June is the month of Reading the World, a program in which publishers and independent booksellers team up to promote literature in translation throughout the country. NYRB is a happy participant in Reading the World, and this letter gives me a chance both to plug the whole endeavor and to write about Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl, one of two NYRB Reading the World selections. (The other is Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years.) Thanks to translator Joel Rotenberg, The Post-Office Girl is at last available in English. It’s no less striking than Beware of Pity and Chess Story, the two other Zweigs we’ve published, but it couldn’t be more different. It’s a book that should change how people think about Stefan Zweig.
The Post-Office Girl is fastpaced and hardboiled—as if Zweig, normally the most mannerly of writers, had fortified himself with some stiff shots of Dashiell Hammett. It’s the story of Christine, a nice girl from a poor provincial family who gets a taste of the good life only to have it snatched away; and of Ferdinand, an unemployed World War I veteran and ex-POW with whom she then links up. It’s a story, you could say, of two essentially respectable middle-class souls who wake up to find themselves miscast as outcasts, but what it’s really about, beyond economic and psychological collapse, is social death. Set during the period of devastating hyper-inflation that followed Austria’s defeat in 1918, Zweig’s novel depicts a country grotesquely divided between the rich and poor, so much so that it has effectively reverted to a state of nature. Christine and Ferdinand and Austria have been hollowed out (even if the country is still decked out in the pomp, circumstance, and pointless bureaucratic regulations of its bygone imperial heyday). They exist in a Hobbesian state of terminal desperation from which—the discovery arrives with mounting horror and excitement—the only hope of escape or redemption lies in violence.
Zweig wrote The Post-Office Girl in the early 1930s, working on it during years that Hitler rose to power and that saw Zweig, as a Jew, forced into exile. He appears to have considered the book finished, and yet he left it untitled and made no effort to publish. Why? My own hunch is that it was just too close to the bone. Zweig was famous all over the world as a writer of fiction and non-fiction and as a public intellectual. He was, you could say, the standard bearer for a certain liberal ideal of civilization, for a way of life that is worldly, compassionate, cultivated, tolerant, sensitive, self-aware, and reflexively touched with irony; the life of, as he considered himself, a man of taste and judgment. In the face of Nazism, such an ideal may have come to seem so much wishful thinking, and certainly Zweig, in exile, found his whole reason for living undercut. This, it seems to me, is the trauma that The Post-Office Girl registers. It accounts for the raw power and relentlessness of the book, for its difference from his other work, and also, I imagine, for Zweig’s uneasiness about it. He couldn’t put it or the reality it describes in perspective. I don’t think that it’s an accident that The Post-Office Girl, though finished in the mid-30s, finds Zweig rehearsing a scenario for suicide that clearly anticipates his and his wife’s deaths in Brazil in 1942.
Found among Zweig’s papers after his death, The Post-Office Girl did not appear in German until 1982, when it was published as Rausch der Verwandlung (a phrase taken from a crucial early episode in the novel, translatable as “the intoxication of metamorphosis”). Zweig’s letters refer to his “post-office girl book,” and we have chosen to follow this lead. An equally good title, also true to the book, it strikes me now, would have been “State of Shock.”
In two weeks I’ll be writing again—about Der Nister’s The Family Mashber, a masterpiece of Yiddish literature.
Edwin Frank, Editor