This month the members of my book group are reading Jewish author Stefan Zweig’s only full-length novel, Beware of Pity, which he completed in 1938.
Set in an Austrian garrison town close to the Hungarian border in the months leading up to the outbreak of WW1, the novel tells the story of Anton Hofmiller, a young cavalry lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian Army. When we first encounter Hofmiller, the year is 1938, and he is recounting his history to a writer whom he meets through mutual friends. Despite being recognised for bravery, Hofmiller readily admits that he ran head first into the Great War to escape a desperate situation. He proceeds to relay his tale, a story that illustrates how ‘courage is often only another aspect of weakness.’
Returning to 1914, we find Hofmiller as a young, idealistic officer, one who is somewhat impoverished compared to his fellow cavalrymen. One day, by way of a mutual friend, he receives an invitation to dinner at the home of Herr von Kekesfalva, the richest man in the district. But unfortunately for the young lieutenant, this is where his troubles begin. Hofmiller arrives late to the dinner but is welcomed with open arms by Kekesfalva and his pretty niece, Ilona. Faced with an array of the finest dishes and wines, the young lieutenant gets carried along by the experience and his usual shyness falls away as he chats with Ilona. But as the evening draws to a close, Hofmiller realises that he has forgotten to ask his host’s daughter, Edith, to dance. When he does so, the young girl cries out in anguish; unbeknownst to Hofmiller, Edith is partially paralysed, unable to walk more than a couple of paces even with the aid of crutches. On discovering his faux-pas, Hofmiller is mortified, and he runs from the Kekesfalvas’ home in fright. Consequently, he is deeply ashamed of his actions and worries that his folly will be the talk of the town and his regiment.
At pains to make amends, Hofmiller sends Edith a basket of flowers by way of an apology and is delighted when, in return, he receives an invitation to tea at the Kekesfalvas’. All is forgiven, and the lieutenant is welcomed into the fold of the Kekesfalva family where he feels moved by the positive effect his presence has on Edith’s spirits. At the age of twenty-five, Hofmiller is rather naïve and inexperienced in the emotional complexities of human relationships. He feels for Edith’s plight and is enthused when the sympathy he shows towards the girl brightens her eyes and brings light to the Kekesfalvas’ rather gloomy household.
But as he continues to visit the family, Hofmiller begins to see another side to Edith’s character. Deeply resentful of the constraints of her disability, she can be impatient, strong-willed and extremely demanding. Her mood can turn on the briefest of gestures – charming one minute, spiteful or hysterical the next – making Hofmiller a little more attuned to her suffering:
I had to be always on my guard against crossing the barely perceptible line beyond which sympathy, instead of being soothing, injured the easily wounded girl even more. Spoilt as she was, she demanded on the one hand to be served like a princess and pampered like a child, but next moment such though for her feelings could turn her bitter, because it made her even more clearly aware of her own helplessness. (pg. 83)
Slowly but surely, Hofmiller gets drawn into to a complex web, an emotional entanglement involving the whole Kekesfalva family. Edith becomes increasingly dependent on his visits. Meanwhile, Hofmiller begins to worry about the perceptions of others – do his comrades think he is taking advantage of the Kekesfalvas’ generosity, for instance?
When Hofmiller fails to show at the house one day, Edith is distraught. It soon becomes clear that Edith does not want the lieutenant’s pity – what she desires is Hofmiller’s true affection, she is deeply in love with him. Unfortunately for Edith, Hofmiller is horrified by this discovery – he views her purely as a friend.
The situation is exacerbated by Herr von Kekesfalva’s fixation on finding a cure for Edith’s condition. He is absolutely desperate to see her happy and settled before he dies (the strain of caring for this demanding child is taking its toll on his health). As a result, Kekesfalva – perhaps unwittingly, as he appears well-intentioned – places a significant emotional burden on Hofmiller to continue visiting Edith. Every time Hofmiller tries to extricate himself from the situation, the mere sight of Kekesfalva tugs at his heart strings making it impossible for him to turn away.
At last Kekesfalva raises his head, and I see beads of sweat standing out on his brow. He takes off his clouded glasses, and without that glittering protection his face immediately looks different, more naked so to speak, more wretchedly tragic. His eyes, as so often with the short-sighted, appear much duller and wearier behind the lenses that amplify his vision. And the sight of the slightly reddened rims of his eyelids makes me think that this old man sleeps little, and poorly. Once again I feel that warm surge of emotion – an emotion that I now know to be pity. All at once I am facing not the rich Herr von Kekesfalva, but an old man weighed down by cares. (pg. 113)
By turn, Edith is equally desperate to be able to walk again for the sake of Hofmiller. She is pinning all her hopes on a new treatment, one she believes will make her better and fit for a life with the lieutenant. Unfortunately, while Hofmiller knows that this treatment will prove ineffective in Edith’s case, the Kekesfalva family do not. (Edith’s physician, Dr Condor, has confided in the young lieutenant.) This leaves Hofmiller with a terrible dilemma. Should he tell Edith the truth, that the new treatment is pointless, an action almost certain to trigger a deep emotional crisis in the girl? Or should he encourage her to embark on the therapy in the knowledge that it will buoy her spirits and buy him some breathing space albeit temporarily?
What follows is a roller-coaster ride of emotions as Hofmiller is asked to shoulder more and more responsibility for Edith and her quest for recovery. There are periods of fear and heightened tension as he realises exactly what is at stake, but there are also brief respites when he believes a solution is in sight. At times, Hofmiller convinces himself that he is doing the right thing, that a well-intentioned deception is kinder than the cruelty of truth. (Oh, the things we do to spare the feelings of others…)
Why worry whether I had said too much or too little? Even if I had promised far more than in all honesty I should have done – well, that compassionate lie had made her happy, and to make someone happy can never be wrong or a crime. (pg. 219)
Beware of Pity is a rich and gripping novel, one that sweeps the reader along to its dramatic conclusion. The characters are complex; each of the main characters – Hofmiller, Edith, Kekesfalva and Dr Condor – has their own individual failings.
Alongside the emotional turmoil, the novel offers us a glimpse of a vanished world. The descriptions of Hofmiller’s time with the regiment are beautifully rendered, as are the dinners and scenes at the Kekesfalvas’. The writing is engaging, and Anthea Bell’s translation reads very smoothly – the following passage gives a feel for the style:
A huge full moon stood overhead, a shining, polished silver disc in the middle of the starlit sky, and as the breeze, warm from the sunny day, blew mild summer air into our faces a magical winter seemed to have descended on the world in that dazzling moonlight. The gravel looked white as freshly fallen snow between the neatly pruned trees that cast their dark shadows on the open path, and the trees themselves seemed to be holding their breath, standing now in the light and now in the dark, like alternating mahogany and glass. (pg. 133)
There is even time for a brief diversion within the novel – the story of how Kekesfalva made his fortune could be a novella in its own right.
Ultimately though, this is a novel about moral and ethical choices, the consequences of our actions, and the trouble that sheer weakness can cause (perhaps even more than brutality or wickedness). I’ll finish with a quote from Dr Condor that gets to the very heart of the novel (he is speaking to Hofmiller). A similar version of this passage also appears as an epigraph.
“…But there are two kinds of pity. One, the weak-minded, sentimental sort is really just the heart’s impatience to rid itself as quickly as possible of the painful experience of being moved by another person’s suffering. It is not a case of real sympathy, of feeling with the sufferer, but a way of defending yourself against the sufferer’s pain. The other kind, the only one that counts, is unsentimental but creative. It knows its own mind, and is determined to stand by the sufferer, patiently suffering too to the last of its strength and even beyond. Only when you go all the way to the end, the bitter end, only when you have that patience, can you really help people. Only if you are ready to sacrifice yourself, only then!” (pg. 240)
For the interested, there is an excellent introduction to the novel by Nicholas Lezard here (published in The Guardian).
Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell) is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy (ebook).