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Gissing with more heart

Austrian writer Stefan Zweig resolutely understood the bleakness of individual lives set against the remorseless grinding of a state machinery.

Stefan_Zweig2Zweig, a melancholy, intensely feeling writer, was born in Vienna in the 1880s and was a much lauded writer, at home and abroad, in the 20s and 30s. He was a pacifist, and the misery and futility of the Great War is certainly expressed in his writing. His instinctive feel for ‘the little man’, his visceral engagement with socialism, and his Jewishness led to him leaving Austria in 1934, first settling in the UK, and then later in America. Events in Europe very much overwhelmed his intense and empathetic nature.

In this book, suffused with rage, despair and also compassionate, hopeless, solutionless understanding, hisPost Office Girl central character is definitely one of the little people. Set in Austria, after the end of the first world war, Christine is a young lower middle class woman, one of millions whose lives were changed utterly by that war – the loss of male breadwinners in the family, plunging her into genteel penury. These people are ‘the deserving poor’ (offensive concept, really). Except that the state doesn’t do much to recompense them for the loss of their pre-war lives. Old before her time, constrained and hopeless she has secured an invisible mouse-like existence as a rural postmistress, a lowly civil servant.

Chance offers her a sudden exposure to a different way of life. Zweig recognises the grinding invisibility of poverty, and shows what happens when this young woman briefly is turned into a beautiful swan rather than a drab duckling, through association with a wealthy relative who transforms her with the trappings of wealth. Our heroine blossoms, – perhaps a little too much, a little too quickly and unrealistically, but still, the point is made. It is not the individual’s own endeavour which is ultimately responsible for their fates – we are all affected by the times, places and classes we inhabit.

Having briefly experienced the life of privilege it is impossible to return to the innocence of before. Christine has seen how others live, and the paucity of her own life. Later, she meets another whose life started out equally staid, hopeful and moral, and who again loses everything through that war.

Zweig writes from the clear rage which drove an earlier, English, writer of the genteel poor  George Gissing,  New Grub Street, but appeared to have a certain tenderness for his seething, raging, exploited characters which you don’t get with Gissing. There is the same despair for the human condition, a despair which Zweig himself succumbed to – but we surely see how it is the machinations of the mighty State, rather than the shoddiness of the central characters themselves, that is the cause of the bleakness. The lyrical transformation of Christine into Christiane for a few days, clearly shows that it is capital which has the ability to stifle or to free her.

The factual afterword indicates an ambivalence about the end of the book. Personally, with a more modernist hat on, I really liked what we are given (this refers to the Kindle edition)
The Post Office Girl Amazon UK
The Post Office Girl Amazon USA

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