Artists work so hard, expending themselves with such unself-regarding energy, that it seems unfair to demand of them that they also be sick. But the nineteenth-century notion that genius is illness laid the onus of malaise on artists, particularly writers and composers. Before long, if you didn’t boil your teenage brain in absinthe or withdraw to a cork-lined room, you were expected at least to indulge in alienation, alcoholism, bullfights or suicide. German and Austrian artists started with an unfair advantage, in that their whole society was a bit toxic. Mahler, Richard Strauss, Thomas Mann, even Rilke: men of immense talent immersed in a cultural neuroticism, a wooing of perversity, disease and death. Now, at this distance, their work appears stronger where it yields less to the mystique of hypersensitivity, ceases to swoon over the sick hero-self, and reports with sober clarity on their keen perceptions of a world out of balance. In Mann’s story ‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’, the tiniest of household dramas catches an entire historical moment in a few vivid, tender pages. On a larger scale, with a darker palette but comparable emotional power and control, Stefan Zweig’s novel The Post Office Girl tells us a dark fairytale of Austria in 1926.
The book is an anomaly in Zweig’s work. His fame was based on highly ‘psychological’ biographies, and to a lesser extent on his fiction, written in a high-strung, rather overwrought style. The Post Office Girl was not published, perhaps not finished, during his lifetime. Evidently he wrote most