Saturday, July 17, 2010

Review: The Post-Office Girl -- Rausch der Verwandlung

I finished Stefan Zweig's The Post-Office Girl on Monday, but it's taken me a while to get into a frame of mind to write about it. Usually I review books almost immediately. This one, though, needed some time--I hesitate to say it, but some recovery.

The Post-Office Girl is the story of Christine Hoflehner, in post-World War I Austria, a 28-year-old postal official whose youth has been eaten up by the war. When Christine's rich American aunt invites her to a resort in Switzerland, she enters a completely new world in which nothing is "too expensive" and in which she rediscovers fun and youth. Here, Christine Hoflehner becomes Christiane von Boolen, suddenly aristocratic and beautiful, a different person. But it doesn't last, and Christine goes back to the post-office, where, knowing she can be Fräulein von Boolen, being a contented Fräulein Hoflehner is impossible.

The story goes through several phases, all strikingly different. Sometimes this makes the book feel disjointed, but I think really it suits the story. The difference between a Swiss resort and a provincial Austrian post-office is striking. Christine's character is never completely clear, but, though this may look like a failure in the writing, it is entirely in line with the message of the book. We never see quite who Christine is because she herself doesn't know, because she has never been given the opportunity to be anybody. She works in a post-office and that is all; she has no chance to be more, to live more fully. She can afford only what it takes to keep her breathing, and breathing is not equivalent to living. She has lost the best years, and though, after her Swiss holiday, she is aware of this, she doesn't actually know what she might have had in those years. The ending of the book is unexpected and painful. Somehow, even once I knew what Christine was going to do, I was expecting it to all end hopefully. This was, perhaps, foolish of me, but I almost think the book led me to believe this, and it was the hopelessness of Christine's hope, coming so suddenly and harshly against my expectations, which made the book's ending so powerful.

In the reading of The Post-Office Girl, I kept being thankful that I'd read Marx recently. Though the book doesn't especially say anything for Marx's theories about history and communism, it is a prime example of his theories about alienation. Christine is alienated from herself, her work, and other people. The book isn't preaching this, but I felt very able to understand it, having read Marx. Though not, apparently, to explain it. I feel like this is a book that should be assigned along with Marx's essays about alienation. It helps to explain the theory on a more emotional level.

The writing is beautiful. I have a hard time thinking about translations, sometimes. Joel Rotenberg did the translation, and this is the first time it's been published in English, though it was first published in German in 1982 and it was written in the 1930s. He did a good job, I think. When I'm more fluent in German, I'd love to read this in the original. Several passages stood out to me.
Names have a mysterious transforming power. Like a ring on a finger, a name may at first seem merely accidental, committing you to nothing; but before you realize its magical power, it's gotten under your skin, become part of you and your destiny. During the first few days Christine heard the new name von Boolen with secret glee. (Oh, they don't know who I am! If they only did!) She wore it thoughtlessly, like a mask at a costume ball. But soon she forgets the unintentional deception and begins to deceive herself, becoming what she feigns to be. (pg. 81)
This is perhaps a particularly representative passage, given that the original title of the novel was not The Post-Office Girl, but Rausch der Verwandlung--The Intoxication of Metamorphosis.

1 comment:

Mrs. B. said...

As you know I loved this book too. Zweig's writing is indeed brilliant. It's too bad you weren't able to join NYRB Reading Week but thanks for dropping by my blog and leaving your link. I hope to read more of your reviews soon!

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