Best Translated Book 2008 Longlist: The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next two days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg. (Austria, New York Review Books)
The Post-Office Girl is the second NYRB title on the fiction longlist (the other being Unforgiving Years) and the third Zweig title that they’ve published. The other two are Beware of Pity, which was the only novel Zweig published during his lifetime, and a new translation of Chess Story, which was sent to his publisher just before Zweig committed suicide.
Before the rise of Nazism, Zweig was an incredibly popular writer well known both for his novels and for his biographies. But as a Austrian Jew, he fled Austria for London, then lived in the United States and Brazil. It was in Petropolis that he and his wife committed joint suicide, stating “I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.”
Edwin Frank’s monthly erudite letter about a recent NYRB book is by far my favorite publisher newsletter, and the month he wrote about The Post-Office Girl was no exception. (If you’re interested in receiving the NYRB newsletter, you can sign up here.)
Thanks to translator Joel Rotenberg, The Post-Office Girl is at last available in English. It’s no less striking than Beware of Pity and Chess Story, the two other Zweigs we’ve published, but it couldn’t be more different. It’s a book that should change how people think about Stefan Zweig.
The Post-Office Girl is fastpaced and hardboiled—as if Zweig, normally the most mannerly of writers, had fortified himself with some stiff shots of Dashiell Hammett. It’s the story of Christine, a nice girl from a poor provincial family who gets a taste of the good life only to have it snatched away; and of Ferdinand, an unemployed World War I veteran and ex-POW with whom she then links up. It’s a story, you could say, of two essentially respectable middle-class souls who wake up to find themselves miscast as outcasts, but what it’s really about, beyond economic and psychological collapse, is social death. Set during the period of devastating hyper-inflation that followed Austria’s defeat in 1918, Zweig’s novel depicts a country grotesquely divided between the rich and poor, so much so that it has effectively reverted to a state of nature. Christine and Ferdinand and Austria have been hollowed out (even if the country is still decked out in the pomp, circumstance, and pointless bureaucratic regulations of its bygone imperial heyday). They exist in a Hobbesian state of terminal desperation from which—the discovery arrives with mounting horror and excitement—the only hope of escape or redemption lies in violence.
What’s especially interesting about this publication is that the book never came out during Zweig’s life. It was written during the 30s, appeared to be finished, but was left untitled and wasn’t published until 1982. There’s no clear reason why he didn’t publish this during his lifetime. (although Edwin has a hunch)
The first part of the book really does read like a fairy tale, as poor, diligent Christine is whisked away to spend some time with her very wealthy aunt and uncle. A sort of Cinderella story in which Christine gets to see a side of life she wasn’t even aware of, as when she first arrives to her room at the hotel:
The boy opens a door in the middle of the corrido, flourishes his cap, and steps aside. This must be her room. Christine goes in. But on the threshold she stops short, as though she were in the wrong place. Because with all the will in the world, the postal official from Klein-Reifling, accustomed to shabby surroundings, can’t just flick a switch are really believe that this room is for her, this extravagantly scaled, exquisitely bright, colorfully wallpapered room, with open French doors like crystalline floodgates, the light cascading through.
But like all fairy tales, the clock strikes midnight and she has to go back home. As Jeff Waxman explains in his review, this is when the book changes dramatically:
The vacation came to an abrupt end. As dreams do. Fräulein Christiane von Boolen was revealed to be, merely, Christine Hoeflehner and, in shame and anger, she returned to Klein-Reifling, to the small town she came from. With her mother dead and her memories of her time at the resort too vivid, Christine cannot sink back into her own life. This is the real meat of the story; this is the bitter Part Two. A spectre of discontent is introduced in Christine Hoeflehner and Zweig provides it a mate, Ferdinand Farrner. In Ferdinand, Christine finds a kindred spirit, an awareness of the unfairness of life. Together, they come to a precipice familiar to the poor. They can no longer stand. They jump.
Posthumous publishing decisions are always open to criticism (see The Nation review, or any of the comments about the decision to publish 2666 in one volume instead of five separate books), but nevertheless, this is a great book, quite different from his other works, and definitely worth reading.