There is some dispute concerning the condition of The Post-Office Girl prior to Zweig’s suicide in 1942. Did he finish it? Did he intend to publish it at all? The new release of Rausch der Verwandlung, translated by Joel Rotenberg and brought out by New York Review Books, reads like a finished novel. The new publishers do not say it was unfinished and do not include a forward that may have discussed the matter.
This is a different approach than the one taken with Kafka and Max Brod.
After finishing the book, I am certainly happy it was brought out again, and put together so well. Well enough to make it seem like a complete work, even though the ending is open, some might say abrupt.
It’s the story of Christine, a young woman trapped by circumstance. An invalid mother to take care of, and a family all but ruined by the first World War. She toils away as a Post-Office official, but longs for something better. Though she doesn’t yet sense just how much she longs for other worlds, better worlds, until a surprise gift comes to her from overseas. Her aunt, wealthy and well-connected, invites Christine to join her and her uncle at a very posh hotel in Switzerland and this changes her life forever. Her aunt Klara dresses her in finery, brings out the butterfly, the swan. She’s Cinderella, set free among the rich and famous, until her bubble is burst by cruel machinations that expose her poverty.
Zweig dives deeply into the psychology of the rich, having grown up in that society, and adds to it aliens in their midst. Adds to it the psychology of someone who is barely making ends meet, set free from financial worry for the first time, if only for a flash in the night. Christine becomes the belle of the ball and then is cast out of that world, betrayed by a new friend and by family.
Back at her job, nothing can bring her out of her despair. She was intoxicated by the heights of wealth, the dancing, the rich and varied food, the freedom of movement, the attention from wealthy and distinguished men, and the total lack of worry about financial matters. It has ruined her for anything short of that life. Her intoxication was so great it altered her ability to grieve for her now dead mother. Nothing is ever going to be the same.
Then she meets Ferdinand, another bitter soul. A veteran of the Great War, Ferdinand feels an even greater sense of loss and betrayal than Christine’s. His resentments have been building up over many years, poisoning him, making him more and more desperate. He’s similar to characters out of Dostoevsky, Hamsun and Roth, in that he thinks of himself as superior and uniquely talented, but blocked at every turn by cruel fate.
The Post-Office Girl is a small masterpiece as is. My guess is that Zweig had much more planned for it. The Nazi occupation of Europe, its collapse, the loss of millions of lives there, sometimes created casualties as far away as Brazil. Zweig committed suicide with his second wife Lotte, beyond despair for his cultural homeland:
“All the pale horses of the apocalypse have stormed through my life, revolution, starvation, devaluation of currency and terror, epidemics, emigration; I have seen the great ideologies of the masses grow and spread out before my eyes. Fascism in Italy, National Socialism in Germany, Bolshevism in Russia, and, above all, that archpestilence, nationalism, which poisoned our flourishing European culture.”