Unbearable Lives

THE POST-OFFICE GIRL
By Stefan Zweig
NYRB Classics, 257 pages, $14

Christine Hoflehner, beautiful and carefree before the First World War, loses her brother, is impoverished by the collapse of her father’s business and is condemned, finally, to endless monotony as a postal clerk in a forgotten little town, earning only enough to keep herself and her ailing, widowed mother. “One village post office in Austria is much like another,” begins The Post-Office Girl, Stefan Zweig’s 1930s novel, which has just been published for the first time in English, in a beautiful translation by Joel Rotenberg.

Christine is so thoroughly broken to her lot that she can imagine nothing else; an invitation to a Swiss resort, from a distant aunt, only frightens and upsets her. But once at the resort, dressed in her aunt’s hand-me-down clothes, she learns that she’s still young, that she’s beautiful, that she’s alive. And then, just as suddenly, she’s returned to her poverty—but it’s a poverty, now, that she can recognize.

Filled with rage, she begins to struggle. She drives away her friends and neighbors; her mother is dead. She buys a train ticket and goes to Vienna, where she wanders in desperate frustration until she meets Ferdinand, a veteran whose life is harder and still more ruined than hers, a man more angry than she knows how to be.

They court, and fall in love, to the degree that their circumstances allow—that is, they share their bitterness, and develop affections strongly intermixed (in her case, at least) with pity. But she can’t take him back to her small village, where people will talk, and he can’t take her to his rented room in an old woman’s apartment, and neither can pay for a proper hotel room, so they meet on Sundays, and walk through rainy Vienna, disappointed and impatient in the culmination of the meetings they both look forward to all week.

Finally they can’t bear their lives—their lives apart, their life together—any longer, and together they make a desperate decision so tremendous, so powerful and yet so delicately rendered that I despair of describing or even adequately praising it.

 

STEFAN ZWEIG FINDS a universal story of psychological struggle and spiritual testing in a bitter but humane indictment of class inequality. He finds a love story, of a sort, in a quest story, and a quest story in a love story. He finds anger in compassion, and compassion in anger; beauty in suffering, and suffering in beauty.

This description of Christine—it comes at the moment when she casts off her insecurities and realizes she can be happy—will do equally well as a description of what it’s like to read The Post-Office Girl: “In this instant, shaken to her very depths, this ecstatic human being has a first inkling that the soul is made of stuff so mysteriously elastic that a single event can make it big enough to contain the infinite.”

 

Will Heinrich, author of The King’s Evil (Scribner), is on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at wheinrich@observer.com.

Unbearable Lives