The Interior World of Stefan Zweig
It’s been said that Stefan Zweig is either loved or unknown. Up until recently I’d never heard of the Austrian writer but after reading Confusion, Zweig’s novella published in 1927, I moved swiftly into the former. After The Post-Office Girl, his unfinished novel published posthumously in 1982, I was a committed evangelist.
Zweig was born in Austria in 1881 to Jewish parents and came of age during World War I. While patriotism and jingoism were the mode of the day, he chose pacifism. During Hitler’s rise to power, Zweig’s Jewish heritage, although he was not a religious person, became problematic and forced him and his second wife to flee Austria in 1934. They first went to London, then New York City, and ultimately Brazil. Rio was their final destination and the place where they tragically took their lives together by way of barbituate overdose.
The common theme that runs through Confusion and The Post-Office Girl is denial–pretending to be something one is not, denying one’s true nature or status in life. In the former it’s sexuality, in the latter it’s class. Zweig’s writing on these topics–questioningly, poignant, and counter-culturally–makes him feel ahead of his time. One can’t help but wonder what he would write if he were alive today.
Confusion, written from a reflective point of view 40 years later, begins with the protagonist, Roland, found in a compromising situation with a woman by his father a short time after heading to university. The incident left him “agitated and confused” and leads him to overthrow “the whole grandiose house of cards [he] had built during the last three months, a house constructed out of masculinity, student debauchery and bragging.” With his father’s approval he leaves the city of Berlin where his “sense of liberation was so powerfully intoxicating that [he] could not endure even the brief seclusion of the lecture hall” for a college in a small provincial town in central Germany.
Hoping to enroll in an English language and literature course, he walks in on a professor giving a lecture to a small gathering. Unnoticed, Roland observes this “animated discourse” and experiences “what Latin scholars call a raptus, where one is taken right out of oneself.”
“I had never before known language as ecstasy, the passion of discourse as an elemental act, and the unexpected shock drew me closer,” he continues. This initial meeting marks the beginning of an intense, and often confused (as the novella’s title alludes to), relationship between Roland and the professor.
Without a place to live, Roland accepts from his new teacher the empty apartment–a small room–just upstairs from where he and his wife reside. In addition to their physical closeness, and their daily interaction at school, the two are further entwined by a project: the writing of a second volume to the professors unfinished work, The Globe Theatre: History, Production, Poets.
However, a turbulently mannered man, it doesn’t take long before the professor’s moods affect the admiring student. Verging on emotional abuse, the teacher withholds praise, fluxuates between love and irritation, and, in the most extreme case, leaves town for days without explanation or information as to his whereabouts.
How I suffered from this man who moved from hot to cold like a bright flash of lightning, who unknowingly inflamed me, only to poor frosty water over me all of a sudden, whose exuberant mind spurred on my own, only to lash me with irony–I had a terrible feeling that the closer I tried to come to him, the more harshly, even fearfully, he repelled me.
To the modern reader, the homoerotic undertones reveal themselves early on and what would be considered commonplace in literature today, possibly even outdated–a man struggling with his sexuality in the face of a young student–is quite extraordinary when placed within the context of 1927 when it was first published.
As with Confusion, The Post-Office Girl draws us into the inner life of a tormented character. Here we’re introduced to Christine Hoeflehner, a 20-something post-office worker in a post-World War I Austria. She’s is a simple, honest young woman scraping by as she cares for her sick mother. One day the family receives a telegram from a rich aunt, currently vacationing in a resort in the Swiss Alps, inviting Christine for a visit. At the behest of her mother, Christine prepares for the short vacation.
From the moment she gets off the train and enters the car that will take her to the resort with other passengers, she’s aware of her shabby clothing, her unstylish hair, and her cheap luggage. “Once shame touches your being at any point, even the most distant nerve is implicated, whether you know it or not; any fleeting encounter or random thought will rake up the anguish and add to it,” says the narrator, offering the reader a window into Christine’s agony.
After an extensive makeover, an effort that takes nearly a full day, courtesy of her aunt, Christine embraces the affluence that surrounds her, as if she’s known no other way–or, more importantly, as if she never wants to return to her former life. Soon, she has the attention of many vacationing bachelors.
Early in her stay, an innocent mix-up regarding her name completes the transformation. From the unknown “Hoeflehner” to the respectable “von Boolen,” she is no longer a village girl but a debutante. At first this gives her a “twinge” but soon she settles into it as if it’s always been hers.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for jealousies to fester and just as quickly as Christine ascended this previously foreign world, her reputation is destroyed. Unbeknownst to her, rumors spread of intentional deceit. Her aunt, also once a poor village girl, to save her own reputation, sends her niece back from whence she came without so much as an explanation–or at least not one that makes much sense.
Christine, having gotten a taste of the riches available to this small segment of the population, can no longer return to her former life as a desk clerk. Distraught and wholly unsatisfied, she’s convinced of a scheme that promises to return her to a world of wealth.
Because the The Post Office Girl was left unfinished at the time of Zweig’s death, the reader is left guessing as to the fate of this desperate character. However, one should not fear the open-endedness–it is of no consequence to the enjoyment of the novel. As with Confusion, and as I am sure is true of all Zweig’s writing, the philosophical insights into human nature is what lends to the richness of the reading experience.
If Stefan Zweig is currently unknown to you, pick up one of these two books and join the ranks of the converted.
Buy Confusion from your local bookstore
Buy The Post-Office Girl from your local bookstore
Reading Group Guide for The Post-Office Girl
Profile of Stefan Zweig in More Intelligent Life
Clive James’s entry on Stefan Zweig in ‘Cultural Amnesia’
Zweig’s official website