Ambitious literature can emerge from periods of widespread poverty—novels that fuse large economic ideas with individual human stories: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton on England in the 1830s, Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve on India in the 1940s, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath on the Depression-era West. Post–World War I Austria was such a period. Extraordinary loss of life and political discord were coupled with severe economic distress: the postwar recession resulted in high unemployment, business bankruptcies, towering inflation, and falling wages. Stefan Zweig, the son of wealthy Viennese citizens, captured poverty’s destructive power in The Post-Office Girl, a novel of great humanity and anger that is particularly resonant today, as the United States settles anxiously into its own economic instability.
(Fiction; New York Review Books, 2008)