Monday, 4 September 2017

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig


Stefan Zweig is not as simple a novelist as he might perhaps appear to be with his, to our post-modern eyes, silly framing of the story. That it was told to him by the protagonist lulls you into the easy acceptance that this is a yarn with our understanding of it to naturally align with the writer’s. He sets up the pattern with an explanation at the start:

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 unhappi-ness, 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.

But is that so? Can one not start with a guilt edged response to a person that then grows in a more profound acceptance and a happy marriage? Four cases of marriage are considered in the novel. To start first with the pity of Anton Hofmiller 2nd. Lieutenant in a crack cavalry regiment stationed in border town of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the fateful November 1913. Anton or Toni as he is to his comrades is 25 years old and has been in a military environment since the age of 10. The apothecary of the small town who is a friend of the local Baron gets him an invitation to a musical evening and dance at the mansion. We have already learned that he is a fine figure of a man and a great dancer. Shake your shako, baby.
He dances with all the ladies and then considers that he has forgotten to dance with Edith the 17 year old only daughter of the Baron who is seated behind a low table to the side. He approaches her and asks her to dance.

I went up to the table - the music rattled on in the next room - and bowed a polite invitation to dance. A startled pair of eyes stared up at me in amazement, the lips remained parted in the very act of speaking. But she made not the slightest movement to follow me. Had she not understood? 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.

What he hadn’t noticed when he was briefly introduced to her at the dinner was that she was paralyzed from the waist down due to a riding accident. She can only be wheeled about in a bath chair or use crutches with great difficulty. Toni leaves the house feeling that he has committed a brutal faux pas. He sends flowers with a profound apology and Edith likewise apologizes for her outburst and invites him to tea. In this way he is drawn into a relationship with Edith and her family. The boredom of a small garrison town is relieved by his daily visits and he does not consider the Baron’s daughter as a woman unlike the older cousin Ilona, magnificent shoulders, arms like peeled peaches. That latter does not quite work in English but in any case she is affianced and the Baron has promised her a magnificent dowry on her marriage for remaining as a companion to her cousin. Everything is focused on the poor crippled child as Toni takes her to be but we the astute readers know that he is being groomed as the saviour that will generate emotional and physical healing. Now the central figure of Dr. Condor enters the novel and being the chief personal physician to the family notices that the daughter is less in despair about her condition. Has there been another doctor brought in he asks? He becomes aware of the source of the change and warns Toni of the danger of a relationship based on pity. He also relates the background of the supposed aristocrat Baron who started off life as a Jewish peddler. Even though Zweig was a Jew himself the lay figure of the Jew bounder was operative. Building up his fortune by degrees his major coup is to swindle a woman out of her estate and feeling guilt and pity for her defencelessness offers to marry her. She accepts him and curiously the marriage is a happy one. Similarly Dr. Condor, being a stubborn healer continuing treatment by other means, has married a blind woman that he could not cure . That too developed into a loving marriage.

How Toni gets drowned in the emotional needs of Edith and is both repulsed by her sexual desire for him and yet unable to break with her fearing her reaction makes a superb novel and a febrile page turner. I found my copy on

Beware of Pity





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