Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

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Translated by Anthea Bell

Review by Terence Jagger

Stefan Zweig was born in Vienna, but lived in England, the USA and Brazil, where he apparently died in a double suicide with his wife; he is best known for his poetry and novellas such as Letter from an Unknown Woman. Beware of Pity, published in 1939, is his only full-length novel, and has been slightly neglected – that is a sad mistake – and might not even have been intended as a novel, he sometimes cut down his drafts very heavily. But it is a well worthwhile if slightly painful read, as indeed, the title alerts us. It does capture the mood of the book, but is rather different from the German, Ungeduld des Herzen or Impatience of the Heart. The opening paragraph sets the mood perfectly:

The whole affair began with a piece of ineptitude, of entirely accidental foolishness, a faux pas, as the French would say. Next came my attempt to make up for my stupidity. But if you try to repair a little cogwheel in clockwork too quickly, you can easily ruin the whole mechanism. Even today, years later, I don’t know exactly where plain clumsiness ended and my own guilt began. Presumably I never shall.

The voice is that of Second lieutenant Hofmiller of the Austrian army in 1913, who in a very boring garrison town, is invited by a chance acquaintance to an unusually grand house for dinner, and, enjoying himself and the unusually grand surroundings hugely, invites the daughter of the house to dance. This is a disaster, and she is furiously upset with him, because she is completely lame and unable to walk without crutches and the aid of companions. He has blundered, and is deeply ashamed, running out of the house in horror at what he has done and at her and her friends’ violent reactions. Next day, he sends lavish apologetic flowers, and is invited to tea by the girl, Edith, who in turn has been ashamed of her over-reaction.  

He goes to tea, then becomes a frequent caller, and neglects his old companions in the regiment. He is falling into something a little like love, with either Edith or her cousin Ilona, but he does not realise it, although the reader does, very clearly – and even more important, we realise that Edith too is likely to fall very much in love. But he does realise he has hitherto led a selfish life, uninvolved with others, and indifferent to their concerns and welfare. That begins to change, though already there are warning signs of trouble ahead:

It began with that one sudden moment when I reined in my mount. That was what you might call the first symptom of my strange case of poisoning by pity. First I felt only vaguely – as you do when you are ill and wake feeling bemused – that something had happened or was happening to me. Until now I had lived a carefree life in my own narrowly circumscribed circle, I had thought only of what seemed important or amusing to my comrades and my superior officers; I had never taken a personal interest in anything, nor had anyone taken such an interest in me. I had never been deeply moved by anything. My family circumstances were well-ordered, the course of my professional career was all marked out and subject to rules and regulations, and my carefree attitude as I realise only now had made my heart thoughtless.

But once in the habit of visiting, he enjoyed it; it is a relief from the drudgery of regimental life, and it is pleasant in itself, with two young women, games of chess, the occasional excursion, and excellent food and wine.  And Edith’s father, Herr von Kekesfalva, grows to depend on him and the boost he gives his daughter’s spirits.  But she is temperamental, and alert for any signs that he is acting out of charity and mere kindness:

“I don’t want any of you feeling in duty bound to serve me up my daily dose of your pity. I couldn’t care less about your wonderful sympathy! Once and for all, I don’t want pity. If you want to come and see me, then come, and if you don’t want to then don’t! But be honest about it, don’t tell me tales  … I just can’t stand the lies and your revolting attempts to spare me, I can’t bear it any more!”

We imagine that her case is hopeless and that she will always be a cripple, but her father is still desperate to try everything, with all the money at his disposal.  He employs a Viennese doctor, Condor, who is not optimistic but is determined to let nothing stop him trying to help.  And his relationship with Hofmiller becomes entangled, almost that of a mentor and uncertain pupil.  He is also the source the story of how Kekesfalva made his money, which is engaging and amusing, almost a novella in its in own right, slap in the middle of the larger tale.

In imagining a brilliant doctor such as Kekesfalva had described, I had resorted to the usual physical features that an average theatrical director and make-up artiste would use to present such a physician on stage: an intellectual face, a sharp and penetrating eye, elegant bearing, sparkling and witty conversation. We always fall hopelessly prey to the delusion that nature endows the particularly gifted with a particularly striking appearance.  I felt a painful jolt of surprise, then, when I found myself unexpectedly bowing to a stocky, rather stout gentleman, short-sighted and with a bald patch, wearing a crumpled grey suit dusted with cigarette ash and with his tie carelessly arranged.

The doctor, of course, sees much that Hofmiller has missed, and they work together, to engage Edith in another effort to be cured, to try a new treatment, although they do not have high hopes.  But Edith sees this as a real opportunity, and imagines a full recovery making her worthy of him, and declares her love through stolen kisses.  He is horrified:

I had supposed …. that you must be particularly good-looking and specially favoured by Fate to arouse a woman’s interest. That was why I could be so free and easy in the company of those two girls, because anything erotic in our relationship seemed to be ruled out from the first, and I never suspected that they could see more in me than a nice boy, a good friend. Even if I sometimes felt attracted to Ilona’s pretty, sensuous looks, I had never thought of Edith as a member of the opposite sex, and certainly not the shadow of an idea had crossed my mind that her poor body contained the same organs and her soul felt the same desire as the bodies of other women. Only at that moment did I faintly begin to understand (and this is something that most writers never mention) that the outcasts, the ugly, the faded and afflicted, the social misfits desire with a much more passionate and dangerous longing than those who are happy and healthy, that they love with a dark, fanatical, black love, and no passion on earth is felt more greedily and desperately than by those of God’s stepchildren who have no hope, but feel that their earthly existence can be justified only by loving and being loved. In my ignorance and inexperience, I had never ventured to guess at that terrible secret lust for life cries out in panic most fiercely of all from the lowest, grim depths of despair. Only now did that realisation strike me like a red-hot knife.

The cavalcade of misunderstanding, of tragedy and impending disaster goes on, and he finds himself wishing to be rid of her affection, but then acts, again out of pity and social pressure, to seal their engagement – then a few hours later, before the cock crows, denies it to his fellow officers.  He is engaged to her, has lied about it, and casts around for any desperate solution to this awful situation.  Of course there is none, but there is despair and pain in plenty.  He finds himself caught up in the outbreak of Great War in 1918, and is so ashamed of his conduct that he fears no death and performs heroically – though this part of the book is only a handful of pages long at the very end – but finds that nothing can change his destiny, that although the war has washed memories clean and killed many of those who remember the events, he has to live all his life with his guilt and his conscience.

I found this is a powerful and moving read, although it is not at all a comfortable one. At first I thought I might need to compare it with the incomparable The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth, with a disillusioned and reluctant young officer caught up the horror of the Great War and the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, but it is not like that at all, after a few pages on the tedium of garrison life; it is much more personal, though equally painful. It is immensely cleverly constructed, the main story inside an opening narrative, where Hofmiller, irritated that his gallantry medals get him an undeserved respect, tells a chance acquaintance the whole thing – and there is the doctor’s “Kekesfalva novella” inside that. I would certainly recommend it, and I will read more Zweig myself.

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Stefan Zweig: Beware of Pity  (Pushkin Press Classics, 2023) ISBN 978-1805330226 , 454pp., paperback

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