The Post-Office Girl – Stefan Zweig

And when at eight in the morning Christine sat down, she was tired–tired not from something achieved and accomplished, but tired in anticipation of everything ahead, the same faces, the same questions, the same chores, the same money.

“Yes, my friend, from down in the muck the world doesn’t look that delightful.”

Christine, the eponymous Post-Office Girl, is an Austrian civil servant in the years after World War One. Her brother died in the war, her father is dead, and her mother dying, and even her married sister’s family is struggling to make ends meet. Christine is fortunate that she has a job, one that is monotonous and regimented, but even allows for moments of stolen relaxation. It does not allow for a life outside of the job and Christine has never had a suitor in all her years, but she keeps her ambitions limited and can take pleasure in those stolen moments. Then her aunt, who left home and eventually married a wealthy Dutch merchant and now lives in America, inviting her to vacation at a resort in the Alps and she is swept into a world of money, luxury, and desire.

Christine arrives at the resort looking like a peasant girl, but mountain air, soft clothing, and attentions of men revitalize her and set her spinning in a world of her dreams. Her innocence of the world nevertheless awakens dormant fears and jealousies, and these forces conspire to eject her back to the drudgery of her job, painfully aware of every slight and every ache. She is somewhat saved when she meets Ferdinand, a bitter, frustrated, and injured war veteran, whose desire fulfills her and who can relate to being down in the muck of society. However, their relationship rubs dirt into her wounds since it reveals how far money corrupts every aspect of human interaction and she feels constant shame at their circumstances. Needing to take care of themselves before they can fix the world, Christine and Ferdinand concoct first one and then another plan to revolt against the society that beats them down.

The Post Office Girl is formally divided into two parts. The first details Christine’s awakening to the world of money. She starts with little, but quickly adapts to the wonders of nice clothing, good food, soft beds, and, importantly a freedom from want. More than that, though, the trip to the resort and the world of money awakens her interest in being desired. Money facilitates a range of human relationships, all of which she embraces. For Christine, money is a heady experience, but her appearance is refreshing to some people, while disturbing the social relationships already in place. For instance, after the initial delight in her niece wears off, Christine’s aunt becomes increasingly worried that her own modest background and questionable means of entry into society will be discovered, ultimately leading to cutting off her family once more. Similarly, Christine interrupts the courtship between a German engineer and a character known as the Mannheim girl, the latter of whom jealously observes this intruder, determining that after “ten or twenty gaucheries like that and it was clear she was poorly versed in the lore of the chic.” The first experience with capitalism does not itself change Christine’s personality, but the brief experience with money and then having it suddenly ripped away leaves her bitter and frustrated.

There are echoes of George Orwell and Joseph Roth in this critique of post-war Austria. (There is also some Kafka, but the bureaucracy does actually reply.) The times are particularly difficult for a host of people whose lives were broken, stolen, according to Ferdinand, by the war and the people are aware of these difficulties. But the major critique of post-war capitalism emerges first and foremost in the contrast between the mountainous land of the gods and the muck of the towns and cities where everyday people live.

I liked The Post-Office Girl a lot, though, admittedly, it falls into a sweet spot for my particular reading tastes and it was not without its problems. Christine is an effective narrator whose arc is easy to follow, but she is also something of an empty vessel reacting to desires who gets swept up in whatever situation she finds herself in. She is not a flapper, who are accounted by the novel as members of the wealthy, and there is a little bit of denigration of her as a woman, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the context described by Zweig. Christine’s emotional roller-coaster contributes to the raw power of the novel and Zweig contributes canny observations about all of the interactions between people as they struggle through a world that does not care whether they live or die. The revolution is not going to be forthcoming and it seems that only the wealthy have the luxury to enjoy life or to play political games. There is something despicable about the behavior of some, though not all, of the wealthy people in their idyllic retreat, but there is also enough delight that leads Ferdinand to ask the most important of questions:

“I don’t mean ‘why not me instead of him’…Just ‘why not me too.’”

ΔΔΔ

Next up I am reading The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia, a murder mystery set in a small Sicilian town where the only honest architect in the region is gunned down in the street on the opening page.

How Austria almost won the Great War

And it had nothing to do with the battlefield. For all of its longevity and prestige, the Hapsburg Monarchy was not usually associated with military strength. They were badly walloped by Napoleon and any number of other Europeans, were saved by Poles and the weather when Suleiman came knocking, but when the Ottoman Empire was in decline and Napoleon long defeated, the Hapsburg Empire remained. Gone were the days of their global empire, ruled from Spain and gone was the German Empire ruled from Austria, yet at the dawn of the 20th century the Hapsburg Dynasty under Franz Joseph was creating a new empire; one of nations.

As the Ottoman Empire regressed the Austrian (from here on out, I refer to Austria to represent the Hapsburg Empire, the Emperor of Austria being one of numerous royal titles held) one advanced, except where met by newly freed Orthodox Christian states such as Serbia and Greece. It was in this theatre where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the military overseer of the Balkans was assassinated by a political activist who wished to remove the Austrian military presence. As the story goes, this single act, and one that was not at all unusual for the day, brought about World War One.

Now prior to the war and during it, Franz Joseph and his successor, Emperor Karl attempted a truly amazing thing: to harness the powers of nationalism for the betterment of the Hapsburg Empire. In part it was attempted because of the disparate population in the Empire already, so instead of conquering new peoples, it was bringing the brethren of current subjects into the fold. Austria fared poorly at first (supposedly 82% of the pre-war army of 1 million men were casualties by three months in), but the tide turned and by 1918 Austria possessed Northern Italy, half of Ukraine, Poland and Serbia and wanted peace.

Yet the two objectives were actually Poland and Ukraine, to be annexed by Archduke Stefan and his son Wilhelm respectively. The plan was thus: allow these men and any family they had to ingratiate themselves with their respective country, using flattery, privileges to the minority in Austria, natural linguistic skill (Wilhelm spoke English, French, Ukrainian, German, Italian and Polish all with near fluency), and absolute adoption of the country’s cause to actually become a member of that society. From there they could use their Hapsburg lineage to become national monarchs or at least the regent of the territory for the Hapsburg Monarch.

In reality these would be little more than provinces, but they would be self-governing provinces ruled in their best interest by a direct representative of the Hapsburg Emperor.

At first this seems ludicrous, something akin to showing up, saying you are king and having everyone acquiesce. Then comes the realization that it almost worked. The Hapsburgs offered national unity within a united Eastern Europe (more or less). Stefan and most of his family fervently adopted the cause of Poland, while Wilhelm was unequivocally pro-Ukrainian. Further, both ethnic groups were already in the Hapsburg fold, and so it was merely unifying the groups.

All of this was not enough for Woodrow Wilson, who wanted true independence, and certainly this pleased neither France, Britain, Tsarist Russia, nor Bolshevik Russia, but with Russia driven back and torn within, had Austria persuaded Germany to end the war about the time the Americans joined–and before the Serbs and Italians could regroup, then they would have come out on top. There is a real possibility that both Poland and Ukraine would have become Austrian provinces, while Germany was defeated, but not destroyed (perhaps thwarting the Nazi movement) and the Kaiser may have not abdicated and the status quo remained in Western Europe. Who knows what would have happened with the Great Depression lurking around the corner, but if Austria could have repainted themselves as ending the bloodshed, then it would have doubled in size and changed the face of Europe as we know it.

It didn’t work, but it was damn clever.