Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Post Office Girl - Stefan Zweig

‘She has begun to find out who she is, and, having discovered this new world, to discover herself.’

Christine Hoflehner is the post office girl of the title, working in a village branch in Klein-Reifling, Austria, in the years after World War One. Her days are identical, each spent working away at the post office, just earning enough to make ends meet, and then returning to the small home she shares with her ailing mother. There is the constant awareness of most things being ‘too expensive’, of having to scrimp and save to survive.

Then one day an unexpected telegram arrives from Christine’s American aunt, a wealthy woman, inviting her to stay with her and her husband at a resort in the Swiss Alps. Not having had a break, let alone a holiday in years, after initial fear and apprehension Christine accepts the initiation. Traveling to meet them she is painfully aware and self-conscious as to her appearance, but as the journey goes on she becomes aware of the sights outside the train carriage window, and it dawns on her, with joy and surprise, that there is a whole world which she has never seen.

‘Indifferent and without desires before, now she’s beginning to realize what she’s been missing….This is her first glimpse of the unimaginable majesty of the Alps, and she sways with surprise…if not for the accident of this journey, she herself would have died, rotted away, and turned to dust with no inkling of their glory.’

Her stay at the resort with her aunt and uncle will irrevocably alter her life. She discovers a world of luxury, freedom and pleasure, surrounded by pretty clothes, beautiful interiors, exciting people, and she is intoxicated and totally swept away by it all. There are none of her usual worries about lack of money, of boredom and routine; everything is new and exciting, the world is there to be discovered, people to meet and places to see. She undergoes such a change in all aspects of her life; it is like a real Cinderella story, from rags to riches.

On waking on her first morning in the hotel, ‘she looks and around and remembers everything – vacation, holiday, freedom, Switzerland, her aunt, her uncle, the magnificent hotel! No worries, no responsibilities, no work, no time, no alarm clock! No stove, no one waiting, no pressure from anyone: the terrible mill of hardship that’s been crushing her life for ten years has ground to a halt for the first time….She feels self-confident and happy as never before.’

Suddenly having to return to her former life, to her job at the post office, to wear her old clothes again, to return to the village, having tasted this alternative, leaves Christine utterly devastated and ashamed. Looking at her old clothes in the hotel wardrobe, the language conveys how disgusted and black she feels about them and the life they remind her of; ‘the hated blouse she came in, dangling there as white and ghastly as a hanged man.’

Back in Klein-Reifling, ‘everything hideous, narrow, disagreeable about this little world she’s been pushed back into digs in its barbs until she can’t even feel her own pain.’ A chance meeting with an old friend of her brother-in-law in Vienna one Sunday, someone with whom she feels a common bond, will shape her life going forward.

What a moving, emotional novel that sees the human spirit briefly reach such happiness and then return to such deep despair, driven by a glimpse of what wealth can offer and dragged down by grinding poverty in the post war years. I feel the author has captured the drudgery and monotony that can overshadow a life, as well as the potential beauty. He has so convincingly demonstrated, through Christine, the highs and lows of capitalist society, and how this can affect one woman’s life. I felt such sympathy for her, having her hopes for a different life so suddenly raised and just as suddenly shattered.

The language is beautiful, the story compelling, and the pain palpable. This work was found after the author’s death by suicide in 1942. I would highly recommend it. 

I'm so glad that German Literature Month has meant that I finally read this novel.

Published by Sort of Books

I bought my copy of this book.


  1. It's always the way - as a great poet* once said:

    "If I hadn't seen such riches, I could live with being poor".

    Another beauty from Zweig :)

    * Not an actual poet as such...

    1. Thanks for commenting Tony.

      It is so beautiful, and made for such moving reading. I am adding more of his titles to my wishlist as a result of reviews from German Lit Month too.

      Ah yes, the great poet Tim from James wasn't it? ;)

  2. Lindsay, Lovely review. I have yet to read any Zweig, but have read such lovely things about his work. I really need more than a month to appreciate all the good writing I'm coming across via German Lit Month!

    1. Thanks for commenting. This one is a very beautifully written but very sad book. That is so true, I need months, in fact years, there are so many interesting titles.

  3. Hi Lindsay, this sounds like a must read book. You did a great job with the review.

    1. Hi Barbara, thanks very much for your kind comment, this is an insightful work.

  4. This sounds wonderful. I really would like to read this, what a heartbreaking story. This is a very lovely review.

    1. Thanks for commenting Caroline. As I say, I'm so glad I finally read this book as part of your German lit month. Thanks for the kind words.

  5. What an incredibly moving story, a taste of what life can offer being both wonderful and, at the same time unbearable. I will definitely add this to my TBR - great review.

    1. Thanks for visiting Wendy. This is a very moving read indeed.


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