Review: Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity.


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).






David Jones: The Overlooked War Poet?

This year being the anniversary of World War One’s outbreak, there is of course no end of books, exhibitions, television and radio programmes and the like devoted to it.

Inevitably people’s minds are also focussed more at the moment on those writers who wrote about the War. I suppose, being cynical about it, that the anniversary represents something of a commercial opportunity for a lot of publishers to release or re-release editions of Great War poetry or the many memoirs written by survivors.

Less cynically, I like to think that the reading public would have gravitated back to the works that came out the War anyway, since so many of them are part of the cultural landscape. Generations of Britons have studied poetry by the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in school. Books like  Goodbye to All That or All Quiet on the Western Front have also been widely read since publication and remain not only popular but classics of their kind.

However, there is one writer who took the War as the theme for one of his great long works, but who remains somewhat off radar as far as the general public is concerned, and is one mainly for the scholars. His name is David Jones. Jones was actually both a talented writer and artist. Born in 1895, a Londoner of mixed Welsh-English descent, he served on the Western Front between 1915 and 1918 in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His first major literary work to be published was In Parenthesis in 1937. It drew directly on his experiences as a soldier on the Front. Published by Faber and Faber, TS Eliot acknowledged it as a major work, and wrote an introduction to it. Hailed upon publication, it remains highly rated today and remains the work for which Jones is most well known.

It was followed by The Anathemata, another long poem, in 1952.

Jones probably isn’t more widely known because, to be frank about it, both of these poems on which his reputation rests are both very long, and quite difficult. I am currently reading The Anathemata, and while there are passages in it of great beauty, and phrases that leap out at me and strike a chord, more often than not I console myself with TS Eliot’s phrase (which always springs to mind when I encounter verse that defies me to make sense of it) that “a poem can communicate before it is understood.”

In Parenthesis  is less of a challenge in comparison to the later work, but remains a challenge nonetheless. Though his work is rooted in myth, religion and the ancient past, as a writer he is every inch the modernist, having much in common with poets like Eliot, Pound and Bunting. He is an experimenter, and challenges the reader. That said, although Jones weaves in all manner of historical, mythical and religious allusions into the text, it is most definitely about the War and his experience of War. There is, therefore, plenty to help the reader orientate him or herself when reading the poem. 

I’m in danger of making the work sound more inaccessible than it actually is. While not every single line might connect with its audience first time (and some may not at all), there are passages in the poem of great power. Jones’s visual art naturally informed his written work, and results in vivid images and passages that are easy to picture in the mind’s eye.

Here is a link to a Guardian Books podcast, where Robin  Robertson reads from the final part of Jones’s poem.

Recordings also exist of Jones in later life reading from the poem in a very evocative voice that is part drawl, part growl. If I find a link I’ll add it to a future post.





Robert Graves. Part One: Never mind “Goodbye To All That”. Try saying hello to all his other writing.

Almost thirty years since his death, the english poet and writer Robert Graves remains well known. However most people, if they read him at all, read his justly celebrated World War One memoir cum general autobiography Goodbye To All That, and his entertaining novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God. They remain well worth reading and remain steady earners for the Graves estate.

Classics as they are, however, there is far, far more to Graves than these two works.  He is by no means a ‘forgotten’ writer, and there are enough devotees and academics to ensure that he doesn’t fade entirely from view (there’s an active and well-organised Robert Graves Society for example). However, I do think that he’s in danger of fading from view, or at best being seen as a ‘two-trick pony’,  as far as the non-specialist, general reader is concerned.

Over the course of a long and busy writing life, Graves showed himself to be a superb all-rounder, producing fiction, literary criticism and other scholarly works, and many superb poems. Personally I think it’ll be these poems on which his reputation will ultimately rest. Certainly Graves himself thought so, and he considered himself to be a poet first and prose writer second. Prose, Graves often said, was a necessary part of his writing life and it certainly paid the bills. But it was poetry that was his first love, and his true calling. I’ve been reading Graves for a number of years now, and I’ve always thought that he is at his best in his poetry. Certainly the poems do the most to get you to the heart of what this constantly intriguing and incisive writer is all about. Hardly any other poet I’ve read has provided me with so consistently an unexpected and original way of perceiving things.

He wrote many poems in his life, and was also something of a vicious editor of his own work. Fortunately a one-volume “Complete Poems” is available. It prints everything he published during his lifetime, and proves how right he was to heed his poetic calling time and again.

What is his work like? For me, Graves is the most complete poet I can think of. To use that term again, he’s a great all-rounder and very much his own man. If twentieth century poetry is a literature of movements, then I’m not really sure you  can categorise Graves. In his early years he had poems published in the Georgian anthologies. In the 20’s and 30’s he was loosely allied with the Modern movement (he even publish a book entitled “A Survey of Modernist Poetry” with former lover, muse and collaborator Laura Riding). But from the 40’s you could argue he was pretty much on his own, his work defined by his own particular voice and thematic concerns.

Stylistically he wasn’t really an innovator, but he was a superb and unshowy technician (the merciless drafting and redrafting of almost every poem on offer here made sure his ideas and feelings received their clearest expression, couched in their most fitting form). But if the form of his verse holds no major surprises, in terms of subject matter I can’t think of another poet who covers so many bases so convincingly. He is rightly hailed as one of the finest love and lyric poets in the language. Indeed, many of these poems were inspired by his (in)famous devotion to the notion of the muse and to his muses. But to categorise him as ‘just’ a love poet- noble calling as it is- is to do him as much a disservice as to see him as ‘just’ a First World War poet. He ranges far wider. Indeed, Graves’s concerns and interests must have been incredibly wide to judge by the subjects touched on in this collection: religion, mythology, fatherhood, loss, desire, obsession, politics, society, language, the writing of poetry, the poetic impulse, domestic life… I could go on.

Here’s an example.  This poem, called “Under the Pot”, displays Graves’s gift of providing an unexpected take on things, but doing it with an authority that can leave you thinking ‘I never thought of that. He has a point’:


Sulkily the sticks burn, and though they crackle

With scorn under the bubbling pot, or spout

Magnanimous jets of flame against the smoke,

At each heel end a dirty sap breaks out.

Confess, creatures, how sulkily ourselves

We hiss with doom, fuel of a sodden age-

Not rapt up roaring to the chimney stack

On incandescent clouds of spirit or rage.

This illustrates two of his chief poetic virtues which are brevity and incisiveness. He hardly wrote any long poems and most of his verses are straight to the point. He also had the gift not only of being able to turn a memorable phrase, but also of adopting a fresh perspective on things. Some of his best poems (masterpeices such as “To Juan at the WInter Solstice” or “The Cool Web”) made a big impression on me when I first read them, and yet they have a knack of yielding up something new each time I return to them.

In my opinion Graves’s Collected Poems has all the charm and merit of Thomas Hardy’s or WB Yeats’s respective Collected Poems: that is to say that they all contain absolute classics that you keep coming back to, but they’re all great for dipping into, since there’s so much on offer that you’re bound to find a new gem that you weren’t aware of before or had overlooked. So whether it’s just for browsing or for digging deep, the main thing is about such great volumes of poetry is that you keep reading them, and consequently they will remain on your bookshelf for life.

Just a word of warning if you’re buying a book of Graves’s poetry. As mentioned above he had a habit of editing out of the canon works of his he no longer liked or thought rang true.  If you have one of the numerous ‘Collected Poems’ published during his lifetime, you won’t have all the poems.  The ‘Complete Poems’ reverses that decision. As for the poems themselves, I’ve indicated above how in my view he’s right up there with the greats, but how he’s also a complete original. Other poets might be better, but I think very few range wider. Like other great poets though he  distilling his own poetic voice.

You’ll hear that voice so clearly in his verse, a heady mix of the practical and the inspirational. It’s a voice of authority, rather clipped and formal at times, with a touch of the army officer about it (he never could get over the war in more ways than one). But it’s mixed with a tremendous sense of awe and wonder about the world. It’s rather like being in the presence of a great teacher who constantly beckons you on, showing you things you’ve never seen before, or pointing out different ways of seeing familiar things. You may learn from him. You may disagree with him. But he’ll make you think. And you’ll never be bored.

In part two (to be posted whenever I can get round to it!) I’ll write about some of his other prose works that I think you’ll like.