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The Post Office Girl, Stefan Zweig (193?/1982/2008)

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Strange set of dates, right? This novel was unpublished at the time of Zweig’s death in 1942, didn’t appear in the original German until 1982, and was only translated into English in 2008. It continues to boggle my mind, how thoroughly this writer was forgotten. I know plenty of writers are forgotten, but Zweig was literally world-renowned before his death, and almost completely forgotten after. I think it has to do with the fact that his was a world, and a readership, which had largely disappeared by the time he died, either by violence or disillusionment. Of course that’s true of many others, too, but others had the chance to make a second act — like Brecht (though only briefly), or Fritz Lang. Zweig foreclosed that possibility with barbiturates.

This is the first of Zweig’s fiction I’ve read. I come to it very well disposed to like it, since I’ve become so fascinated with him through his memoir. It’s not a great novel. The story is quite simple and actually moves a lot like a screenplay. (Perhaps unsurprisingly; my very first (and entirely unconscious) point of contact with Zweig, as may be the case with you too, was Max Ophüls wonderful Letter from an Unknown Woman, based on a story by Zweig.)

The titular post office girl is a victim of postwar Austria’s grinding poverty, has the chance to spend a week at a glamorous resort in Switzerland with her aunt who’s married a rich Dutchman and lives in New York. That’s act one. In act two, she has her mind blown by opulence, but things go sour, and she winds up right where she started in her crummy garrett. In act three, she meets a man, a fully disillusioned and nihilistic veteran and former POW, and together they determine that because society has failed them so completely and unfairly, they will have their revenge through crime. It’s not joyful vital American crime like Bonnie and Clyde, though; it’s more of the existential killing an Arab variety. The end.

Pretty pedantic, but perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist, and I was surprised and somewhat (though not entirely) charmed by Zweig’s prose, which, contra its subjects and concerns, is full of froth and elan. He describes the hell out of everything in paragraphical gusts, and offers tasty little observations and figures on almost every page.

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  1. I love Stefan Zweig and also feel like he is not read enough and thoroughly under-appreciated. I think he is getting some more attention since ‘The Great Budapest Hotel’ name checked him. Chess Story is a masterpiece.

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