Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), Beware of Pity. Pushkin Press, 2000, reprinted 2008. Translated from the German by Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt. First published 1938.

On the whole, more men had perhaps escaped into the war than from it.

So says Captain Anton Hofmiller at a dinner party in Vienna in 1937, as the rise of fascism threatens the world. He’s siding with the unnamed frame narrator of Stefan Zweig’s only full-length novel, Beware of Pity, in predicting the inevitability of a second world war towards which hundreds of thousands of unwitting fools will rush headlong without knowing why, ‘perhaps merely out of a desire to run away from themselves or from disagreeable circumstances.’ As the main narrative shows, those words describe his own unflattering experience and motives.

Hofmiller had been decorated at the age of 28 with Austria’s ‘almost legendary’ highest award for outstanding bravery in action during WWI. When he and the narrator sit together to talk, the reluctant ‘hero’ explains why he’d earlier shown disdain when gaped at in a café, and what it was he’d been running away from. Far from being a brave hero, he explains he simply showed courage for perhaps twenty minutes, being one of those ‘who were running away from their responsibilities rather than patriotic heroes’, trying to ‘extricate themselves’ from ‘a desperate situation.’

So he begins to relate his ‘very odd story’, the ‘tortuous paths’ along which he travelled to attain the dubious status of ‘hero’.

Zweig portraitZweig is best known for his short stories and novellas, and it’s possible to see this novel as in part a coherent collection of related short narratives. There’s the central story of the humiliating social gaffe that leads to his misguidedly befriending the crippled Edith Kekesfalva and the terrible consequences of his indulging the frequent waves of ‘that painful, exhausting yet wildly exciting gush of pity’ that ‘overwhelmed’ him whenever he looked on the ‘hypersensitive’ young woman’s disabled condition (it seems to be polio, but is never named as more than ‘a bacillus’). She frequently warns him not to visit her out of pity alone, not to ‘sacrifice’ his time and finer feelings on her behalf – but as always he fails to heed the advice of those who know better, and spirals down into an emotional and moral impasse compounded by his lies, deceptions and misconceptions of what’s happening and what motivates his and others’ behaviour.

There are embedded in this story several others. There’s one that tells how Edith’s father rises from an impoverished childhood with the name Leopold Kanitz, brought up in a Jewish family, to become (not very honourably), with a newly acquired ‘Magyarized’ name ‘decked out with a prefix of nobility’, the fabulously wealthy magnate  with a castle home in the small garrison town at which Hofmiller, a 25-year-old second lieutenant cavalryman or Uhlan, is stationed, and where he first encounters the girl who is to become his nemesis, and ‘an emotional abyss’ opens up before him. He tries several cowardly modes of escape, ultimately finding it in action in WWI.

There’s another which tells how Doctor Condor, who is one of a series of eminent clinicians trying (futilely) to effect a cure for the stricken girl, came to marry a blind former patient. When he first hears of this, Hofmiller makes another of many misjudgements in the narrative: he erroneously assumes that the doctor was motivated, as he was with Edith, by pity, not love. When the naïve young officer finally gets to know Frau Condor, he undergoes one of several beautifully portrayed, painful epiphanies, each of which serves to  make him more mature and see things less obscurely, less selfishly and myopically.

The novel is 361 pages long, but it never flags. Even though the outcome is never in much doubt, one is drawn into the experiences of this generous-spirited but ingenuous, socially awkward, confused young man. Every effort Anton makes to be noble and honourable ends with his becoming more enmired and embarrassed. He slowly learns a painful lesson about the ‘two kinds of pity’ –

Unknown and unsuspected tender zones of feeling – but also it must be admitted very dangerous ones!

This story of the dangerous allure of the wrong kind of pity and its addictive appeal has some similarities to the Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklós Bánffy, about which I wrote recently, in that it is set in the twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian empire before it was caught up in the catastrophe and carnage of WWI, and deals with the outmoded, corrosive codes of honour that beset the aristocratic and officer classes of society at that time.

Zweig Pity coverIt’s a gripping narrative that churns the stomach at times as the central characters undergo excruciating experiences and humiliations. The translation is unobtrusive and fluent. And what a handsome cover, taken from Gustave Klimkt’s painting ‘Schubert at the piano’.

See the perceptive piece on this novel by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian in 2011, which provides useful biographical and historical-political context. The article includes a photo of the main actors of the film version of 1946 (including Lilli Palmer as Edith) and its prolific British director (Maurice Elvey)  – which received such a critical mauling it almost ended his career prematurely.

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16 thoughts on “Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity

  1. What is fascinating to me about Zweig, much like Henry James, is his ability to lead you into an extinct culture, whose impulses and responses are so unlike our own. Nevertheless, the emotional “strings” of these people are the same set that we have, albeit being plucked by a different set of stimuli. Its also a bit like reading the “Pillow Book” of Sei Shonagon.

    If you happen to be on the high strung/hypersensitive side, and have sat in an alienated funk among good folk who scold you for “thinking too much,” “feeling too much” or “overanalyzing everything,” this sort of book is very refreshing, so many tiny gradations of emotion, wonderfully described!

    Thanks, Simon.

    • Karen: this is the first Zweig I’ve read, and I’m impressed by his ability to go into areas of human experience that are not often acknowledged – like how heroism can be cowardice sublimated, or pity an egotistical trait

  2. This is one I must read. I’m not a fan of the short story but I’ve read and liked a couple of Zweig… ‘s so I’m pleased to learn that there is a novel for me to enjoy as well.

  3. Zweig is a master at describing powerful and shifting emotions!
    There is a newer translation of this (2016) entitled Impatience of the Heart – I keep wondering how it compares.
    If you liked this I would recommend The Post Office Girl which, though shorter, is also novel length.

  4. How strange that you should never have read Zweig before. Not even Amok, Letter From an Unknown Woman, Fear…? This set me thinking that perhaps Zweig was not as popular in English speaking countries as he was in France, for instance. Until he was recently unearthed by Pushkin Press.

    • Izzy: I’m sure there are all kinds of embarrassing gaps in my cultural picture; I’ve never seen Star Wars, for example. And maybe you’re right, though I would wager Zweig has always been pretty well known in England. I believe Letter to an Unknown Woman was made into a film once, wasn’t it? I’m sure I’ve seen on with that title. I’d have to admit I haven’t read anywhere near as much lit in translation as I should, and not much in the original French or Spanish, once I stopped studying them at school. Just trying to fit in all the English lang texts I want or read is daunting enough a prospect… I did get through the first three volumes of A la recherché (the S Moncrieff translation) then ran out of steam; will return to it one day, no doubt. Have read much of the classic Russians (translated)…Thank goodness for Pushkin Press, bringing these texts back into our lives.

  5. Yes, LFAUW, was made into a film by Max Ophüls (I don’t remember in what year), with Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan. Just thinking about it gives me goose bumps ! As for “embarrassing gaps”, don’t we all have some ? But it’s just that Zweig’s short stories are so utterly readable, they don’t require as much personal investment as Proust (I haven’t finished La Recherche either). Another important and difficult book I haven’t read is The Man Without Qualities. Not to mention (and that to my real shame) Moby Dick ! I started it, at least three times, but there you are…ran out of steam too 🙂

    • Glad to know I’m not alone with some of my gaps. And that the film
      exists – Ophuls was brilliant. I bought a copy of the Musil recently and am assembling energy to start it. I loved Moby Dick at university but that was a long time ago. I know what Woody Allen said about it, but disagree

  6. I don’t know what Woody Allen said about Moby Dick but it must be very funny ! Why did you leave it up in the air ? The suspense is unbearable.

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