Sunday, September 30, 2012

Stefan Zweig

After reviewing the letters of Stefan and Lotte Zweig, I was eager to read more of Zweig's fiction, and recently finished The Post-Office Girl, which was left unpublished at the of his death. 

The first thing to say about this novella is that, while it's well written, it's also unbalanced. The story is divided into two phases - one set in Switzerland, the other in Austria - which never fully coalesce. 

That criticism aside, this is a dark novella, one focused on a sense of exclusion and betrayal. As Zweig's post-office girl bemoans her condition in the wake of the First World War, it's as if she's speaking for Zweig, who wrote the book as he confronted his own exile from Germany as the Second World War approached.

The sensitivity of the post-office girl to her betrayal by the Austrian government (and capitalism more broadly) mirrors Zweig's sensitivity - which is highlighted in his collected letters - to the collapse of the Old European order. This disappointment was compounded by a later sense of exclusion in the 1930s as Germany and Austria adopted Nazism. 

The darkest - and most eerie - element of this novella, though, is the flirtation by its main characters with a duel suicide, the fate to which Stefan and his young wife, Lotte, succumbed while living abroad in 1942. 

I won't say whether the idea of suicide is realized in The Post-Office Girl (because the book is worthy of being read), but I will say that the air of decay that hangs over this novella is palpable, even suffocating.

It's as if Zweig is bemoaning two things by the end of the book: the death of aristocratic Europe and the betrayal of its Jewish population. 

The post-office girl is tempted by Europe, but once offered a glimpse of its riches, is pushed away, cast off as an outsider. This process is cruel and emotionless, and the result of tough book filled with vanquished dreams and frustrated characters.  

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