Sunday, April 20, 2014

Beware of Pity - Stefan Zweig - translated by Anthea Bell

I'm slowly overcoming my prejudices about translated fiction - the most powerful being that it's in some way inauthentic reading something filtered through a translator - and predictably finding a whole world of excitement. The purchase of 'Beware of Pity' was inspired by a combination of seeing 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' (excellent) and visiting the Kibworth Bookshop. It seems rude to enter an independent bookshop (especially a good one) and not buy something to support it in some way. Despite being the approximate size of a small cupboard (I only exaggerate a bit) they had a far better selection of Zweig than my local Waterstones (which is also on the bijou side). Had the film not been so good the book would probably have sat about unread for - well it could have been years - but as it is I'm delighted I got that push to get on with it.

This copy opens with a quote from later in the book - "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 someone else'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 suffering too, to the last of its strength and even beyond."  which pretty much sums up what it's about. It's set in the summer of 1914 and Zweig adds a short note for the English reader about the nature of the Austro-Hungarian army and an officers life within it, they were very much a separate caste educated from the very beginning to think of themselves in a certain way and with their own moral code.

This is the story of one captain Hoffmiller - a highly decorated war hero who shares his tale with our 'author' over dinner one night. As a young lieutenant stationed in a country garrison town he manages to get himself invited to dinner and a dance in the local castle. He makes a terrible faux pas when he asks the daughter of the house to dance, not realising she's lame - she promptly has hysterics and the poor young man runs away. To make amends he sends flowers the next day and from that point an intense friendship with the household springs up. For Hoffmiller who is well aware that he's an ordinary sort of man there are the twin attractions of being made much of for the first time, and in return feeling that in bestowing his time and pity on Edith and her father he's giving them something they value.

Pity in fact carries him away to the point of indiscretion, after a conversation with Edith's doctor he promises her father, and in turn he promises Edith that a cure is just around the corner. It isn't, but through that conversation that he can only half remember he inextricably binds himself to the family, the knot is tied even tighter when he begs the doctor not to reveal the truth but to allow Edith to hope that she can be cured. Inevitably Edith falls in love with Hoffmiller, and when he realise it, it horrifies him that the object of his pity could physically desire him but he doesn't have the strength to be honest. Torn between fear of being mocked by his brother officers and chaffing at the responsibility he's taken on for the Kekesfalva's  Hoffmiller ends up in a hell of a mess.

As Zweig makes clear pity is a dangerous emotion for all involved, it breeds resentment in relationships. Hoffmiller is manipulated into giving more than he's willing too and at the same time has to face his own, understandable, cowardice. For Edith who wants love pity is a wholly unacceptable substitute, but in turn one that she's prepared to manipulate to try and get what she wants. Disaster is inevitable. It's a brilliant book, pinning down something fundamentally true - it really is a masterpiece and I'm so glad I've read it.

12 comments:

  1. This looks good! I might have to conquer my same aversion to reading translated stuff. And I'm glad you liked the Grand Budapest Hotel! I haven't gotten around to seeing it, but I really want to. I've heard (mostly) good things about it.

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    1. It's quite a funny film, very stylish, and altogether worth seeing. It made me feel like it was high time I did read some Zweig which was nothing at all like the film in this case, but I loved the book which gave me a lot to think about, and plenty of past actions to reflect over. I'm on a streak of really good books at the moment.

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  2. Yes, me too, with translated fiction, though I read more than I used to. I really must get around to reading Zweig. I loved the film so much. This sounds fascinating - thanks.

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    1. I'm keen to read more of him now, the film was funny which this book most definitely is not. I often wonder when I'm reading a translated book who I'm actually reading and think I need to stop worrying about that in favour of enjoying what's actually in front of me. Some books are to good to miss out on!

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  3. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. You didn't comment on the translation, so I must assume it was good, else you'd notice it. I must get on and read all those Zweig books I've got on the TBR, having raved to everyone I know about The Grand Budapest Hotel.

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    1. The book was so good I just got lost in it and didn't (for a change) think about it having been translated at all. I really recommend it. I loved the film too and will be reading much more Zweig, I want to find some more bits that I can tell influenced the film. I'm also curious to see if there's more humour in some of the other books.

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  4. I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel yesterday and noticed the inspired by Zweig bit in the credits. What a good film that was - and I'm inspired to read some Zweig now.

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  5. Have just ordered it from library based on your recommendation. I really enjoyed his "The Post Office Girl". Thanks for your feedback!
    sally Tarbox

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  6. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, I'm looking forward to reading far more of his books now.

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  7. Arghh - so sory to have missed you in the shop Hayley! Sooo glad you were impressed with our Zweig selection and thank you for the shout-out. We love everything Pushkin publishes. Also please see email I just sent you...!
    Debbie x

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  8. sharing knowledge with others
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylRA41TZ9zU

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