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The Post-Office Girl

By Stefan Zweig. Translated by Joel Rotenberg. New York Review Books, $14 paperback. Judging from Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s novel, written in the...

By Drew Toal
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By Stefan Zweig. Translated by Joel Rotenberg. New York Review Books, $14 paperback.

Judging from Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s novel, written in the 1930s but only now appearing in English, the idea of “going postal” is nothing new. The Post-Office Girl is a tense portrait of proletarian anguish, set in a burned-out village of post–World War I Austria, where Christine, the titular heroine, spends her days sorting mail. At first, she’s happy just to have a job and take care of her ailing mother. But when she goes to visit a wealthy aunt in Switzerland, she spends a week learning the comforts of aristocratic life. The mail room suddenly looks too bleak to bear. So when Christine meets Ferdinand, a war veteran with class resentment to burn, they hatch a risky plan to begin a new life: They’ll rob the post office.

Zweig’s best-known work, Beware of Pity, uses a romance plot as a gateway to access deeply moral themes (in that case, a soldier pretends to be interested in a disabled aristocratic woman, who, when she learns his true feelings, commits suicide). The Post-Office Girl similarly uses a love story to launch troubling ideas—here, about the ways that poverty poisons Christine and Ferdinand’s chance at happiness. But unlike much of Zweig’s other work, The Post-Office Girl never quite gels: Though the love-and-theft elements work, the detailed illustration of the spiritual perils of capitalism are ponderous and tacked-on. Christine’s clunky transformation from naive-but-content bumpkin to bitter would-be criminal is especially hard to believe. Zweig’s entertaining and thoughtful fiction deserves a contemporary American audience, but this comparatively disjointed work isn’t the place to start.

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