Sunday, April 20, 2014
Beware of Pity - Stefan Zweig - translated by Anthea Bell
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.