By Stefan Zweig
Sort of Books, £7.99
Stefan Zweig was born in 1881, in the Vienna of Mahler and Freud. Between the wars, he was considered one of the great men of letters. Escaping from Vienna in the 1930s, he lived in exile in Britain, in America and finally in Brazil, where he committed suicide in 1942, convinced central-European humanism was destroyed forever.
Zweig’s reputation declined after his death. He never had the recognition in the English-speaking world that he had enjoyed in pre-war Europe. However, recently there has been a remarkable revival: a number of small presses have translated more than 20 of his works (short stories as well as novels) in 10 years, and once again his stock is high.
The Post Office Girl, a current BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, was unpublished in Zweig’s lifetime. The manuscript was found among his papers when he died. It shows why Zweig was considered such a great writer — and why he was eclipsed for so long.
The novel tells the story of Christine Hoflehner, who lives a life of quiet desperation and genteel poverty in a small Austrian village in the 1920s. Through an unexpected moment of kindness from her aunt, she is lifted out of this life into the luxury of the interwar rich and, just as abruptly, she is dropped. The novel is one of two halves: her moment of transformation into a beautiful, wealthy young flapper, and then a dark account of her return to poverty and hopelessness.
The first half is much the stronger. Zweig beautifully evokes the new, modern world of 1920s grand hotels, fast cars, lively new music. It is not just richer than her sleepy little village, it is faster, filled with glittering surfaces and consumer goods. Christine is not just happier, she becomes a completely new person. As the excellent Afterword explains, the original German title was The Intoxication of Transformation. It is Cinderella retold by someone soaked in Freud.
But then the novel falls into melodrama. Christine is plunged back into poverty and, like Emma Bovary and Chekhov’s three sisters, she longs to escape. The story dribbles away. It ends like the fag-end of a great European literary tradition, of tragic young women wasting away in the provinces, dreaming of a more exciting life elsewhere.
It is this old-fashioned feel of melodrama and sentimentality that did for Zweig’s reputation after the war. And yet much of the first half is as exhilarating and fresh as anything written today and Zweig’s rediscovery is one of the great literary stories of our time.