The Viennese author Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) belonged to a paradoxical class of writers peculiar to continental Europe between the two world wars: high-culture intellectuals whose major works seemed geared for middlebrow bestsellerdom. Zweig began his career as a neo-Romantic poet in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s circle. A disciple of Freud, he allied himself after World War I with the French novelist Romain Rolland’s advocacy of an anti-nationalist, united Europe. He wrote deep, rarefied essays examining pivotal figures of European intellectual history.
But Zweig’s popularity came, as the shadow of it still comes, from the novels, stories, and biographies through which he channeled his vast knowledge, his painstaking style, and his acutely observant psychological sense into the romantic dreams of comfy middle-class readers. Worldwide successes, many of his books have been dramatized or filmed. It’s a gauge of his astute awareness of his market that the two achievements by which he’s most widely known today are the movie versions of his Marie Antoinette (MGM, 1938, with Norma Shearer) and Letter From an Unknown Woman (Universal, 1948, directed by Max Ophüls), twin demonstrations of Hollywood’s gift for raising kitsch to the level of the sublime.
Zweig had no active hand in making these films, but they reflect the sensibility that made him a Book-of-the-Month Club selection while his graver works were making him a prize subject for Ph.D. dissertations.
Now translated into English for the first time as The Post-Office Girl, the posthumous (and most likely unfinished) short novel Rausch der Verwandlung displays Zweig’s two facets, the social-psychological analyst and the Romantic sentimentalist, in what often looks like a death struggle for control of the narrative. A Cinderella story in reverse with a Bonnie-and-Clyde tailspin, Zweig’s story centers on Christine, a young woman raised in an upper-bourgeois Viennese home, who has essentially been robbed of everything by World War I and the impoverished Austria it left behind. The war has destroyed her father’s business and killed him off, leaving her to drudge away her youth, barely able to support her invalid mother and herself, as the sole employee in the one-room post office of a miserable rural village.
Temporary rescue arrives through a telegram from her mother’s long- estranged sister, who has run off to the U.S., snagged a rich husband, and—revisiting Europe for the first time—guiltily longs for a family reunion. Christine, as a result, briefly gets to trade her drudgery for the lavish life of a snobby Swiss ski resort, where a misunderstanding causes the smart set to mistake her for an aristocratic heiress, and a makeover turns her into the glamour girl of the season. Initially bewildered and a little terrified, Christine adapts with alarming rapidity to the upper-class food, drink, clothing, furnishings, manners, and mores, all of which Zweig describes with an excruciating sensuality of detail calculated to leave materialistic readers panting with envy.
Naturally, Christine’s paradise has a serpent in it. Too busy enjoying herself to take warning, she’s peremptorily cast out and driven back to her miserable village life, now made worse by the events that have precipitated her departure. At this nadir, Zweig’s postwar Cinderella meets what you might call her Prince Anti-Charming, a maimed, embittered army buddy of her brother-in-law, whose history and prospects are even bleaker than hers. They bond instantly, but Zweig’s shrewd eye can fix on the sordid details that wring pathos from the shabby lives of the poor as easily as it catches the glittery flightiness of the rich. Christine and her low-life prince can’t even consummate their relationship: The flophouse he takes her to gets raided by the cops. As Zweig’s manuscript ends, they’re contemplating a bold crime that neither of them expects to succeed; picture Thieves Like Us, only mit Sauerbraten.
A fascinating snapshot of its time, the inconclusive work evokes not only the extreme contrasts that marred European life between the wars, but the contradictory tastes that its writers could cater to in depicting them. Joel Rotenberg’s translation, smooth and lucid, errs only in points too small to quibble over; its one arguable flaw is that its uninteresting new title blocks English-speaking readers from catching Zweig’s subtly varied use of the two big abstract concepts in his original—though, granted, few bookstore browsers today would willingly pick up a novel called Intoxication of Metamorphosis.