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).