Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig

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I have Joan Acocella to thank for me even hearing of this great book. Her essay, “Quicksand”, on Stefan Zweig, was included in the compilation of her work that I read last year, Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints. Known mainly for her writing on dance for The New Yorker and other publications, the book is a delight, because her interests are so wide and vast. Writers, critics, saints, dancers … but it was her various articles on writers that really got my attention. She doesn’t write about the usual suspects. Her interest is in the modernist era, early 20th century, with a focus on Austrian writers right around the fall of the Hapsburgs and World War I. My thoughts on her here.

Stefan Zweig is a familiar name to me, mainly because of his intersections with Joyce. He is one of those writers who was famous during his lifetime (he had to hide from his fans in Austria, he was that big there), but I knew nothing about the man until I read Acocella’s essay (which was actually the foreword of the latest edition of Beware of Pity, released just a couple of years ago). I was riveted. A Jew living in Austria, he loved the Austrian Empire in which he lived. He felt it gave him some protection, as a Jew, and he saw the polyglot nature of the Empire to be a real example of the best in humanity: those with differences living side by side. Naturally, he was in for an extremely rude awakening in the 1930s, with the rise of Hitler (not to mention the Fall of Empire which had already occurred), and he found himself a hunted exile. He and his wife fled to Brazil. Acocella explains what happened next:

In 1941 Zweig and Lotte emigrated to Brazil, where they (and Zweig’s income) would be safe from harm. Zweig also thought that in multiethnic Brazil he would find a happy, supranational society like that of the Austro-Hungary of his imagination. At first he seemed to adjust fairly well. He and Lotte settled in Petropolis, in the mountains outside Rio. He started a biography of Montaigne. He acquired a little dog, who, he wrote to Friderike, had won second prize in a beauty contest. He and the dog took walks every day, and he gazed at the fabulous vistas. But they were not his vistas; those were in Europe, being overrun by killers. On the night of February 23, 1942, he wrote a note of thanks to the people of Brazil and a salute to his friends: “May it be granted them yet to see the dawn before the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before.” Then he and Lotte took an overdose of barbiturates. The next morning, they were found dead, in their bed, holding hands.

Whether or not the Austro-Hungarian Empire really was what Zweig thought it was is, in the end, irrelevant. It was the fantasy for him, the safe zone, the place of his childhood, his identity. Having that disappear, and having something so monstrous rise all around him directly following, was shattering.

He was a journalist and essayist, primarily, and Beware of Pity is a remarkable foray into fiction. Published in 1938, it takes place in a couple of years leading up the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo. Zweig knows that he is now writing about a world that has disappeared forever (some may say “thank GOD”, but that was not Zweig’s view). The downfall of Empire is in it, although it is never explicitly mentioned. If you want a portrait, sleepy and full of meaningless ritual propping up an edifice that is already crumbling, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire right before its fall, Beware of Pity would be an amazing place to start. Although it is, essentially, a domestic tale, a kind of effed-up twisted drawing-room romance of horror (Jane Austen on crystal meth), surrounding it is the world at large, the military maneuvers and gleaming by-rote ritual that seems to give an order and continuity to a crazy world. Zweig knows what is coming, and so do we, which is what gives the book such a creepy pallor.

Beware of Pity has a framing device, which distances us from the immediacy of the narration (part of Zweig’s brilliance here). The narrator in the first chapter informs us straightaway:

The following story was related to me almost entirely in the form in which I here present it.

This narrator tells us of how he met a certain Anton Hofmiller at a restaurant in Vienna in the year 1937. The narrator (unnamed) writes:

Future historians of our epoch will one day record that in the year 1937 almost every conversation in every country of this distracted Europe of ours was dominated by speculation as to the probability or improbability of a new world war. Wherever people met, this theme exercised an irresistible fascination, and one sometimes had a feeling that it was not the people themselves who were working off their fears in conjectures and hopes, but, so to speak, the very air, the storm-laden atmosphere of the times, which, charged with latent suspense, was endeavouring to unburden itself in speech.

Our narrator learns that this man Hofmiller “won the Order of Maria Theresa in the war”. Hofmiller and the narrator end up walking home from the restaurant together, and Hofmiller ends up confiding in the narrator that he does not see himself as a hero, he is incapable of accepting that he is heroic in any way, because of one specific experience he had in his life. Hofmiller asks the narrator:

I wouldn’t mind telling you the whole story straight here and now… Have you time? And it wouldn’t bore you, would it?

The narrator accepts, and then informs us:

… we paced up and down the now deserted streets far into the night. I have only made a few changes in his narrative … changing the names of people and places. But in no instance have I added anything essential of my own invention, and it is not I but the man who lived the story who now narrates it.

The next chapter begins in the voice of Hofmiller, as he “related” this tale, years after the fact. This is a 19th century device, certainly (although one also thinks of the framing devices that Shakespeare sometimes used, reminding the audience that what they were seeing was a play within a play), and it seems to highlight Zweig’s passion for journalism (which would require one to interview people and relate their tale back to a reader), but it is the topic of Hofmiller’s tale that belongs firmly in the 20th century, and makes Beware of Pity one of the most important books of its time (and ours). It is shocking that it is not more well-known, but Zweig’s reputation has suffered since his death, and he has fallen into obscurity (which is almost total, here in the United States. He is much more well-known in Europe, where you can read his stuff in the original, and not wait for translations). Joan Acocella has done us all a great service of bringing this author to the forefront. Beware of Pity has some clunky plot elements, but it is not its plot. It is a psychological masterpiece, unlike anything else I have ever read.

Hofmiller’s story begins with a desultory description of his life in a small garrison town.

In November, 1913, the year when my story opens, some order or other must have passed from one department to another, for before you could say Jack Robinson our squadron was transferred from Jaroslau to another small garrison town on the Hungarian frontier. It is of no importance whether I call the little town by its right name or not, for two buttons on a uniform could not more closely resemble each other than does one Austrian provincial garrison town another. In one as in the other the same military establishments: barracks, a riding-school, a parade-ground, an officers’ mess, and in addition three hotels, two cafes, a patisserie, a wine-bar, a dingy music-hall with faded soubrettes who, as a side-line, most obligingly divide their attentions between the regular officers and the volunteers. Everywhere soldiering entails the same busily empty monotony; hour after hour is mapped out in accordance with inflexible, antediluvian regulations, and even one’s leisure does not seem to offer much in the way of variety. In the officers’ mess the same faces, the same conversation; at the cafe the same games of cards and billiards. Sometimes one is amazed that the good God should trouble to give the six or seven hundred roofs of a little town of this sort the background of a different sky and a different countryside.

He grew up in the military, went to military school, has never been outside of his regiment. He is invited to a party at a local rich man’s house, which is a welcome break from routine. The Kekesfalva home is a giant monstrosity standing on acres and acres of land, with a turret at the top (which ends up factoring horribly in the story), where all can be seen for miles around should you stand up there. Hofmiller, a naive youth, having grown up in the cloister of the all-male military world, is in awe of the grand house, and quite disoriented at the fact that there are women present. He is especially aware of Ilona, Kekesfalva’s beautiful niece, and trembles when he is close to her. There is such softness and suppleness in the female body, he doesn’t know how to handle it. The evening moves on, and he relaxes a bit, and then realizes, with horror (he is a very correct young fellow, never wanting to commit a breach of etiquette), that he never asked Edith, Kekesfalva’s teenage daughter, to dance. It seems to him like a horribly rude thing, so he immediately goes to rectify this. She is sitting on the edge of the room, and he walks over to her, bows, and asks her to dance. The response he gets is horrific:

So I bowed again, my spurs jingling softly as I said: ‘May I have this dance, gnädiges fräulein

What now happened was appalling. The bowed head and shoulders jerked backwards, as though to avoid a blow; the blood came rushing to the pale cheeks; the lips, parted the moment before, were pressed sharply together, and only the eyes stared fixedly at me with an expression of horror such as I had never before encountered in my whole life. The next moment a shudder passed through the whole convulsed body. With both hands she levered, heaved herself up by the table so that the bowl on it rocked and rattled; and as she did so some hard object, either of wood or metal, fell clattering to the ground from her chair. She continued to hold on with both hands to the swaying table, her body, light as a child’s, still shaking all over; yet she did not run away, she clung more desperately than ever to the heavy table-top. And again and again that quivering, that trembling, ran through her frame, from the contorted, clutching hands to the roots of her hair. And suddenly there burst forth a storm of sobbing, wild, elemental, like a stifled scream.

Good grief, lady, if you don’t want to dance with the guy, why don’t you just say so?

Turns out, that, unbeknownst to poor Hofmiller, young Edith Kekesalva is crippled, with braces on her legs, and so by asking her to dance, he has committed an unpardonable gaffe. When he realizes his error, he is horrified. Horrified first of all that he has been so clumsy and idiotic, but later, the feeling of remorse is overwhelming, he cannot bear the thought that he, unknowingly, hurt somebody. He tries to rectify it the following day by sending Edith flowers.

Strange things start to stir in Hofmiller’s heart in the days following the party at the Kekesalva’s. He gallops his horse with his regiment, and suddenly becomes aware of the turret at the big house, and knowing that Edith sometimes goes up there to look around, feels suddenly, strangely guilty, at the fact that he is healthy, when she is not. How dare HE gallop by her house? How dare he hurt her even further?

Hofmiller is invited to come visit Edith, and he leaps at the chance. He can make it up to her.

Zweig is brilliant in the ways he makes Edith an annoying and querulous character, at times pathetic, at times aggressive. It plays on the reader’s preconceptions about “invalids”, and how invalids should be grateful and retiring. They should not “use” their illness as an excuse, they should not try to guilt us into things. But naturally, they do. Edith seems sweet and young, a true victim, but slowly, through Hofmiller’s interactions with her, her other sides are seen. Tantrums, the way she artfully guilts people into doing her bidding, but all with tears in her eyes, so that she sits behind a cloud of plausible deniability. She says things like, “Don’t you think I wish I could walk? Do you think I enjoy this?”

By the end of the book, the perverted truth is that Edith gets off on her invalid status, she needs it, otherwise she couldn’t be the dominant force in the room. She wouldn’t know what to do with herself if she were healthy. But all of this is presented in a sneakily creepy fashion, with Hofmiller getting more and more tied to this girl, and this household, through his own sense of pity for Edith. The title should give us a clue as to what Zweig thinks about pity.

Acocella writes:

In Beware of Pity, what feels true are the scenes in which we are shown the futility of pity. This is a horrible lesson; it is also what makes the book radical and modern.

Hofmiller has become a man (he believes), a man with a soul and a moral compass, for the first time in his life, because the pity he feels for Edith has brought him out of himself. It is a glorious sensation, debasing at times, but even the debasing provides a kind of swandive into deep feeling for others. He believes that the pity he feels is its own reward, and the fact that he can help Edith bear up under her illness, and give her some moments of forgetfulness through playing chess with her, making her laugh, he feels that that will be a good deed. He does not see the trap he has set for himself. He does not understand that Edith is not what she presents herself to be.

Slowly, she emerges as one of the most grotesque characters I can ever remember encountering. She plays on Hofmiller. She is smarter than everyone else. She knows she “has” them, because their pity enslaves them. She knows how to keep people on her side. She throws a tantrum, and then writes Hofmiller a pleading letter, begging him to understand how hard it is for her. Hofmiller is putty in her hands. He is not in love with her. He does not realize that he is playing with fire. He is too in love with his own ongoing experience of pity for another human being. He must get his fix. Zweig writes about his journey with an urgency that is in direct contrast to the complacent sleepy army boy in the first chapter. Gratitude is a drug. He feels that he has transformed the Kekeslava household. This is not delusional on his part. The family overwhelms him with gratitude, with how much he is “helping” poor Edith bear her horrible illness.

Slowly, inevitably, it starts to become smothering. Expectations are involved. Pity comes with a promise. If Hofmiller doesn’t show up at their house at the appointed time, they send a messenger looking for him. The whole household gets involved. The chauffeur, the maid … When Hofmiller arrives, his favorite cigarettes are laid out for him. He is an honored guest.

What he cannot see, at first, is how much HE is getting out of it. He feels selfless, for the first time, but he is actually doing all of this for selfish reasons, because of what it gives HIM. Zweig’s view is deeply cynical, and puts all kinds of things like charity and do-gooders into sharp relief, making you see it in a potentially new and disturbing way. It is a relentless book, brutal, with events racing horribly to a disastrous conclusion. Hofmiller becomes insufferable. He feels that he holds the whole world, in its pain and misery, in his heart. He, alone, has feelings for others.

Hofmiller says:

All of a sudden, too, I found I could no longer stand the ribald jokes in the officers’ mess at the expense of clumsy or awkward comrades; ever since I had realized in the person of the weak, defenceless Edith the torture of helplessness, I was revolted by any act of brutality and moved to pity by any form of helplessness. Countless trifling things that had hitherto escaped my attention I now noticed, ever since chance had squeezed into my eyes those first hot drops of sympathy; little, simple things, but each of them with the power to move and stir me deeply. It struck me, for instance, that the woman at the tobacconist’s shop where I always bought my cigarettes held the coins that I handed to her remarkably close to the thick lenses of her spectacles, and I was immediately troubled by a suspicion that she might be suffering from cataract. The next day, I thought, I would ask her about it very tactfully and perhaps ask Goldbaum, our regimental doctor, to be so kind as to examine her. Or it occurred to me that the volunteers had of late been pointedly cutting that little red-haired chap K., and I remembered having seen in the newspaper (how could he help it, the poor lad?) that his uncle had been sent to prison for embezzlement; I made a point of sitting by him in the mess and entered into a lengthy conversation, immediately perceiving from his look of gratitude that he knew I was doing it simply to show the others how unsporting and caddish their behaviour was. Or I would put in a word for one of my troop whom the Colonel had ordered four hours’ fatigue duty.

Again and again, day after day, I found fresh opportunities for indulging, trying out, this passion that had suddenly possessed me. And I said to myself: from now on, help anyone and everyone so far as in you lies. Cease to be apathetic, indifferent! Exalt yourself by devoting yourself to others, enrich yourself by making everyone’s destiny your own, by enduring and understanding every facet of human suffering through your pity. And my heart, astonished at its own workings, quivered with gratitude towards the sick girl whom I had unwittingly hurt and who, through her suffering, had taught me the creative magic of pity.

The decay of Empire is in that passage. The downfall of certainty, which is why Zweig must be considered a modernist, although much of his perception is involved with looking back, longingly.

Edith’s doctor, a Dr. Condor, arrives to examine his patient, and begins to perceive, almost immediately, that things are different, now that Hofmiller is in her life. He, however, sees it differently than the rest of the family, who think of it as a godsend. Edith seems so much better, doesn’t she? Isn’t it wonderful to hear her laugh, to see her look forward to things? Condor is a man whose own sense of compassion is so deep that he married a patient of his, a blind woman whom he had promised to regain her sight. When he failed, he could not live with it, and so married her instead. Yet, despite this, he sees the danger, where Hofmiller sees none. He offers Hofmiller this warning, in a private talk:

‘[Pity] is a confoundedly two-edged business. Anyone who doesn’t know how to deal with it should keep his hands, and, above all, his heat, off it. It is only at first that pity, like morphia, is a solace to the invalid, a remedy, a drug, but unless you know the correct dosage and when to stop, it becomes a virulent poison. The first few injections do good, they soothe, they deaden the pain. But the devil of it is that the organism, the body, just like the soul, has an uncanny capacity for adaptation. Just as the nervous system cries out for more and more morphia, so do the emotions cry out for more and more pity, in the end more than one can give. Inevitably there comes a moment when one has to say, “No”, and then one must not mind the other person’s hating one more for this ultimate refusal than if one had never helped him at all. Yes, my dear Lieutenant, one has got to keep one’s pity properly in check, or it does far more harm than any amount of indifference – we doctors know that, and so do judges and myrmidons of the lawn and pawnbrokers; if they were all to give way to their pity, this world of ours would stand still – a dangerous thing, pity, a dangerous thing! You can see for yourself what your weakness has done … You take on yourself a confounded amount of responsibility when you make a fool of another person with your pity. An adult person must consider, before getting himself mixed up in such a thing, how far he’s prepared to go – there must be no fooling about with other people’s feelings … Pity – that’s all right! But there are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one’s own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond. It is only when goes on to the end, to the extreme, bitter end, only when one has an inexhaustible fund of patience, that one can help one’s fellows. Only when one is prepared to sacrifice oneself in doing so – and then only!’

Hofmiller resists this message.

Most people resist this message. I myself resisted when I first read it. I realized, as I read on, that my resistance (as so often happens) came from recognition. An awful recognition of self in those words. I could not deny it. I know that feelings. Like I said, gratitude is a drug. Drugs disorient. It is hard to understand what is happening when one is under the sway of pity and gratitude. Reading this book dovetailed in a startling way with my thoughts on generosity and reciprocity, which I have written about at length. Generosity without expectation of reciprocity is nothing but an empty gesture, hoping that you will be filled by the gratitude of others. This is why you see so many perpetually cranky people who work in the social services industry. Not all of them, let us not forget, but many of them. Generosity without expectation of reciprocity creates martyrs. Long-suffering “look how much I do for others” kind of people. The kind of people who are cranky, always, because people are not grateful ENOUGH. “Don’t they see how much I do for them??”

Beware of Pity is allll about that.

Acocella writes:

That analysis of compassion is one of the book’s foremost contributions, but any psychoanalyst could have done it. What only Zweig could have created are the scenes between Hofmiller and Edith: the concrete, subtle, and hair-raising enactments of ambivalence, hers as she vacillates between appealing to his pity and asking for his love, his as he is torn between solicitude and recoil. Late in the novel, during one of his visits, she finds his attentions insufficient. She starts to have one of her first, and to allay it, he places his hand on her arm … [She] moves his hand to her heart and begins caressing it:

There was no avidity in this fervent stroking, only serene, awe-struck bliss at being allowed at last to take fleeting possession of some part of my body … I enjoyed the rippling of her fingers over my skin, the tingling of my nerves – I let it happen, powerless, defenceless, yet subconsciously ashamed at the thought of being loved so infinitely, while for my part feeling nothing but shy confusion, an embarrassed thrill.

The image of Hofmiller standing there awkwardly as Edith fondles his captured hand, the sheer, no-exit suffocation of the situation: the great psychologists of love (Stendahl, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Turgenev) never went further than this. The scene combines their moral knowledge with a kind of neurotic, subdermal excitement reminiscent of Schnitzler, a friend of Zweig’s and another legatee of Freud. Nothing in the book is more striking than its sustained, morbid tension: the nervous laughter, the drumming fingers, the moments of happiness that convert in an instant to fury and grief, with the cutlery suddenly thrown onto the plates. Like Hofmiller, the reader is dragged down, by the neck.

Indeed.

Neuroses have never been so clearly put out, so undefended, so selfish and self-involved, so damn blind that the cataclysm cannot be seen approaching.

One of the chilling results of the book is that Edith, a housebound tormented teenage girl, someone we should sympathize with, becomes, with the haunting “tap-tap-tap” of her cane coming down the hall (slowly we begin to dread hearing that sound), a ghoul out of a fairy tale. We want to tell Hofmiller, “Run for your life. Get out. So you hurt her feelings by asking her to dance. You apologized. That’s it. You owe her NOTHING else.” My heart grew colder and colder towards this woman as I read. I grew more and more impatient with her, until I actively despised her, and wanted to smack her across her entitled little whiny face.

The book brings out the ugly. It is like the skin has finally broken, the poison allowed to come to the surface. Considering the fact that Zweig wrote this in Vienna, in 1937-38, it is not difficult to see the metaphor at work here. The awfulness of it, the fever, the buildup, the tension … Edith, a living girl in a garrison town, only comes alive when she knows she dominates others, through the powerful emotion of their pity.

Zweig acts like a scientist here, placing the human race, and this one aspect of it (its supposedly healing and good capacity for compassion and empath) under a microscope. He does not like what he sees.

Brilliant book. Brutal.

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3 Responses to Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig

  1. Isabella says:

    OhmygawdIhavetoreadthisbook!!! Thanks for this incisive review, Sheila! It seems everybody’s been talking about The Post-Office Girl over the last year or so, and I’d been getting tired of it, no longer interested in reading it. I did recently acquire a copy of The Chess Story to see what Zweig is all about — I’ll be reading it soon. I’ve never heard of this one, and it sounds incredible!

  2. red says:

    Isabella – I am very curious about The Chess Story as well, and I also want to read his memoir. He did so much in his life – and it makes me sad to think of the despair he must have felt in the late 30s.

    This book is tough at times – with long sections that feel like they have no end – but gradually, it grabs you, and even though you don’t want to keep reading, because you know NONE of this will end well, you cannot stop.

    The neat-ness of the plot has been criticized – and is what makes him seem less modern – but the psychological truths he examines here, about pity, are truly modern (as Acocella writes: “radical”). Never read anything like it. It’s SEARING.

    Really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it whenever you get to it!

  3. Chrees says:

    Thanks for the write-up on this book. I have been meaning to re-visit Zweig’s wonderful “The World of Yesterday” soon but had not planned to read any of his fiction. I need to re-think those plans.

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