on 15 June 2011
"Beware of Pity" is breathtaking, making one examine the qualities one demands of fiction and ruminate on how seldom they are fulfilled.
A naive young soldier takes pity on a young crippled girl who falls in love with him. That is how this deceptively simple story begins.
But he finds himself trapped in a web of "good intentions" spun by the girl's family, all urging him to fulfill her dreams of romance.
He simply doesn't know what to do.
And the plot thickens and thickens until the reader himself feels trapped.
One cannot wait to read how it will end.
This book fulfills all, and more, of what I expect from a book.
I love a book which makes you turn the pages, breathless to know what is going to happen.
If it also gives you ample food for thought, as this does, on the moral complexities of life, so much the better.
How did Stefan Zweig manage to make me, a reader with very firm rules about never looking at the last pages before reading everything that comes before them, long to know how this gripping tale turns out?
I have read thousands of novels but never one with such a grip on the reader.
I compare it to "Perfume" by Susskind, and "Les Liasons Dangereuses" by de Laclos in intensity and ingenuity.
As well as being intensely gripping, it is also beautifully written with such an understanding of the four main characters that it is almost uncanny: you become these characters and have an equal insight into each one.
If you have never read Zweig, this would be an unforgettable introduction. You could then go on to his marvellous novellas.
I came to this book with some trepidation, firstly because it looked rather long and dense (long is fine, but long and dense maybe not) and secondly because the topic of a mistaken love affair is not really up my street. However, it was the January choice of my book group, so I had to read it. Within a few pages I was hooked. The novel, set in the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early part of the 20th century, tells the story of a young second lieutenant who finds himself embroiled in a relationship with a partly paralysed 17 year old girl. Her family encourage the relationship and it is only when it is too late that he discovers the girl's love for him and also the impossibility of breaking her heart at a time she is about to embark on a new course of medical treatment, so she can get better "just for him". The novel is not just about love, it is about obsession, guilt, and the way the expectations of others can so easily dominate our choices so that we act as others expect us rather than as we want to. It is interesting to view this story in the light of modern assertiveness training, because all the way through the reader can see that Toni, the young officer, is subjugating his own needs for the needs of someone to whom he has no obligations whatsoever - he is in fact ruled only by her fantasies and the expectations of her father and sister.
The novel is remarkably suspenseful because the plot unfolds gradually and at each stage the reader cringes as the net of this sick love slowly ensnares him. It is full of strong characters: the doctor who treats the young woman and slowly enveigles Toni in her treatment regime; the old brutal colonel who turns out to be more wise than the other characters; the girls father who's whole life is a quest for his daughter's well-being. Different aspects of these characters are revealed as the novel slowly travels towards its inevitable conclusion and each one has a unique role in the ensnarement and ultimate release of the young officer.
The novel is beautifully produced by Pushkin press - the clear typeface, fine paper and strong cover makes this a pleasure to read. Alas, this is Zweig's only novel and I was left thirsting for more from this fine writer.
on 4 September 2002
There are two reasons to buy this book:
1)The edition is exquisite. Pushkin Press (a small publishing house based in London devoted to the publishing of great, but forgotten C20th European novels) produce books of great taste; free of blurbs, unsightly reviews and garish shiny covers. The translations are always top quality, the leetering is great, printed on thick textured paper.
These books WILL become collectors items. Buy them and support this forward looking publishing house.
2)The book is exceptional. Unlike his contemporary Thomas Mann, Zweig never wastes a word; this is an exciting, enthralling page turner. It is also a very sensitive psychological study; of pity and its implications, obsession, vanity and despair; surely the only important issues for art. You will be moved to tears, you will scream at the characters and you will be glad that you have bought this masterpiece.
Zweig is a truly great novelist and I can assure you that after you buy this novel, you will buy all his other work
on 24 July 2004
It is impossible to commend this wonderful book too highly. All praise to the Pushkin Press for letting us have this and so many other great, neglected works available in translation. The plot is utterly gripping - there are no chapter divisions and none are needed for one turns the pages feverishly and breathlessly, yet space for the profoundest reflections on love, pity and sympathy opens in the flow so that there is never a claustrophobic sense. In its pyschological penetration, in its understanding of the relations of the moral, the religious and the sensuous and the corruption that can arise in each sphere it is up there with Kierkegaard or Dostoyevsky. Deeply embedded in the structure of the Austrian Empire the book is absolutely universal with an intensity and breadth of sympathy for its characters that seems to belong at once to the hothouses world of Freud and and to the inspirations of the mystics. Don't read anything else before you read this.
on 7 July 2007
...no, not the book by Dave Eggers, but this masterpiece by Stefan Zweig. I came upon this by accident, and bought it, intrigued by the story outline and the reviews below. Only very, very rarely does a book have the power to draw me into the lives of the characters, probably because they're usually just that - characters. Not so here. Here we have flesh and blood and all that entails. I'm still amazed at Zweig's story telling. He's the kind of writer who could make a shopping list fascinating. I lived and breathed every single word in this incredibly beautiful book, and as Nigel Rodgers has accurately said below, the tension becomes almost unendurable. I can hardly do justice to it in a few words. Weirdly, I often found myself smiling, not because it's a funny book, far from it, but just through an appreciation of Zweig's supreme mastery of his art. This is one of those books appearing only a few times in your life that wring emotion out of you whether you like it or not. A heart-breaking, unforgettable and life-enriching experience.
Kudos to Pushkin Press for publishing a very handsome new edition. I'd also like to praise the translation, too, by Trevor and Phyllis Blewitt. At no time is there even a hint that you're reading a translation - something that occurred to me only after finishing the book. On the contrary, it seems to me that the elegance of the language and all the magnificent virtues that contribute to Zweig's humanity and genius have been faithfully rendered. The proof is in my twin disappointments; coming to the end, and learning that there are no further full-length novels by Zweig. I'll definitely be reading all his other works, though.
on 5 September 2009
I absolutely loved this book. It was an impulse purchase, and exceeded my expectations.
The story really draws you in so that you can understand the motivations of the main characters and the seemingly inexorable path to the final conclusion. The characterisation is excellent, and I really felt as if I understood and could inhabit, for a short while, the world in which its set.
There is a profound underlying message to the story (which isn't really hidden at all - see the title!) and I found myself reflecting on what the protagonists could have done differently at each stage of the story for many days after I finished reading the book.
I already know this is a book I will likely read again - and there really aren't many other books I can say that about.
First published in 1939 this had already been translated into English before the year was out, because although Stefan Zweig is being 're-discovered' again, in his lifetime he was a very well known and popular writer. Reading only short stories by this author before it was great to come to read a novel by him. Unlike some who usually write shorter pieces and then their novels just read like a series of short stories stuck together, this does read like a proper novel.
The main plot of the story in itself is simple, Lieutenant Anton Hofmiller, a cavalry officer makes a faux pas at a party, by asking - unknown to him, a crippled girl to dance with him. Embarrassed and ashamed of any insult he may have committed, Hofmiller seeks to make some kind of amends to the seventeen year old Edith. What starts off as pity for the young girl (Hofmiller is twenty five himself) gradually becomes more, as Edith starts to fall in love with Anton. So here you already have Edith's unrequited love and the frustration of being a cripple, plus Anton's ever increasing problems and mistakes as he tries not to hurt anyone.
Although that is the main plot there are of course other issues and sub plots as well. Here you start to get an understanding of what the difference between honour and manners are for the civilian population, compared to that of the military. There are also a couple of pieces in here that are short stories in their own rights, one concerns how Edith's father came from humble roots to be such a wealthy and powerful man, and another concerns an officer who left the army under a dark cloud. There is also an understanding of Freudian psychology in this tale.
You could argue that in some places issues raised are more a product of their time, but other issues are still as relevant today, for instance if you leave the military today, you can still have great difficulty making your way in the civilian world. In all this book is one that grabs you and more than holds your attention. It is easy to read, and despite a lot of issues being raised that will make you ponder, this isn't a hard or long read by any standard. Ideal for book group discussions, I think that if this had been written a hundred years earlier this would have been a book that the Romantic movement would have idolised, indeed it does hark back to Romanticism on so many levels.
on 14 November 2010
I read this book on a whim and was blown away. I find these sort of Victorian/Edwardian-era novels can be a bit tedious sometimes, with overly flowery language and melodrama. Although there was some melodrama in this (I think just because that's how society was at the time, not because of a fault of the author's), the writing was beautiful and perfectly paced. As another reviewer said, the premise of the book is not really a secret, even from the beginning, so there is a sense of dread from the beginning that Zweig just builds and builds on. The psychological characterisations were perfect - realistically flawed. I found myself so frustrated with the actions of the main character, but then, that is the point of the whole story.
This is a wonderful, heart-breaking masterpiece by a writer who deserves to be remembered with the other greats of literature like Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Flaubert, Hugo, etc. Zweig's writing has not been lauded enough.
The theme of Stefan Zweig’s only full length novel published in the author’s lifetime explores how good intentions may have devastating consequences. Sentimental feeling, the desire to protect another from hurt, may lead 'pity' to protect another from a harsh, unacceptable reality, and offer the lies of denial.
Anton Hofmiller is a rather impressionable, good-hearted, though initially not particularly deep-thinking young man. He is a cavalry officer with the Austrian army, shortly before the First World War and meets a man, Kekesfalva, who fulfils a kind of idealised father figure role for him, a man he believes is a Hungarian nobleman. Hofmiller is invited to a dinner party and dance at Kekesfalva's mansion, and inflicts an unknowing wound on his host’s daughter, Edith, believing he is behaving socially with great correctness. He invites the seated Edith to dance. However, the once vibrant and active young woman is now crippled through an infection, and has been so, for some years.
Anton's heart is opened by pity, and he begins to resonate feelingly with the suffering of humanity. Unfortunately, this sentiment, and the desire to spare another from their pain and suffering, leads him to a series of wrong actions, which, though undertaken with the best of intentions, will prove to have outcomes as harmful and deadly as if he had deliberately and wilfully set out to inflict suffering. Having the imagination and empathy to feel another's pain, 'pity' prevents him from allowing the other the dignity of facing the truth.
Hofmiller's inability to take a clearer, wider perspective, and his tendency to see only a partial perspective of the truth is played with, examined, within the structure of the novel, which begins with a framing device, on the eve of the Second World War:
Hofmiller is now a highly decorated soldier from his history in the First War. He is introduced to a writer, who is as little interested in meeting him as he is in meeting that writer. The two are brought together by a man who obsessively fawns on celebrity. The writer, (surely a surrogate for Zweig himself) is a little in awe of this hero. United by their mutual embarrassment with the celebrity hound, Hofmiller ends up telling the author the story which forms the narrative of 'Beware of Pity'. Zweig, as the author, presents the meeting with Hofmiller, and Hofmiller's debunking of his own supposed bravery, as a foreword to his book, 'Beware of Pity'. This is already telling us that 'truth' depends on where one stands, and that what might be seen, from the observation of actions only, to be one thing, might be quite another, once history, and psychology are understood. And it is no coincidence that Zweig understands psychology, and the divided self, so well - he and Freud had corresponded for some decades, and the interior life, the twists and oppositions between conscience, consciousness and the unconscious and instinctual responses occur all through this book
There also are other 'storytellers' within Hofmiller's own tale : just as Hofmiller disabuses the writer from his illusions, Doctor Condor, the properly compassionate, pragmatic, facing the pain of truth physician, takes part of the narrative within the narrative, telling Hofmiller the story which will force him to see certain truths. It is these 'truths' which will unfortunately lead the officer into untruths, in order to protect the Kekesfalvas from the harshness of reality
Beware of Pity was published in 1939. Its original German title translated as 'The Heart's Impatience' - also a good one, as it is Heart, untempered by Reason's ability to foresee consequences, which leads to wrongdoing, despite 'the best' of intentions.
“There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind, which really no more than the heart's impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another's unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one's own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and beyond”
on 14 March 2014
A heart rending story that will linger in your mind for several days. The book poses several questions about our personal life: is our destiny pre-determined at birth? Is there any point in struggling to accumulate wealth or climbing-up the social ladder? Is there such a thing as `poetic justice' or `fate'? Should we feel compassion for the weak and less fortunate as proof of our humanity? Is it true that `No good deed goes unpunished'?
From a woman's point of view the story of the unfortunate Edith seemed unbearably tragic. However the book was written from a male point of view. The first person, Lieutenant Hofmiller, a cavalry officer of the Austrian-Hungarian army on the eve of WWI, appears to be a well-mannered young man displaying much sympathy and compassion for the less fortunate, but is torn between vanity and his conscience. As the translator put it, he is both 'idealistic and irresolute'. He falls prey to the trappings of the rich and famous but detests being considered a 'gold-digger' among his fellow comrades.
On the character of Edith, Zweig used plenty of Freudian psychoanalysis to dissect the psyche of the physically handicapped girl. On one side, her extremely fragile and hyper-sensitive nerves make her hysterical; on the other hand, she displays acute perception of other people while she is wheelchair-bound all day long. The 'hero' Lieutenant Hofmiller' is a healthy young man. Many would agree that it would be perfectly normal for him to feel uncomfortable at the sight of such a sickly young woman. Yet his sense of decency and his politeness got the better of his prejudices. He feels sorry for her and tries his best to be nice but unwillingly becomes an object of her desire. It was expected from the beginning this was going to happen and one could have guessed that it was in the rich old father's scheme to catch a weak and innocent young man to look after his sick daughter. But Hoffmiller was too naïve to recognise this possibility. By the time he finds it out, it is too late. The young woman has become obsessed by him. He wants to scarper but again his fear and guilty conscience get the better of him and stop him running away. He is trapped in a dilemma. The proverb "No good deed goes unpunished" seemed to apply to him. He had somehow invited this situation due to his own good nature.
Another point; Zweig being Jewish himself made some interesting observations of the Jewish character. The old man Kekesfalva married a German woman, converted to Christianity and bought his aristocratic title to elevate his status as a Jewish merchant. But his social climbing is stopped short by double tragedies, first being the early death of his wife, then the accident that crippled his daughter for life. One wonders if Zweig, who wrote this novel in 1938 on the eve of WWII, was sending a subliminal message about the tragic consequences of a Judeo-German marriage with the gathering storm clouds in Europe