt's hand-me-downs are enough to turn her into the belle of the ball. She exults in the power of her beauty. Her sincerity wins over most of the hotel's guests, while her uncle's riches seduce the rest. Before long, the "delirium of wealth" turns her head.
Christine's fall is just as sudden, but unspectacular. Her aunt, fearing that Christine's lack of discretion might lead her to inadvertently reveal some "shady business" from the family's history, sends the girl home early without explanation. Christine is forced back into her suffocating village life, only now she knows that there is no air.
She manages a temporary escape to Vienna, where she meets a war veteran even more embittered than she. Their shared grievances develop into a passion of sorts, but the affair is doomed by circumstances. The flophouse they seek out for a tryst is raided by the police. Although they are not swept along in the round-up, the humiliation sours their attempts at intimacy. They resolve to commit suicide together, but at the last minute arrive at a daring scheme that could possibly provide them with a modest but dignified existence.
For all its direness, "The Post-Office Girl" is captivating. Zweig lavishes his most sensuous prose not just on the elegant trappings of the wealthy -- the silk dresses that glisten like dragonflies and glint seductively from the shadows, the glowing amber wine that "goes down unctuously like sweet, chilled cream" -- but also on the squalor and shame of poverty: "the smell of stale cigarette smoke, bad food, wet clothes, the smell of the old woman's dread and worry and wheezing."
In Zweig's earlier fiction, unsuspected, uncontrollable passions and desires determined his characters' identities, bursting the hardened shells formed by habit, convenience or propriety. But in "The Post-Office Girl," external forces are all. Christine changes drastically with each twist in her fate. The joys of her middle-class childhood wither under the strain of her limited existence. Surrounded by luxury, she recovers her exuberance and becomes "Christianne," confident, alluring, eminently desirable. Then, forced back into miserable surroundings, she is consumed by rage and resentment. The little satisfactions of post-office tedium become thorns in her side.
In "The Post-Office Girl," Stefan Zweig found a new vantage from which to document "the secret war of all against all." Yet he offered his characters at least a slim hope of escaping their despair -- the sort of escape that he never found for himself.
Ms. Lewis is a translator and an advisory editor of the Hudson Review.