Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell)

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.

Beware cover

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).

56 thoughts on “Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell)

  1. lonesomereadereric

    I’ve been wanting to read Zweig’s fiction for a while and somehow didn’t realise he only wrote this one full length novel. I read Zweig’s biography of Balzac several years ago and it’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read! Both for his excellent writing style and what a fascinatingly chaotic exhausting life Balzac lived. Zweig’s deep interest in ethics and high art are evident in the bio as well so it’s interesting to read how he engages with it in his fiction. It sounds like a complex perspective on what empathy means and the meaning and impact of it. Your excellent summary of the book shows how this drama is played out. I hope to read the novel one day. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Wow! That Balzac bio sounds wonderful. I wasn’t aware of it at all – will have to check it out. Thanks, Eric. Interesting to hear a little about the themes too.

      As for Zweig’s fiction, I hadn’t quite realised that this was his only full-length novel until I stumbled upon Nicholas Lezard’s piece. Most of the rest of Zweig’s work took the form of novellas and short stories. In fact, I was looking at a couple of lovely Pushkin P editions of his short stories only the other day. (Had to resist though as I’m taking a break from book buying for another round of TBR20!) I’d love to hear your take on Beware of Pity should you get an opportunity to read it one day. It’s such a layered piece of writing – I think you’d enjoy it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Joe. I’ve probably gone a bit OTT on detail in this review, but I hope it’ll be helpful for my book group discussion later this week. It’s a thought-provoking novel that’s for sure!

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    I have heard about this novel a lot over the years. Your commentary makes it come alive.

    I am stuck by the fact that while it might depict a bygone world, as you describe them, it seems like the basic situation, the motivations, and the emotions contained within this books seem relevant to our own time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I think you might get a lot out of this novel. It throws up some big moral and ethical questions to which there are no ‘easy’ answers. And that’s a good observation about the nature of the basic situation as there is something timeless about the emotional dynamics at the heart of this story. I wonder how it might play out in modern times…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. It’s a crucial quote, I think. It kind of gets to the crux of the story. I’m sure I’ll read some more Zweig at some point.

      Reply
  3. MarinaSofia

    What a great review of one of the books which really stood out for me in my youth. I saw a TV adaptation of it as well in Austria and the topics of pity and love, wanting to help but not being entirely honest (even with oneself) about motivations are absolutely timeless. I remember they made me think very deeply at the time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Marina – that means a lot coming from you. There is something universal about these themes, isn’t there? It’s a novel that highlights the challenges of allowing one’s actions to be driven by sympathy for others. Funnily enough, I was reminded of your post about compassion, how we can lay ourselves open to heartache and anguish when supporting others. It’s such a delicate balance to manage.

      I was thinking it would make a great film or TV adaptation – I’ll have to take a closer look at that aspect.

      Reply
      1. MarinaSofia

        There is a film with Lili Palmer (I think in English) dating from 1946 which I haven’t seen, but there was a two-parter shown in 1981 on TV which was closer to the spirit of the original: Ungeduld des Herzen or La Pitie dangereuse (I think it might have been a French/Austrian co-production).

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, that’s interesting – the French/Austrian co-production sounds good. On the subject of Zweig adaptations, Max Ophüls’ film of Letter from an Unknown Woman is a favourite of mine, but then I am a bit of Joan Fontaine fan.

          Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              That right, great films. Everyone seems to love Rebecca, but Suspicion edges it for me. Well, there’s Cary Grant for starters. And yes, I like Olivia de Havilland, too!

              Reply
  4. hastanton

    I really want to read more Zweig ( have only read Tge Post Office Girl ). Beware Of Pity was recommended to me by a German friend recently and reading your review I can see why .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have a feeling you would like this one, Helen. Let me know if you get a chance to try it (or any others by Zweig.) A friend has just bought Chess, so I may well give it a go once she’s done.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review as always Jacqui. Zweig’s writing is quite wonderful and I love the passages you quote. I’ve only ever read his shorter works but it sounds like he sustains over longer ones too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen! I do like his prose style, I must admit. It’s very engaging for a novel with such intricate themes. I’d like to try a few of his shorter works in the future. I read Journey into the Past a few years ago and really loved it.

      Beware of Pity does go round in circles to some extent, but in a way I think that may have been a conscious decision on Zweig’s part. Those repeated cycles of hope followed by despair are an inherent part of the story…a little like the circular structure in Transit by Anna Seghers.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Zweig would be a good choice for German-language Lit Month later this year. Beware of Pity has much to commend it, but I don’t know if it would make the best starting point. You might want to take a look at one of his novellas or a short story collection as alternatives to the novel? I started with Journey into the Past, which I really enjoyed, and it might make a better entry point than Pity. Just something to consider…it might depend on your preference for novels vs. shorter fiction!

      Reply
  6. Scott W.

    I should really move this up higher in the TBR pile (and thanks to your review, I have). I’ve had the book sitting around for years but knew almost nothing about it. Both the themes and the language sound too good to pass up. And you’re right – this would be a good choice for German Literature Month.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent. I would be really interested to hear what you think of it, Scott. It’s hard not to think about the suffering Zweig must have experienced in his own life when reading this novel. The themes are meaningful, and the story raises significant moral and ethical questions. I’m sure we’ll have a great discussion about it in my book group.

      I love the prose style. In fact, the writing is probably my favourite thing about it. That and the story behind Kekesfalva’s fortune, which reads like a little novella in its own right – it’s worth reading for this alone.

      Reply
  7. Jonathan

    Oh no! This review has reminded me that I was going to read more Zweig & Joseph Roth this year…the only one I have read is Zweig’s bio of Casanova. I have the Pushkin press collected short stories which I really should start dipping in to.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! I’d like to read some of his short stories too. Those Pushkin Press short story collections look fab, just the thing for dipping into every now and again. Maybe you could review your collection for German Lit Month in November?

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    Great review. Zweig seems to be able to deal with high emotion without melodrama. Be warned, once I started reading him, I found him quite addictive (I blame Pushkin Press for this!)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. It’s interesting as this is a proper emotional roller-coaster of a novel, and there are times when you just want to shout “no – don’t do that!” In some ways, the section dealing with Kekesfalva’s backstory offers a little relief from the rest of the drama playing out in the foreground.

      I would like to read more of Zweig, a novella or some of his short stories. And yes, there’s plenty of temptation in the Pushkin Press range!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like him, Ali – I really do. His themes, the prose style, the period…there’s a strong chance that all of these aspects would suit you.

      Reply
  9. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Stefan Zweig has been on the radar for me ever since one of my French students arrived at one our lessons with one of his works in French and was surprised that back then (about 3 years ago I guess) I hadn’t heard of him. He lent me a copy, but I out off reading it, but must get back to reading him, a very popular author here.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think there’s been a bit of a revival of interest in Zweig in recent years, and Wes Anderson’s film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has almost certainly helped. He’s well worth investigating, and there’s a wide range of novellas and short story collections to choose from. I’m sure you’d enjoy him a great deal, Claire.

      Reply
  10. Arti

    This is a well-written and thorough review of Zweig’s intriguing novel into the human psyche. And you’re right, Zweig inspired Wes Anderson’s film which in turn, introduced me to the Austrian writer. After watching the film, I’ve since read several of Zweig’s works. All delightfully entertaining. If this title interests you, do stop by Shiny New Books to read my article “From Z to A: How Zweig Inspired Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel”. Again, thanks for this wonderful review of Beware of Pity, Jacqui. ;)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Arti. It is a compelling story, isn’t it? I’m glad to be reading it with my book group as I’m sure it will give rise to a lively discussion.

      Thanks for the link to your Zweig/Wes Anderson piece in Shiny New Books – I’ll take a look. :)

      Reply
  11. Caroline

    This was one of my dad’s favorite books but I never read it. I got a copy here though. My dad read it in French but I would read the German edition and that’s what held me back. His German hasn’t aged well. But his choice of themes is always thought provoking.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can understand it being a favourite novel as it’s such a poignant story (all the more so in light of the trajectory of Zweig’s own life). Interesting to hear about Zweig’s use of German – I hadn’t appreciated his original language might appear somewhat dated now. Anthea Bell’s English translation reads very smoothly. Clearly I can’t say how faithful it is to Zweig’s original text, but my version was a delight to read. I loved the prose style. I’ll be curious to hear what you think of the German original whenever you find the right time to pick it up.

      Reply
  12. Emma

    I loved the Zweigs I’ve read.
    Your review is excellent and gives a good view of the moral dilemma H. is facing.
    I’m sure I’ll like it.
    Have you read Journey into the Past?
    .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. I think you’d like this one too. It’s a really interesting study of human psychology, and there’s no easy way out for Hofmiller. It’s also quite difficult to assign responsibility for the situation as one could argue that each of the main players is at fault in some way. It would make a great choice for book groups.

      I have read Journey into the Past. It was my first Zweig, and I enjoyed it very much. (Have you read and reviewed that one?) I’m hoping to read a few more of his novellas and short stories in the future.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Great – thanks, Emma. I’ll take a look over the forthcoming week. I love the film version of Letter from an Unknown Woman – I’m a huge fan of Joan Fontaine, hence the attachment to the movie.

          Reply
  13. Guy Savage

    I echo Emma here w/the comment that I have also enjoyed the Zweigs I read. I was also fortunate enough to read a nonfiction book about Zweig which helped me to understand his suicide. I have this one of the shelf and have yet to get to it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll like this, Guy. Plenty of complex moral issues to get your teeth into and there are no easy judgements as to who is most at fault for the situation. I suspect your understanding of Zweig’s life story will help with this one. Which non-fiction book did you read? I’d be interested in taking a look at it.

      Reply
  14. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  15. Nano

    I loved this book having chosen it for our book club. This is a terrific review – so insightful. It really helped me lead an excellent discussion. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Nano. It was a great choice for the book group, so much to discuss! Dr Condor is an interesting figure, isn’t he? I’ve barely touched on him in my review, but it was fascinating to hear the different impressions of his character.

      Thanks for a lovely evening on Thursday – it was a delight to sit in the garden!

      Reply
  16. Max Cairnduff

    Great review of what I strongly suspect is one of Zweig’s best (I haven’t read it yet). I’m always pleased to see Anthea Bell appearing as translator, she’s very good.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is a good novel, Max. I loved the prose, and Zweig’s themes are very interesting and thought-provoking. But, as I was saying over at yours, I do have a couple of reservations about it. Perhaps it’s partly a function of the novel’s length, but it is a little baggy and at times perhaps a touch too melodramatic. There has to be an element of drama to set the moral dilemmas in motion, but I felt just a little worn down by it in the end. A novel I liked and admired rather than loved. I still wonder if Zweig is better over shorter distances: short stories and novellas. For instance, I loved his Journey into the Past. And going back to Pity, the story behind Kekesfalva’s fortune (one of my favourite sections of the book) could stand alone as a novella in its own right.

      Anyway, I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts should you decide to read Pity. And yes, I’m with you on Anthea Bell. I liked her work on Julia Franck’s novel, Back to Back, which I read last year – it’s always good to see her name on translations.

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        Melodrama is both Zweig’s strength and weakness. Baggy though, not a good word.

        I suspect you’re right about Zweig and short distances. Have you read any Arthur Schnitzler? There’s a couple reviewed at mine, similar territory but he’s a much better writer than Zweig.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I haven’t read Schnitzler, but he’s on my list of writers to try. I’ll definitely head over to yours at some stage this week to take a look at your reviews. Fraulein Else is the one I’ve been considering.

          Oh, by the way, I read Madame de___ the other week. I absolutely loved it as you suspected I would! (Review to come, along with a piece on Of Love and Hunger, which I still need to finalise). I can’t recall when you recommended Madame de___, but it came up in one of our conversations either here or at yours. Anyway. thanks for that suggestion.

          Also, I realise you’re still catching up with a mountain of emails, but if you do get a chance, you might be interested in Teffi’s Subtly Worded. I reviewed it a couple of weeks ago and it struck me as something you might enjoy.

          Reply
  17. Maureen Murphy

    Goodness, Jacqui. Coming to you in 2016 after another late discovery! What a finely-tuned writer. I thought you conveyed this so well. Reading about this book, I am more confirmed in my opinion that Wes Anderson was not the correct director to helm a Zweig-inspired movie. I find him very cold, and didn’t enjoy his movie, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” at all. Would like to read this novel. Cheers, Maureen M.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Maureen – that’s very kind of you to say. It turned out to be a great book for discussion with my book group as we ended up having quite a debate about the moral rights and wrongs of various characters’ actions during the story. I’d like to read more by this writer, some of his novellas and short stories, I think.

      Funnily enough, I really enjoyed the film Grand Budapest Hotel, but then again I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan. He’s not to everyone’s taste though, I can appreciate that!

      Reply
  18. Pingback: Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell) | JacquiWine's Journal

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