This novel, written in 1937, is set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire shortly before the First World War.
A young officer is invited to a soiree at the local schloss. He asks the host’s young daughter to dance and thereby inadvertently sets in train a sequence of events and, more importantly, a psychological struggle in the young man trying to cope with feelings of pity that threaten both psychologically and practically to take over his life. This ‘pity’ is for him relentlessly cruel in the way that it buffets him this way and that.
The story is well grounded in the backdrop of a small garrison town, where the officer’s cavalry unit is based, a few hours train journey from Vienna. As readers we know what will befall much of that old Empire’s army and that lends a certain poignancy to descriptions of the life of the young officers both on and off the parade ground.
The author succeeded in making me feel so involved in all the shifting emotions, not just of the young lieutenant, but of the other main characters as well. I was glad that that this novel has been reissued.
The novel is set in the aftermath of the First World War in Austria: The Austro-Hungarian Empire is no more and for the average citizen life is tough with high prices and shortages.
The post office girl of the title is Christine, a twenty-something postmistress in a remote village miles from Vienna. She leads a life of routine, of penny-pinching economies, supporting her widowed mother: she has never been in love nor even had a boyfriend.
Out of the blue she is given the opportunity by wealthy American relatives to spend a fortnight with them in a grand hotel in Switzerland, all expenses paid. In a Cinderella-like fashion they supply her with fine new clothes (so that neither she nor they are shown up), pay for her to have a more flattering hair-do etc. She is soon transformed from a gauche young woman to a confident one, excited by the admiring looks of men, by fine dining, by luxury.
But Zweig is not a writer of romances: even before the end of Part One we know that no white knight will sweep her off her feet and take her from a life of drudgery.
Part Two is much darker in tone. And unfortunately, without giving the plot away, the writing is less good: whereas in Part One the descriptions were powerful and alive with great psychological insights, Part Two is worthy but rather boring: there are great long sections of declamatory speech by Ferdinand who she has met in Vienna, a confused embittered radical.
Only when I read the afterword did I realise why the book wasn’t published until 1982, forty years after the author’s suicide.