Monday, May 26, 2008

The Post-Office Girl. . .

I have to say that it was the title that first drew me to this novel, although I've read and enjoyed Stefan Zweig's novella, The Chess Story, and definitely wanted to explore more of his work. But many years ago, I was a post-office girl. This was a time when Canada Post, in order to save money started leasing postal outlets into drugstores and in my case, a university bookstore (no more government salaries - you could pay part-time clerks half the wages). I remember my boss coming up to me on a Friday afternoon with two huge binders and saying, "here you go, you'll be opening the post office on Monday." I was petrified with the huge responsibility of handling people's mail (this was in the pre-email days when letters were actually written, bills paid by cheque, grad school applications that needed to be couriered by a certain time etc.) But after multiple frantic calls to Canada Post's helpline, I quickly got the hang of it and actually started to enjoy the challenge. For one thing, you meet everyone in your community. And it was fun to weigh packages, order pretty commemorative stamps and find a use for all the geography I'd learned over the years (it's not like that now - postal clerks just pop a letter on an automatic weighing machine and type an address into a computer - back then, we had to know which delivery zones each country fell into, all the delivery districts in Canada, and had to measure and weigh each package on scales that were not attached to computers. A fair bit of math was involved too). I still remember arcane postal regulations from those grim binders; the fact that live baby chicks are not allowed to be posted through the mail, is one of them. I still am amazed that someone felt the need to make it official in the rulebooks. The rest of the animal kingdom was not mentioned.

In Zweig's The Post-Office Girl , translated by Joel Rotenberg, our heroine Christine is not having as much fun. She's in charge of a small postal outlet in a tiny Austrian village in the mid-1920s. The town has still not recovered from the emotional and economic ravages of the First World War. Christine lost a brother fighting, and her father lost his business. She now lives with her dying mother in a dank one-room attic, anticipating a life of dreariness that will never change. One day, she receives a telegram from her wealthy aunt Clara, who has not been in touch with the family for decades and she is invited to visit at a swank, Swiss resort. Christine is dazzled by this new life. Clara buys her new clothes and gets her hair cut. There are sumptuous meals and dancing and two men start showering her with attention. But just as she is reveling in her changed fortunes, she makes a series of mistakes that threaten to uncover secrets about her aunt's past life, and Christine is suddenly sent home. And now the boredom and tediousness of her former life becomes unbearable. She meets Ferdinand, a bitter war veteran who took years to get home after being stuck in a labour camp in Siberia. He is struggling to get a job, to get his papers sorted and is tired of fighting the endless bureaucracy of his country. The two begin an awkward and uncomfortable affair until Ferdinand comes up with two possible plans for escaping their unhappy lives - but both are fraught with irreversible consequences.

Zweig is wonderful in his descriptions of the mundane and inescapable minutiae of these characters' lives. Their sadness and desperation seeps through the pages like the remnants of a discarded teabag. This is a lost generation indeed, but not one that is sipping champagne and dancing the Charleston (although Christine certainly gets a glimpse of that life and yearns for it). As with so many others in those post-war years, they feel their youth and lives have been stolen from them through no fault of their own. This novel has never been published in English before; it was found with Zweig's papers after he and his wife committed suicide in 1942, and only published in German in the 1980s. But thanks to NYRB, it is now available to English readers, and it can take its rightful place in the canon of WWI fiction. Also highly recommended for Patrick Hamilton fans.

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