The intoxication of transformation: Stefan Zweig, The Post Office Girl

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), The Post Office Girl. Translated from the German by William Deresiewicz. Sort Of Books paperback, 2009. First published in German, 1982

Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity (1938) – my post about it is HERE – relates how a principled but naïve young officer learns painful truths about himself and others as ‘an emotional abyss’ opens in front of him after a humbling social gaffe. Christine Hoflehner, the eponymous protagonist of The Post Office Girl, undergoes a similarly life-changing transformation as the result of a momentous experience. (Btw, what is it with referring to grown women – Christine is 28 when the novel opens – as ‘girls’ in novel titles?)

Zweig PO Girl coverThis novel was found among Austrian author Zweig’s literary remains after his suicide, but wasn’t published until 1982, with a title that translates as ‘The Intoxication of Transformation’. The MS was in considerable disarray, and had been tinkered with by Zweig over a number of years, raising the question whether he intended it to be published at all. The ending is abrupt, and leaves Christine facing a momentous decision that could transform her life even more dramatically than the first time. I quite like that the story is left open-ended – a firm resolution would have been too mechanical and neat.

The possibly unfinished nature of the novel is also reflected in its uneven quality and structure. Nevertheless, in Part One Zweig brilliantly portrays the stultifying, soul-destroying tedium of Christine’s job in a squalid, rural backwater village post office – and the translator does a pretty good job of rendering it all into English (although I found some of the Americanisms a little intrusive). This tone is achieved from the opening paragraph, which describes these village post offices:

… their sad look of administrative stinginess is the same everywhere…they stubbornly retain that unmistakeable odor of old Austrian officialdom, a smell of stale tobacco and dusty files.

That post-WWI bureaucracy (the novel is set in 1926), the narrative indicates, is what cripples Austria and prevents it from progressing into modernity and vitality: ‘Orderly and by the book – that’s the official way of doing things.’ In Christine’s microcosm of this bureaucratic fossil world ‘the eternal law of growth and decline is suspended at the barrier of officialdom’. Nothing ever changes, and her dreary, soul-destroying routine is governed inexorably by the unforgiving clock on the wall, and the clamour of her morning alarm-clock.

Her status as ‘civil servant’ consigns Christine to ‘a lower census class’, exacerbated by her being a woman. She’s a nobody, with no future, trapped in a world where there’s no hope of escape; everything will remain, for years to come, ‘the same, the same, the same.’ Her life is a kind of ‘waking paralysis’ in ‘a sleeping world.’ The similarities to fairy tales like Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty become increasingly apparent when the transforming event changes her life: an invitation from her wealthy aunt Claire to come and have a holiday with her in a posh Swiss hotel.

This aunt has a guilty secret that indirectly causes Christine’s brief glimpse of glamour and opulence to come to a shattering end. When she arrived at the hotel, Christine was dowdy and nervous, ashamed of her poverty and shabby appearance. Claire facilitates the transformation by lending her expensive, fashionable clothes, sending her to a smart hairdresser and beautician, so that the ugly duckling becomes a glittering, beautiful social swan.

This first part of the novel mercilessly exposes the shallowness and hypocrisy at the heart of this bourgeois, privileged world Christine has entered. She charms the smart young set with her ingenuous excitement and spontaneity, but this also brings about her downfall, when a jealous girlfriend takes revenge on Christine for turning the boyfriend’s head. The response of the hotel guests, previously so friendly to this innocent, unaffected young woman, is a reflection of its cruelty and moral corruption. Only a kind English general, a much older widower whose grieving heart is kindled into life by Christine’s naturalness, recognises her as what Henry James would call ‘the real thing’, and he gallantly stands up for her.

But the damage is done, and Christine is sent unceremoniously packing back to her former life of squalor and drudgery. The problem is now that she’s not just spiritually paralysed: she’s angry. She now knows what an alternative life looks like. Everything around her now fills her with ‘helpless hatred’:

Because suddenly she hates everyone and everything, herself and everyone else, wealth and poverty, everything about this hard, unendurable, incomprehensible life.

I was unsure where Zweig would take her from there. That quotation comes at the end of Part One of the novel, when there are another hundred pages of Part Two to come.

I found this second part overlong, but horribly powerful. Christine’s hatred seems to find a restorative outlet, and a glimmer of hope, recognition and romance appears – but that open ending leaves the outcome unsure.

The Post Office Girl has much of the bleak, existential angst of Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its setting of a war-blasted Europe in which some have prospered but many have become destitute and without hope, lost souls, hollow men. Inequality was fixed in the social system, and the indulgence and idleness of the privileged few was flaunted in the faces of the mass who had nothing, yet toiled hopelessly to enable the status quo to be maintained.

The anger that Zweig must have felt as a member of a Jewish family that was a victim of the persecution that followed in the wake of the post-war grief and social unrest is concentrated and unleashed in the form of Christine – a kind of working-class Emma Bovary with a much more justifiable motive to feel angry and unfulfilled.

That’s maybe where the weakness of the novel lies, too. It tends to preach. It’s a lesson that needs to be propagated, but it’s not done with much subtlety. But then, why should it be? Anger is rarely subtle. Injustice and inequality won’t be transformed as a result of polite debate; the forces that reject Christine from their elite world guard their exclusivity fiercely.

 

 

 

 

5 books and a pencil

Castle hotel train cakeOur oldest grandson’s birthday falls just before Christmas, so Mrs TD and I travelled to Somerset to celebrate with his family. We broke our journey in Taunton and stayed overnight in the atmospheric Castle Hotel, with its cobbled forecourt, crenellations and Norman garden.

The lobby looked very festive, with the centrepiece of this huge gingerbread cake, with a miniature electric train chugging around its circular track. How our grandson would have loved it when he was little, and train mad.

Before sharing a delicious seafood meal with our old friend the regulator, who lives nearby, we trawled the shops (in my case, charity bookshops). I came up with this haul of five titles.

Taunton book haul

Taunton book haul

Antonia White’s The Lost Traveller is the first volume in the trilogy sequel to Virago’s first-ever title in its iconic Modern Classics green-spined series: Frost in May. I have yet to read it, but it’s good to have both volumes to anticipate.

I posted on Stefan Zweig’s poignant novel Beware of Pity last year, and The Post Office Girl was recommended by a Zweig aficionado soon afterwards.

I have a couple of other William Gass titles waiting to be read, and liked the look of this American paperback edition of Cartesian Sonata and other novellas – his fifth work of fiction.

I saw the Werner Herzog film ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’ a few years after it came out in 1974, so it was good to get hold of the 1908 novel by Jakob Wassermann based on the same strange story, in a handsome PMC edition.

Italo Svevo, the pen name of Aron Ettore Schmitz, was a friend of James Joyce during his Trieste years. I read The Confessions of Zeno pre-blog, so I was pleased to find another of his novels in the older PMC format.

Kaweco brass pencilBack home in Cornwall for Christmas, and a pleasant family time with the other grandchildren and their parents, over from Catalonia. Among my presents was this handsome brass clutch pencil: SketchUp 5.6. It’s made by the German company Kaweco. It was a thoughtful gift from Mrs TD’s sister and brother-in-law.

Kaweco pencil and tinIts design I think goes back to the 1930s. It looks very art deco and Weimar. It came in an equally retro tin box. I’ll enjoy using it. Problem is, I now want its companion fountain pen.

I hope you enjoyed your Christmas, if you celebrated it, and that 2020 is full of good times. I can’t say I look forward with much relish to living in Britain once we’ve left the EU. Let’s hope we can somehow maintain good relations with our friends and neighbours across the Channel – despite turning our backs on them in a fit of ill-tempered petulance.

 

Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), Beware of Pity. Pushkin Press, 2000, reprinted 2008. Translated from the German by Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt. First published 1938.

On the whole, more men had perhaps escaped into the war than from it.

So says Captain Anton Hofmiller at a dinner party in Vienna in 1937, as the rise of fascism threatens the world. He’s siding with the unnamed frame narrator of Stefan Zweig’s only full-length novel, Beware of Pity, in predicting the inevitability of a second world war towards which hundreds of thousands of unwitting fools will rush headlong without knowing why, ‘perhaps merely out of a desire to run away from themselves or from disagreeable circumstances.’ As the main narrative shows, those words describe his own unflattering experience and motives.

Hofmiller had been decorated at the age of 28 with Austria’s ‘almost legendary’ highest award for outstanding bravery in action during WWI. When he and the narrator sit together to talk, the reluctant ‘hero’ explains why he’d earlier shown disdain when gaped at in a café, and what it was he’d been running away from. Far from being a brave hero, he explains he simply showed courage for perhaps twenty minutes, being one of those ‘who were running away from their responsibilities rather than patriotic heroes’, trying to ‘extricate themselves’ from ‘a desperate situation.’

So he begins to relate his ‘very odd story’, the ‘tortuous paths’ along which he travelled to attain the dubious status of ‘hero’.

Zweig portraitZweig is best known for his short stories and novellas, and it’s possible to see this novel as in part a coherent collection of related short narratives. There’s the central story of the humiliating social gaffe that leads to Hofmiller’s misguidedly befriending the crippled Edith Kekesfalva and the terrible consequences of his indulging the frequent waves of ‘that painful, exhausting yet wildly exciting gush of pity’ that ‘overwhelmed’ him whenever he looked on the ‘hypersensitive’ young woman’s disabled condition (it seems to be polio, but is never named as more than ‘a bacillus’). She frequently warns him not to visit her out of pity alone, not to ‘sacrifice’ his time and finer feelings on her behalf – but as always he fails to heed the advice of those who know better, and spirals down into an emotional and moral impasse compounded by his lies, deceptions and misconceptions of what’s happening and what motivates his and others’ behaviour.

There are embedded in this story several others. There’s one that tells how Edith’s father rises from an impoverished childhood with the name Leopold Kanitz, brought up in a Jewish family, to become (not very honourably), with a newly acquired ‘Magyarized’ name ‘decked out with a prefix of nobility’, the fabulously wealthy magnate  with a castle home in the small garrison town at which Hofmiller, a 25-year-old second lieutenant cavalryman or Uhlan, is stationed, and where he first encounters the girl who is to become his nemesis, and ‘an emotional abyss’ opens up before him. He tries several cowardly modes of escape, ultimately finding it in action in WWI.

There’s another which tells how Doctor Condor, who is one of a series of eminent clinicians trying (futilely) to effect a cure for the stricken girl, came to marry a blind former patient. When he first hears of this, Hofmiller makes another of many misjudgements in the narrative: he erroneously assumes that the doctor was motivated, as he was with Edith, by pity, not love. When the naïve young officer finally gets to know Frau Condor, he undergoes one of several beautifully portrayed, painful epiphanies, each of which serves to  make him more mature and see things less obscurely, less selfishly and myopically.

The novel is 361 pages long, but it never flags. Even though the outcome is never in much doubt, one is drawn into the experiences of this generous-spirited but ingenuous, socially awkward, confused young man. Every effort Anton makes to be noble and honourable ends with his becoming more enmired and embarrassed. He slowly learns a painful lesson about the ‘two kinds of pity’ –

Unknown and unsuspected tender zones of feeling – but also it must be admitted very dangerous ones!

This story of the dangerous allure of the wrong kind of pity and its addictive appeal has some similarities to the Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklós Bánffy, about which I wrote recently, in that it is set in the twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian empire before it was caught up in the catastrophe and carnage of WWI, and deals with the outmoded, corrosive codes of honour that beset the aristocratic and officer classes of society at that time.

Zweig Pity coverIt’s a gripping narrative that churns the stomach at times as the central characters undergo excruciating experiences and humiliations. The translation is unobtrusive and fluent. And what a handsome cover, taken from Gustave Klimkt’s painting ‘Schubert at the piano’.

See the perceptive piece on this novel by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian in 2011, which provides useful biographical and historical-political context. The article includes a photo of the main actors of the film version of 1946 (including Lilli Palmer as Edith) and its prolific British director (Maurice Elvey)  – which received such a critical mauling it almost ended his career prematurely.