The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

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The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: The tragic tale of Christine, suddenly taken from a Spartan existence in a provincial post office in the drab penny-pinching aftermath of WW1 to the indulgence and glamour of a luxury hotel by long-lost rich relations, only to be just as suddenly dropped and thrown back to interminable dreary toil. Her life is never the same and her meeting with an equally embittered soulmate leads to an unexpected yet inevitable denouement. Exquisitely written and breathlessly paced, it's a classic piece of literature from a master story-teller.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Sort of Books
ISBN: 978-0954221720

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Set in Austria in 1926, written in the 1930s, published posthumously, and described as a reworking of the Cinderella story, I can't praise this book enough. Not only is the fast-paced tale of post office clerk Christine and her brief taste of luxury utterly engaging, every word is absolutely perfect – amazing as this is a translation from German by Joel Rotenberg. This is not just any novel – it's a classic piece of literature. It combines the precision of a Henry James, the plotting inexorability of a Thomas Hardy with a breathless passion that belongs to the author.

The character of Christine is outstanding – a genuinely tragic, fully-rounded figure who will haunt the reader long after the novel's pages are closed, with her youth snatched away by WW1 and its aftermath, and her escape from drudgery and endless penny-pinching cut cruelly short by her aunt's fear of scandal. If this sounds depressing, let me emphasise that this is a very accessible read, with beautifully chosen words racing along at a page-turning pace. It's very much a story for these credit crunch times, too – Christine's sensual awakening to the joys of indulgence on her first holiday – the fine clothes and food, freedom and leisure, heaped on her at the whim of her wealthy, self-centred aunt - make her sudden, almost shameful return to not-so-genteel poverty in a dull, provincial town almost unbearable and the theme very contemporary. Zweig may even be showing us that the seeds of Christine and her lover's passionate frustration may have borne fruit in the rise of Nazism. This novel's setting gives us the bitter taste of the period.

The story behind this novel, described in a fascinating afterword by essayist William Deresiewicz, is as intriguing as this novel is engaging. The Post Office Girl was never published during the author's lifetime, and was found among Zweig's papers after he committed suicide with his second wife in 1942. 2008 saw the first publication of this novel in English. It may be that the rather abrupt ending – while still oddly satisfactory – would have been changed by the author if he had lived. Who knows what changes he might have ultimately made to the manuscript – or if he would ever have chosen to publish? However, please don't feel that this novel feels unfinished or unpolished or substandard, as can happen when a writer's manuscripts are published posthumously. I can't think of a word out of place, and there is something very poignant about this work not quite satisfying its author as being ready for print.

I've not read any other work by Stefan Zweig, but I certainly intend to do so in future. I was drawn to review this book upon discovering that he'd written the short story on which a favourite film, Letter From An Unknown Woman, is based. Those readers lucky enough to be familiar with that subtle and poignant tale from the screen version will love The Post Office Girl.

Thanks to the publisher, Sort Of Books, for kindly providing this literary gem to the Bookbag. It's a work to treasure and comes very highly recommended.

Further reading: For further reading, On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad is set in depression America, and its protagonist's subterfuge reflects something of Christine's situation in The Post Office Girl as well as providing a social history of the period. For another posthumous publication from a slightly later period we can recommend Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky. For a social history of the same time period in Britain, Bookbag heartily recommends We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh.

Booklists.jpg The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig is in the Top Ten Books Not Originally Written In English.

Booklists.jpg The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig is in the Top Ten Books For Your Mother.

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