Most novels, both those that could be called literature and those that couldn’t, have a protagonist trotting along experiencing specific events and living their life. If the writer is skilful then maybe they’ve passed on to the reader some tangible character development - changes that reflect the writer’s understanding of his character’s psychology and how a given situation would affect him.
Even in the hands of a great writer, this template becomes a bit predictable. Movies have an even worse problem with this.
So the struggle for writers is often with form.
THE POST-OFFICE GIRL by Stefan Zweig is a book that gooses the form to arrive at a uniquely plotted novel. In part one, Christine, the heroine, lives in poverty and squalor with her sick mother in Post World War I Austria. She works a dead end job in a local post office with no hope for the future. One day, her aunt who left Austria at a young age and married into wealth cables her and her mother out of the blue. She is staying in Switzerland and invites them to come for a visit to the hotel where she is staying. Christine ends up going by herself and spending slightly over a week with her aunt in luxury.
In part two, Christine is having a hard time getting back to her old life after her brush with luxury. Her beginning of a relationship with Ferdinand an embittered war veteran and the criminal plan they hatch to get out of poverty, to escape the life they are living is what makes up the second half of the book.
The end is a bit of a question mark but I’m okay with that as it follows a very original passage, a written set of instructions about the criminal act they are planning, that tells us everything about how hard and bitter and mercenary people are, reduced to the most animalistic state of survival. The other scene that rivals it is where Christine’s siblings divvy up her mother’s pathetic belongings after her death.
And yet wealth is not a key to happiness, only freedom as all the wealthy people Christine meet are snobs and extraordinarily selfish and mean.
This is a fabulous book – As I noted the narrative is constructed in an original way but also the novel serves as a document of its times - The tough living conditions of the Depression that would ultimately lead to the rise of Hitler and WWII. Zweig has an ear for dialogue as well. His language flows not like stilted monologues but like real people speech – The rants we lay on those in our lives when we just want to vent. His descriptions are awesome as well. He lays strings of high powered adjectives together producing an overpowering vision of whatever he is describing.
I think this would be a very good book for a classroom study due to his use of different narrative styles and deep seated character motivations.