The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

All I “know” about the life of late imperial/early republican Austria comes from reading Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. This novel is set in 1926, but Zweig didn’t finish it before his suicide in 1942 and it was published posthumously. It was the first of Zweig’s novels that I read, so I didn’t initially view him as a novelist of the leisured bourgeoisie and strange obsessions.

For this novel is mired in poverty and drudgery. The author of the foreword likens it to Cinderella, but it’s worse than that. At least the context of a fairy story tells you from the start that they will live happily ever after, and a fairy story doesn’t dwell on the smells, the mould, the everlasting mending and the shabbiness of life. There is no hope: the war has taken everything from the unlucky ones of a certain generation and their afterlife is a purgatory of eternal just-about-getting-by. (There are shades of Orwell’s The Clergyman’s Daughter, but I much prefer Zweig. Orwell does disgust well enough, but he doesn’t do pleasure.)

For 8 days in her 28 years, Christine experiences comfort and luxury and slips easily – as easily as she slips into the silk evening dresses – into the role of the happy, charming young woman she could have been if the war had not intervened. Her fairy godmother is her aunt from America and she whisks her off to a Swiss hotel, but she also turns out to be the wicked witch when she abandons Christine – henceforward dissatisfied and angry with her lot – and returns her to her dreary job in a village post office.

Zweig is just brilliant at capturing how both luxury and poverty affect your senses and takes you fully into Christine’s life and sensations:

In the fitting room, Christine peels off the hated rind like a dirty blouse. [Later] She hurries down the hallway to her aunt’s room; the cool silky fluttering of the dress makes the movement a pleasure.

Christine is far from perfect: luxury makes her thoughtless. But what does poverty do to her? The reader is introduced to Christine in her post office one drowsy morning – surrounded by the infinitely replaceable paraphernalia of officialdom . . . “the year changes, but the calendar remains the same”. She is doomed to another quarter century of the same dreariness until she, too, is replaced.

There is an anti-Prince Charming: Ferdinand, whose previous war-dominated life is the male equivalent of Christine’s. More active and less domestic, but at the cost of two extra years in Siberia and disfigurement. Their attempts at a romantic relationship with no money are heart-breaking (Orwell again – Gordon Comstock this time). When Ferdinand suggests suicide, it seems reasonable enough. When it occurs to him that robbing the post office might be a better – albeit short-term – solution, this reader was with him all the way. He prepares a plan; they both acknowledge that this will eventually end in failure but are willing to go ahead with it anyway . . . and there the novel ends.

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Goodnight, Vienna

Here I am, heading back to Frankfurt then Brussels, passing snow-dusted fields and hills, after three full days in Vienna. It feels good to have big views again, and even better to have spotted a couple of deer in a field. Without being high-rise, all those Viennese apartment blocks gave me a sense of being hemmed-in, even as I admired the communality, compactness and rational use of space. And the public transport system is excellent – I did enjoy using the trams in particular. But all that dull, flat render on the postwar blocks is depressing.

It was an interesting and enjoyable stay (Apfelstrudel, Grüner Veltliner . . .), and I feel as if I have learned a lot. I read Zweig’s The Post Office Girl (set in 1926) on my way here, and I felt I understood the background to the building of those communal apartment blocks: the alleviation of over-crowding and poor living conditions. (There are plenty of rough sleepers and beggars again today.) At the same time, there were growing ideological gaps . . . and plenty of weapons, some left over from the war (witness the 1934 February uprising and quashing). Perhaps there are comparisons today, with a nationalist chancellor and a liberal greenish president.

It seemed odd to me that the square next to my regular café (Prückel) is still called the Dr-Karl-Lueger-Platz (albeit with a plaque calling him out). I only knew of him as a populist and anti-Semite, but I see that he did transform Vienna and provide important infrastructure until his death in 1910.

As for the hotel – well, I liked it because it was well-run and my room had a view over the Stadtpark, but such “international” hotels are far less heterogeneous or classy than might be expected. They’re a far cry from the 1960s when (I imagine – but what do I know?) you’d have Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton staying in the suite next to the Aga Khan or minor royalty. They’ve been homogenised and democratised. Now they’re full of groups of Chinese tourists, businesspeople whose lingua franca is English, some Russians . . . and me. (How did everyone – myself included – get to be able to afford to stay there?) I do my best to be European, but I betray myself constantly and nobody speaks German to me once I’ve opened my mouth. I think that’s why I’m happy to go to out-of-the-way areas and take my chances with the Viennese accent and looking out of place.

PS   The snow is much deeper now in Bavaria, and I can clearly see the outline of several deer against the white background.

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Biedermeier-era spittoons, 1800-1850

B6E0B23E-ECA6-4425-B8F1-813B102AAC03The curators of this imperial furniture collection acknowledge that there’s a fine line between a museum like this and a junk shop. They even play with the idea in some of the displays: there is a veritable thicket of candelabra. I was ready to giggle at the impressive line-up of imperial commodes, while readily admitting their instructive value. (Like the pisspot scene in Visconti’s The Leopard, it hits you with the smelly reality behind the displays of grace and elegance. Or, perhaps, the displays of grace and elegance distract you from the smelly reality.)

860BFCCF-C8D2-4F47-9796-BB6995D4D821Anyway – apart from a shortcut through the courtyards of the Hofburg – this was the closest I got to the Habsburgs. There was a startling number of depictions of Franz Joseph in this museum – not surprising, given that his presence spread across the empire for almost 70 years – but I only glanced at them. History is endlessly interesting, but the things I want to see on my travels relate to people’s lives, not to kings, queens and emperors.

I was a few days too early for the exhibition of Loos, Wagner and Hoffmann furniture (which, I admit, would have been overkill; I really don’t need to see another Postsparkasse spotted stool or piece of Thonet bentwood and cane). Nevertheless, some of the early twentieth-century furniture in the permanent collection had been spared, so I roamed around a bit.

Adolf Loos is interesting. His campaign against needless ornament and the Gesamtkunstwerk is something I can sympathise with after a bit too much Secessionist bling. He argued for functionalism and aesthetic freedom, and an acknowledgement that some designs from the past (e.g. a Chippendale chair) could not be bettered. DC4A94CC-0AFF-48E2-A340-6DB0D8A2E868And when I see a Charles Rennie Mackintosh high-backed ladder chair, I’m inclined to agree with him. But, like Wagner, he also saw a progression in human development, leading to moral and civilised modern life.

They must they have got a shock during WWI.

I also came across more by Dagobert Peche, the anti-Loos, whose work I had already pursed my lips at in the MAK. He took the Wiener Werkstätte in a more decorative direction after 1910 – one that I really don’t care for. His chair looks both ugly and uncomfortable.

I much prefer Josef Frank, who inclined towards Loos’s ideas. His designs look very modern and colourful – more like the 1950s. Perhaps I should have gone further out to visit the Werkbundsiedlung in Hietzing.

Another time . . .

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Wien Museum


Portrait of Emilie Flöge, Gustav Klimt, 1902, oil on canvas. Byzantine in its use of paint and patterning.

I didn’t fancy the likely crowds at the Belvedere or the Kunsthistorisches, so I headed for the Wien Museum, where you can look at a couple of Klimts and Schieles in peace. There was also a big exhibition on Otto Wagner, so I was glad I went.

Wagner was incredibly prolific as an architect, designer, teacher, town planner and would-be engineer.  (He wasn’t a civil engineer, but he had very decided views on what the new Stadtbahn and its bridges should look like and argued with the civil engineers.) Most of his plans for the city came to nothing; he was rather too modern for Franz Joseph and Franz Ferdinand, who preferred the baroque as the national style. Wagner began conventionally enough, working within the historicist idiom, but he became convinced that architecture and town planning should reflect and enhance modern life: the use of new materials, new construction methods, functionalism and hygiene. So, for example, the invention of the lift swept away the hierarchy of floors (piano nobile, servants in garrets). Roads needed to be straightened out and development unified. 94518AE1-E6FD-4217-BCC9-39C1A697A890He still went in for decoration – he joined the Secessionists after their formation in 1897 and his houses on the Wienzeile are full-on Jugendstil – but within a few years he was turning to a more modernist style. He was influential also through his students: Josef Hoffmann (Wiener Werkstätte), Joseph Maria Olbrich (Secession building), Karl Ehn (Karl-Marx-Hof), Hubert Gessner (Reumann-Hof) and Max Fabiani (Portois & Fix).

My goodness. I certainly haven’t wasted my three days in Vienna! To illustrate that, here is a vitrine from the Wien Museum. Designed by Josef Hoffmann (of Sitzmaschine fame) in 1901, clearly inspired by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, made by Portois & Fix, whose building in Ungargasse was designed by Max Fabiani.

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The Gemäldegalerie


Inner panels of The Last Judgement, Hieronymus Bosch, 1504?, tempera and oil on oak

A sigh of relief when I discovered that the usual home of this art collection is closed for the next few years for restoration and that not all the paintings have been re-homed in the Theatermuseum. Phew! I went on an hour-long guided tour and my German overheated. There are a few never-to-be-filled holes in what I heard, but it was interesting nonetheless.

The focus was on the Bosch triptych. Even allowing for changed beliefs, it’s a hard painting to view. The heavenly bits are so anodyne and take up so little of the surface, whereas the sins batter your eyes and imagination. Individually, the images of, say, the drunkard on his back swallowing a never-ending stream of a highly questionable liquid are clever, but the cumulative effect is repulsive. So much venality, deformity and suffering flesh before you. Which, I guess, is the religious, didactic point . . . but, from a modern perspective, I shrink from a worldview that can dream up so many horrors.


Portrait of a young woman, Rembrandt, 1632, oil on canvas

There was a Titian (Tarquin and Lucretia) painted when he was in his eighties. Yes, the paint had a life of its own, but the characters’ limbs looked odd and I wondered if arthritis and failing eyesight had played their part. The Rembrandt, on the other hand, was painted while he was still a young man and – like the young Titian’s – his brushstrokes were immaculate. There’s perhaps not a great deal you can do with a commissioned portrait of someone in a black dress (and for 30 seconds I knew the German for ‘ruff’), but Rembrandt has her leaning slightly on the chair as if she is about to get up. It gives a sense of movement to an otherwise static pose.


Boreas abducting Orithya, Rubens, ca. 1615, oil on oak

Speaking of brushstrokes, there were a few Rubens, including yet another rape scene, this time with snowballing putti. It’s fairly hideous, even by Rubens’s standards (no, I’m not a fan), but the colour and the paintwork . . . simply astonishing.

I stared hard at a couple of paintings by Cranach to compare the qualities of oil and tempera (he used both). I thought that the painting below is just as “educational” – and no less chilling – than Bosch’s, but it’s not as revolting to look at. It’s about eternal human unpleasantness rather than supernatural punishment; the looks on both their faces! It’s quite clear what each is thinking of.


The unequal couple, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1531, tempera on beech

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View from the seventh floor II


The green roof of the station has turned white, but at least this snow isn’t going to interfere with sight-seeing.

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MAK (Museum für angewandte Kunst)

This was the when-it-snows option, but I would have visited it anyway. MAK started life as Vienna’s version of the V&A and it has a wonderful collection of the influences on the Viennese Secession (William Morris, Emile Gallé, Mackintosh, van de Velde, Charles Ashlee) and Wiener Werkstätte objects. It also has the cartoons Gustav Klimt made for the frieze of the Palais Stoclet (designed by Josef Hoffmann) in Brussels in 1905-09:


and a frieze of “The Seven Princesses” by Margaret Macdonald for Fritz Waerndorfer, which is very similar to anything else of hers that I’ve seen. (It also occurred to me that Hundertwasser – another one-trick pony – was probably inspired by Klimt’s patterning.)


Chair by Hoffmann, 1904

Somehow I found myself entranced by the display of bobbin and needlepoint lace. How did that happen? The objects were just so exquisite that I was hooked. There was also a room of Biedermeier chairs and other furniture: it’s rather like the English Regency style but seems to have been much more grounded in the bourgeoisie. There were a small cabinet and a sideboard so simple and elegant that they could have been from 1960s Scandinavia. You could see how the Biedermeier style could have influenced Josef Hoffmann and Josef Frank (whom I also encountered in Stockholm). (And how Mackintosh – inspired himself by Japanese design – influenced Hoffmann too.)

There was a large display of mid-19th-century Thonet bentwood chairs. The remarkable thing was how difficult it was to copy: number 16 is a “fake”, which is clear from the bentwood back, which only bends on one plane. It’s much more rigid than the real thing.


There was also a bed-sitting room designed in 1925 by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky – she of Frankfurt Kitchen fame. Oh, the importance of good design. (I’ve just discovered that she died in 2000 aged 103: my goodness, that must have been some life.)

By this stage my brain was full, so I sat down on a sofa in the entrance hall and lifted my head until some of the information had drained out.


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