Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was a polymath and intellectual from pre-WW2 Europe, who managed to escape Austria from the Nazis (Zweig was an Austrian Jew) in 1934, after Hitler’s rise to power. He wrote prolifically, with great depth and beauty across a range of subjects and genres, including many biographies of novelists, and a large number of short stories, besides a significant study of European literature, and some novels. Sadly, his second wife and he both committed suicide together in Brazil in 1942, feeling they could no longer meaningful lives given their sense of a meaningless future, in light of the holocaust, and the complete devastation of their own, dearly loved private and cultural world and former circle of friends, as they once knew them.
Beware of Pity — the link takes you to what I think is the best translation — is published the marvellous indie publisher, Pushkin Press — by Anthea Bell, the incredibly talented, award-winning and prolific translator; she has translated at least 13 of his fictions, and Pushkin itself, as far as I can tell, has published 11 of them. The novel was originally published in 1939 and it remains one of the great European 20th century fictions, as well as being the most popular and — justifiably — the most renowned of Zweig’s novels. This is a thoughtful, moving and disturbingly provocative novel (by the very nature of its core subject/theme). Set in 1914 in a small, provincial garrison town near the Hungarian border, the main part of the story is told as a series of recollections, using the present tense, by Anton Hofmiller, the principal character, a second lieutenant in the army.
Bored with the town and his dull life (while being a good Army man, disciplined and focused, and respected by his charges), he accepts a dinner invitation from Herr von ‘Kekesfalva’ (Hofmiller protects his and his family’s true identity, no doubt to avoid bringing further shame upon them and himself, as well, presumably, out of a sense of honour and integrity), who is the ‘richest man in the neighbourhood. Practically everything belonged to him— ’. Hofmiller not only takes up the invitation out of a wish for an exciting change to his otherwise dull life, but also more from a wish to be introduced to Kekesfalva’s niece, whom he describes upon first seeing in a patisserie as an ‘elegant nymph’, and more besides, that already we know he is absolutely smitten by her.
Intoxicated emotionally and quite literally from the riches of the evening of the dinner — the delicious food, fine wines, cigars, the elegant service, the beautiful house, and the dancing afterwards – Hofmiller only late in the evening suddenly realises that he has committed a terrible faux-pas: throughout the entire evening, he has neither spoken to, nor asked a dance of her, Herr Kekesfalva’s only daughter. And soon enough, we are gradually, relentlessly along with Hofmiller drawn into a profound, troubling story of how his original sense of honour and good intentions, intermingle seamlessly with a sense of pity for the daughter, who cannot walk without crutches. In turn she misunderstands his intentions, even at one dramatic point challenging him, he still denies his true state of feelings, because in some ways he does come to love her genuinely, though again this originates from the complex issue of pity and, by the time he truly realises his love for her, it is, tragically, too late.
It is a fascinating, remarkable, melancholic, philosophical novel: a deeply searching and questioning exploration on the complex subject of pity as it plays itself out — inevitably, of course, and most powerfully so, the idea and experience of pity, including its many terrible ramifications: from guilt, anxiety, angst, sleeplessness, fear, hatred, a sense of claustrophobic suffocation and panic, to self-loathing, then to dishonour, betrayal, and, desperately, eventually, a devastating loss in the form of suicide. And yet, while complex in terms of psychological depth and characterisation, it is a story that is told elegantly, smoothly, is easily absorbed and increasingly gripping and troubling as you travel further into the story. Unsurprisingly, in general studies of European literature, it continues to live on as one of the most important novels by one of Europe’s most important 20th century intellectuals.
Considering my edition of Beware runs to 362 pages, perhaps for those who haven’t read Zweig before may wish first to dip their literary toes into something shorter in length by him by way of an introduction. Alternatively, then, I would recommend some of his compelling shorter works, in particular Confusion, Burning Secret, Fear or Chess, or a selection of his short stories.