Review: Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity.

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Stefan Zweig in happier times looking very relaxed (in complete contrast to how I felt reading his book). 

 

I read Beware of Pity at the end of May, but have only just got round to finishing my review, which if it tells you anything indicates that sometimes it takes me longer to get my thoughts down than it does for me to finish reading a novel, which itself is often very slow indeed.

Not so Beware of Pity. I read it in a state every bit of frenzied and feverish as the hapless narrator of this book. If this tells you anything it indicates that a) this novel is a real page turner and b) I was indeed frenzied and feverish since quickly after finishing the book I was laid up in bed with the flu.

Zweig’s Beware of Pity was published in 1939 at the outset of the Second World War, but it is actually set in those months leading up to the Great War in 1914. In many respects it is a broad political allegory, although in ways which I find very hard to fathom and express. Perhaps keener students of Zweig, Austrian history and the First World War can do this better than me. Suffice to say that I think it’s a broad allegory about the mindset of the ruling and military classes that led Austria to war.  However, I think that it is first and foremost a tale about one man’s tortured emotions and the exceptionally delicate social web he finds himself caught within. This lends the book a wider relevance that all of us can relate to in some degree.

The main character is Toni Hofmiller, a 25 year old second lieutenant in the Austria-Hungary cavalry. At the beginning of the novel Zweig supplies a useful note, which goes a long way to describing the degree of constraint imposed by the Officer’s Code by which Hofmiller must live and act as an officer in the Empire’s army. Stricter than the code governing, say, the British, German or French armies at the time, Hofmiller is bound by rigid conventions on how to act among his men, his fellow officers, and when out and about in society as a whole.

The actual plot is quite straightforward. Hofmiller finds himself invited to the home of the richest man in the district in which he is garrisoned. One evening at a dance at the man’s home, he notices that his daughter is not dancing and that no-one has asked her. Thinking it his duty as an officer to do the gallant thing, he cordially invites her to dance.

She reacts hysterically. How was Hofmiller to know that the girl was disabled and completely unable to dance? It was a faux pas of sorts, but Hofmiller feels it far more deeply than that. Feeling that he has not just embarrassed himself  but his whole regiment, he feels a deep sense of shame and feels he must try to make good on what he has done.

Hofmiller is utterly mortified and crushed by the embarrassment. In an attempt to make amends he sends flowers by means of an apology. This is accepted and in turn he finds himself invited back to the house. By twist of fate, he immediately finds himself invited back again and again, until his daily visits are expected by all the members of the family, above all by the young disabled girl.

Hofmiller is drawn there by a sense of duty, born out of the pity he feels for the girl and her situation. While on one level she is conscious of this, knowing that Hofmiller is in a very real sense humouring her, she cannot prevent herself on a deeper emotional level from seeing his attentions as indicative of a deeper emotional bond, and she falls in love with the young officer. And this is where the screw tightens on Hofmiller.

Zweig takes this basic situation and examines it at length. You wouldn’t think it’d make for a good novel, or even a great one, but it does, owing principally to Zweig’s skill at making the narrator’s explanation of his thoughts and feelings every bit as interesting and the awkward social situation and emotional deadlock he finds himself in.

Bound by a sense of honour and pity to visit the girl, horrified at the increasing emotional bonds tying her to him, yet feeling utterly powerless to extricate himself from the situation, how on earth is Hofmiller to escape?

This is crux of the novel, and this is what will keep you reading.

So beware of Beware of Pity. It’s guaranteed to grip you and put you too through the emotional wringer (it won’t necessarily give you the flu though, so at least that’s okay).

 

 

 

 

The GET-Between: A review of “Burning Secret” by Stefan Zweig.

Burning Secret, published by Puskin Press and translated by Anthea Bell.

Burning Secret is a finely-crafted gem of a novella by the Austrian-born master, Stefan Zweig.

Published in 1913, it is set in an Austrian mountain holiday resort. A young man, a minor aristocrat and civil servant, arrives on holiday. Early on we are told that he is bored when he just has himself for company, and only really feels alive when he is with others. And when he feels most alive is with women. This is a ladies’ man and no mistake.

Initially things don’t seem very promising, but in the dining room he soon identifies a lady in whom he spots plenty of conquest potential, despite Zweig being at pains to point out that she is in the final flushes of attractiveness before beginning the inexorable slide towards ‘past it’ status.

The woman is on holiday with her 12 year-old son, who it transpires is recovering from a protracted bout of illness. Rather than the child being a passion killer, Herr Baron sees him instead as the first means towards his erotic ends. Since the lady initially declines to return his flirtatious glances in the dining room, he decides to strike up a friendship with the boy as the way to get close to his mother.

Things go swimmingly at first, and the boy is besotted with this friendly and garrulous young man with whom he shares jokes, conversations and pleasant walks. Once he has found a way into the mother’s attention’s, however, the Baron pays no more attention to the boy.

This is a bad move, since this is a very bright 12 year old. Hero-worship soon turns to confusion, which turns to anger and ultimately a desire to find out just what it is- this ‘burning secret’- which the two adults share, and which means they want to spend so much time together and ignore him entirely.

Of course we know what the secret is, but the boy doesn’t. And as the Baron circles his female prey ever closer and moves in for the romantic ‘kill’, things don’t necessarily reach the climax you might be expecting.

This is an extremely good story. It’s not exactly a coming of age/ loss of innocence story like L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between”, and in a way the central child character struck me as being more psychologically convincing than in Hartley’s book.Or at least, this is a child of inquisitiveness and spirit that he struck more of a chord with me than the almost wholly pure and gullible child Hartley depicted.

Rather than being a victim, he is more of an empowered figure., and if it’s meant to be symbolic of any particular change we go through on the road from childhood to adulthood, I think Zweig has tried to make this book epitomise the realisation we all come to that human relationships can be very confusing, and that the art of reading between the lines is very difficult to master indeed.

If you have read Zweig and want to read more, this is well worth searching out. Best of all this story is not very long at all, and the pace and skill of Zweig’s story telling means you’ll probably finish it in a sitting.

 

 

 

 

A review of the novel Austerlitz by WG Sebald

Austerlitz, which I first read shortly after it came out, is like much of the author’s work, not an ‘easy’ book.  However, you don’t have to be an academic or look for the serious in literature to get a lot out of it. In fact I found that once it got going, the novel’s main story is fairly simple and very engaging.

The main thread of this story concerns the eponymous character Austerlitz, who is in the process of slowly piecing together the facts about his very early life in pre-War Europe. Austerlitz is a jew, and was sent to Great Britain as part of the Kindertransport programme in order to escape Nazi persecution. Much of Sebald’s other writing concerns the nature of memory and how it helps inform and shape our identities, and Austerlitz is in large part another essay in this vein.

However, Sebald also maintained that one of his main concerns as a writer was with Germany and its place in Europe and European culture. Of course this also meant that the crimes committed by the Nazis cast their shadow over his work, whether he alluded to them directly or not. By the time of “Austerlitz”, he finally engaged with the subject of the persecution of the Jews, by making his eponymous main character into someone touched directly that persecution.

Some complain about Sebald’s style, and certainly you have to bear with him, for a lot of the sentences are quite long (I don’t mean to patronise anyone in saying this. It’s just that tight, short syntax is so much the norm these days, from mainstream writing, to websites and daily papers, so that longer, snaking sentences take a while to get used to again). He’s also a very allusive writer, making reference to a myriad different cultural and historical facts and points of interest. If you read this novel then hopefully not only will you be engaged by the actual story, but you will also come away having learned a lot of other fascinating tidbits of information too.

There are actually two different edition of Austerlita in circulation (new and second hand) in the UK. Starved since the author’s death in 2001 of any new substantial ‘product’ to sell, you could accuse Penguin books of cashing in by reprinting “Austerlitz” in a ‘tenth anniversary’ edition a few years ago. Certainly those familiar with the work should think twice about buying this, since the text is the same. However, the anniversary book contains a very good introduction, which is long on insight and common sense interpretation, and aimed at our good friend General Reader rather than just at students and lecturers. This renders Sebald’s work more accessible to all, and in fact it’s useful not only as an introduction to this book, but also to the writer’s whole body of work. Overall I’d recommend this book as a good place to start with Sebald for those new to his work.

As I stated earlier, this is not an ‘easy’ book, because of the demands it places on the reader’s concentration and because of the weighty subject matter. However, the rewards are there if you put the effort in. “Austerlitz”, unfortunately, became something as a memorial to Sebald, since he died shortly after its publication. In it’s own way, however, the book also stands as a memorial to the suffering of so many. For once the hype was justified: Sebald is one of the great European writers, and this is a seminal work in our shared cultural heritage. This edition and Wood’s intro help to put all this into context.

WG Sebald: A review of his collection “Campo Santo”.

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Campo Santo is a posthumously published selection of works by the German writer WG Sebald. It would be unfair to say this book is for completists only, but it would help if you’ve read at least a couple of his major works before you come to this book, because I would not recommend it for people who are new to his writing. This collection stands as a companion to his longer works, since it amplifies some of the themes and concerns dealt with in those books.
“Campo Santo” actually refers to a few chapters of an aborted work about Corsica from the mid 90’s. These passages are full of Sebaldian atmosphere and observation and as such are worth reading. I’m guessing, too, that reading them is as close to looking into his notebooks as we are going to get: you can enjoy them as stand alone pieces, and there are some memorable passages of description, which as usual are leavened by interesting and quirky facts.  However, to my mind Sebald was clearly still finding his way through this material, trying to find the right perspective to bring to bear, and overall it lacks some of the focus and drive of a ‘finished’ work.

The rest of the book contains essays, reviews and speeches made over three decades. Again, they all help give us more perspective on the other books and may well send you off to re-read them. They also reveal much about Sebald’s views on his own writing and literature in general. There are two pieces on Kafka, several on the relationship between German writers and recent German history, and a review of Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Bruce Chatwin which, unlike most British reviews of anything by/ about Chatwin, doesn’t fall into the trap of either praising him to the skies on the one hand, or slamming him as overrated and repeating the more outlandish gossip about his life on the other. Sebald sticks to Chatwin’s writing itself, and confirms himself as a generous, perceptive and above all shrewd critic once again.

Overall this book overall exhibits a quality I really value in Sebald, which is how he tackles extremely important and fundamental questions about european culture in an engaging and original way.

A review of “On the Marble Cliffs” by Ernst Jünger

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Ernst Jünger in later life.
Although the above  photo shows Jünger looking every the inch the aesthete or scholarly type (which, in large part, he was) it’s important to know that this German man of letters was also a decorated soldier, and fought in the German army in both World Wars.
In Great Britain Jünger is known I think mostly in academic circles, and even then his most commonly cited book is Storm of Steel. For many years this has recognised as one of the most notable prose works concerning the First World War.
On the Marble Cliffs is a different kind of book, however. It concerns two brothers, living in a peaceful forest setting, who spend their lives studying botany, enraptured by the flora around them, and enjoying the tranquility and solitude of their surroundings. But their homeland and whole way of life are threatened by a marauding band of infiltrators under the command of the Chief Ranger. Things head for a bloody climax when those who live in the forest in the shadow of the marble cliffs realise they need to make a stand and fight, or else be overwhelmed by the Ranger and his men.
Like that book, Storm of Steel,  On the Marble Cliffs has passages that describe battle with evident skill, knowledge and even relish. However, this is a different kind of novel. Written in the late 30’s, it’s clearly a sideways take on Nazism. From a 21st century vewpoint, I also think it stands up as a general fable on the rise of all the regimes that use terror and coercion as their main weapons. Indeed, Junger goes out of his way to give this a ‘timeless’ quality, in the sense that a reader could imagine it taking place in virtually any epoch one cares to imagine. As a political fable, it’s a very good book of its type.However, Junger definitely had the Nazis in his sights when writing this, which makes it all the more noteworthy how it managed to get past the Nazi censors at all in the late ’30’s. It was a bestseller at the time and was only belatedly withdrawn from sale. (Apparently Goebbels is depicted as a character in the novel, and the Propaganda Minister was rather flattered by the portrait, which may have induced him to turn a blind eye…for a while. ) While its escape into the public domain remains something of a cause celebre for the book, it does stand up on its own terms, and is therefore much more than a historical curio or literary document forever tied to its era.

Try to get hold of a copy of this if you enjoy writers like Hermann Hesse. Junger writes in a similar style (i.e. a fable) in this novel, and deals with similar grand themes. Chief among these is the perennial European tension between those who want to dedicate themselves to great, peaceable works, and those who would rather go round tearing things up and imposing their own will and vision on people. I didn’t come away from the book feeling like Junger had provided many answers, but he depicts the tension vividly nonetheless.

Such a shame, then, that this book appears to be out of print and hard to find. I’m sure its time will come again, however. It remains a key work by Ernst Junger and an important work in the European canon.

Siddhartha’s little brother? A review of Knulp by Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse’s Knulp was a complete chance discovery in a second hand book shop. I think it was the third book by Hesse I’d read after his equally overlooked Wandering and Steppenwolf. I had also tried The Glass Bead Game (I say tried because I soon gave up, not thinking I was clever enough to take it all in at the time, and to be honest I still don’t).

I don’t think anyone would call Knulp one of Hesse’s major works, but all the same I thoroughly enjoy it. In terms of not only the date of its writing, but also the themes it explores, I’ve always thought of it as something of a stepping stone between Hesse’s earlier work (Peter Camenzind springs to mind) and his later 1920’s output. While I’m not claiming that Knulp is the equal of later linked works like Siddhartha, I do think that if you enjoyed the latter then you will get a lot out of the former.

I would describe Knulp as a novella. Written in 1915, its subtitle is “Three Scenes from the life of Knulp”, and as this suggests it consists of three episodes that shed some light on the character. Knulp the man is in fact a tramp. On one level he can be seen as a happy-go-lucky itinerant, who never settled on any one form of employment, just as he could never settle in one place. Rather than a settled orderly life of work and domesticity, he prefers to wander from town to town, making friends along the way and generally approaching everyone and every situation with an open and optimistic outlook. Hesse is keen to emphasise this aspect of his character’s nature. Indeed, Knulp is told by someone late on in the book (and I won’t say by whom because that’d be a giveaway for those who haven’t read it), “you were a wanderer […] and wherever you went you brought the settled folk a little homesickness for freedom”. In other words this wanderer’s presence serves to bring a little light and levity into the lives of the people he encounters, a carefree and happy counterpoint to the humdrum workaday lives of those he encounters.

Taking all this on board, Knulp starts to take on more significance, and as a character he symbolises the tension between the conflicting pulls of domesticity and freedom, between responsibilities to others and loyalty to one’s own needs and desires. Add Knulp, then, to the lineup of Hesse characters caught between society’s expectations of what they should be and how they should behave, and their own yearning for the freedom to do things a different way.

Part 1 of Knulp is entitled “Spring” and introduces us to the eponymous hero, his ways and his way of life. Taking place in southern Germany in the 1890’s, Knulp’s encounters in this episode epitomise the kind of character that he is. Dropping in unannounced during early Spring on old travelling companion Emil Rothfuss (now a tanner), Knulp awakens in this old friend nostalgia for his younger days. Other people Knulp encounters in the village also find their lives enhanced by the stranger’s open, honest and attractive nature. Rothfuss’s reflections on his friend help give a flavour of the effect Knulp has on these people:

“Lucky man”, the tanner reflected with a twinge of envy. [Knulp] wanted nothing of life but to look on, and the tanner could not have said whether or not this was asking too much or too little. a man who worked hard and got ahead was better in many ways, but he could never have such delicate, graceful hands or walk with so light and jaunty a step. No, Knulp was right in doing what his nature demanded and what few others could do, in speaking to strangers like a child and warming their hearts, in saying pleasant things to ladies of all ages, and making Sundays out of weekdays. You could only take him as he was and when he needed a roof over his head it was a pleasure to give him one, indeed you almost wanted to thank him, for he bought lightness and gaiety into the house. 

However, Knulp is no one-dimesnsional figure, and not everything in his life is sweetness and light. Part Two of the book is called “My Recollections of Knulp”, and it consists of what an unnamed, unidentified narrator remembers of a short spell spent tramping through the country with Knulp. This is a far denser and more philosophical part of the book, far too detailled to try and summarise here, since it mainly takes the form of conversations between the narrator and Knulp. However, my general impression is that it adds force and depth to Knulp’s portrayal, giving some insight into why he lives the life he does and his justification for it. For example, explaining why he never married Knulp has this to say:

Every human being has his soul, he can’t mix it with any other. Two human beings can meet, they can talk with one another, they can be close together. But their souls are like flowers, each rooted to its place. One can’t go to another, because it would have to break away from its roots, and that it can’t do. Flowers end out their scent and their seeds, because they would like to go to each other; but a flower can’t do anything to make a seed go to its right place; the wind does that, and the wind comes and goes where it pleases.

Whether we as readers agree with this or not, such thoughts of Knulp’s serve to highlight one of the many contradictions in his life: while he goes out of his way to be courteous and upbeat in his dealings with others, at the same time he feels an essential loneliness and isolation from others.

It’s just occurred to me on re-reading this particular passage that Hesse is trying very hard to press the symbolic significance of his character. I’m loathe to identify any fictional character with his or her creator too much, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at the time of writing Knulp Hesse’s own life and work were at something of a crisis point. The author’s marriage and home life were breaking down, and he was an increasingly unpopular figure in his native Germany given his views on the War, something that would lead him to a life outside that country. I’m not saying that Knulp is Hesse. However, I think that in general terms Knulp the book is in part an investigation of what it might be like to live on the margins as a completely free spirit, and he represents that yearning many people have to just let everything drop and get away from it all. I also think that on some level Knulp’s loneliness and restlessness can be seen to represent the struggles of an artist. After all, Knulp partly earns his way on the road by singing songs, playing the accordion and telling tales. As we have seen, he brings a little light and life to others, but at some cost to himself. To follow his star he’s had to forsake the comforts of a stable home, love and even- it is heavily implied at one point- his own child.

To go into too much detail about part three would be to give a lot away, since it’s a crucial part of the book. The title- “The End”- gives you a lot of its flavour. By this time a consumptive Knulp, now in his 40s- runs into an old schoolfriend who is now a doctor. Cue a lot of reminiscing, some surprising revelations about Knulp’s own past, and a touching and somewhat uplifting ending.

My verdict on Knulp is that it’s certainly worth reading if you have read other works by Hesse. It’s certainly not as polished and fully realised as his other novels, but I don’t get the feeling it was meant to be: its episodic and fragmented structure works well on its own terms in order to shed different kinds of light on Knulp at different stages on his journey through life. In fact a bit like Knulp himself, the book quickly draws you in, gives you a little food for thought, doesn’t outstay its welcome but sticks around in the memory.

Other Hesse works are justly more celebrated and cemented his reputation as a great writer. All the more reason, though, not to overlook some of the lesser known works in his canon like this.