A remote village in Austria, shortly after the end of the First World War. The 28-year-old protagonist, Christine Hoflehner, is the sole employee at the town’s Post Office. Her once solidly-middle-class family has been impoverished by the war, in which her brother was killed, and the subsequent inflation. Christine’s days are spent working at her boring Post Office job and caring for her chronically-ill mother. Except for a brief encounter with a crippled soldier when she was 20 (“two, three feeble kisses, more pity than passion”) she has never had a boyfriend. Her future looks bleak, but she knows many people are even worse-off than herself.
Here’s Christine at the Post Office:
Not much more of her is visible through the wicket than the pleasant profile of an ordinary young woman, somewhat thin-lipped and pale and with a hint of circles under the eyes; late in the day, when she turns on the harsh electric lights, a close observer might notice a few slight lines on her forehead and wrinkles around her eyes. Still, this young woman, along with the hollyhocks in the window and the sprig of elder that she has put in the metal washbasin today for her own pleasure, is easily the freshest thing in the Klein-Reifling post office; she seems good for at least another twenty-five years of service. Her hand with its pale fingers will raise and lower the same rattly wicket thousands upon thosands of times more, will toss hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of letters onto the canceling desk with the same swiveling motion, will slam the blackened brass canceler onto hundreds of thousands or millions of envelopes with the same brief thump.
Of all the commonplace items in the Post Office–the pencils, the stamps, the scales, the ledger books, the official posters on the wall–the only objects that have anything of mystery and romance attached to them are the telephone and the telegraph machine, which via copper wires connect this tiny village to the width and breadth of Austria and the world beyond. And on one hot summer day, as Christine is drowsing at her desk, the latter instrument comes alive. Getting up to start the tape, she observes with amazement–this is something that has never happened before!–that the telegram is addressed to HER.
The message is from Christine’s aunt, Claire van Boolen, whom she has never met. This woman left Austria many years ago, in the wake of a scandal, and married a Dutchman living in America. Astute investments in the cotton trade led to significant wealth, and the van Boolens, vacationing in Switzerland, have now invited Christine to come and join them for 2 weeks at the expensive hotel where they are staying. With some trepidation Christine accepts.
At first she feels out of place among the elegant habitues of this resprt hotel, but her aunt gives her some new clothes–“all three seem so fantastic to Christine that she doesn’t dare to think that they could be hers”–arranges a hair appointment, and Christine is surprised to find that she is more beautiful than she ever imagined. Her social acceptance is aided by some confusion about her name–a young German engineer who has befriended her introduces her as “Fraulein von Boolen,” changing the Dutch “van” of her aunt’s name to the much more aristocratic German “von.” This seems to elicit special respect from everyone; they are apparently thinking she is a member of the wealthiest family in Germany, the Krupp-Bohlens. Embarrassed, she misses the opportunity to correct him and say no, my name is not von Boolen, but Hoflehner.
Christine is pleasantly astonished by her popularity with these wealthy and well-connected people. Several men show an interest in her, including the German engineer and a much older and very famous British general. While she enjoys the romantic attention, she also enjoys the unbelievable luxury of…
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. You can lie in your soft warm bed, aware of the blood flowing in your veins, the light waiting behind the delicately gathered curtains, the soft warmth on your skin. You don’t have to worry about letting your eyes close again, you deserve to be lazy, you can dream and stretch and spread out, you belong to yourself.
As the reader is probably expecting, it all comes to an abrupt and unpleasant end–though not in the way that I though it was going to–and Christine soon finds herself back in Klein-Reifling. Which she now absolutely cannot stand. The village seems unbelievably constraining, the people, especially the men, do not stand comparison with those at the Swiss resort. Her new unpleasant attitude soon becomes obvious to just about everyone in the town:
No one spoke to her now; when she did her shopping she acted as if she was rushing to catch a train and said nothing to anyone, and at work, where she’d been known for her courtesy and helpfulness, she was now invariably aloof, brusque, and overbearing.
Something had happened to her; she knew it herself. It was as though someone had sprinkled some venom into her eyes while she slept, so that now she saw the world in its light: everything was ugly, malignant, and hostile when viewed with malignant and hostile eyes. She began every day in a rage. The first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was the steep smoke-stained beams of her attic room. Everything in it–the old bed, the poor quilt, the washstand with the cracked jug, the peeling wallpaper, the wooden floorboards–it was all odious.
After a few weeks, she decides to go to Vienna on the weekend just to be doing something different. While visiting her sister and her sister’s husband, she meets the husband’s old army friend Ferdinand–a man who is even more bitter than is Christine herself. He spent 2 years as a prisoner of the Russians in Siberia, his plans to become an architect were ruined by an injury to his hand, in combination with the high cost of schooling, and the government has refused his disability claim on specious grounds.
Drawn together at least in part by their shared bitterness, Christine and Ferdinand begin an affair—but the only place they can be alone, in their price range, is a sleazy hotel patronized largely by prostitutes and their clients and the target of frequent police raids. Christine finds it unbearably depressing to have her first real experience of love-making in such depressing surroundings, and with not much hope for anything better in the future.
At this point, the plot begins some twists and turns that I will not here divulge, for the sake of anyone who wants to read the book, which I highly recommend doing. Although it was completed in 1942, The Post-Office Girl was not published until 40 years later (in Germany), and only became available in English translation in 2008. It is Austrian social history in fictionalized form, describing vividly what the failures of government policy can do to individual lives; more generally, it is a portrait of the corrosive effect that smashed expectations can have on individuals and societies.
Many reviewers of this book, at Amazon and elsewhere, describe it as a critique of capitalism, and I guess I see how one could get that out of it…but it’s at least as much a critique of the State. As Ferdinand tells Christine:
Who taught us how to cheat, if not the state–how else would we know that the money saved up by three generations could become worthless in a mere two weeks, that families could be swindled out of pastures, houses, and fields that had been theirs for a hundred years? Even if I kill someone, who trained me to do it? Six months on the drill field and then years at the front!…(the state) can never pay off its terrible debt, never give back what it took from us.
It wasn’t a corporation, after all, that declared the war that cost Ferdinand his finger and his two years of captivity, or created the inflation that impoverished everyone, nor was it some 1920s version of Federal Express that paid Christine her pittance of a salary–it was the Austrian State. Indeed, the historian AJP Taylor has argued (excerpted here) that Austria was less comprehensively-capitalist than many other countries, and that this, in interaction with its ethnic complexity, was the root of many of its difficulties.
A well-written book, and one which is scarily relevant to our present concerns.