Dan Vyleta reviews Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity

Translated from the German by Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt (New York Review Books, 2006)

Beware of Pity

To undertake a review of the re-issue of Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity is an unexpectedly daunting enterprise. One does so in the shadow of Michael Hofmann's eviscerating review of the re-issue and English re-translation of Zweig's memoir The World of Yesterday (trans. Anthea Bell, Pushkin Press, 2009) in the London Review of Books (Vol. 32, No. 2, 28 Jan 2010). Hofmann's review has been widely read and commented upon; indeed the depth of its ire is unusual, and the poetic power of the invective poured over Zweig and his writings remarkable in its own right. Hofmann (whose only complimentary phrase throughout the review falls to the translator, Anthea Bell) calls Zweig any number of names, not one of them flattering: a "Kitschmeister", a fake, "the Pepsi of Austrian writing", un-Jewish, un-Austrian, a schmoozer, a popularizer, a "purveyor of Trivialliteratur". Zweig's readers, too, come in for some abuse, implicit and explicit, so that to profess any admiration for Zweig's writing means to risk marking oneself as adolescent, immature, a philistine, the sort of critic too little schooled—or else too little graced with the gift of taste—to tell art from schlock, and easy prey for the tinsel fascinations of the gaudy. Hofmann's main concern in all this seems to be that Zweig's literary achievements not be mistaken for those of a Robert Musil or a Joseph Roth, and indeed one surmises that it is the heartfelt admiration for Roth's art in particular (an admiration I share), and the humiliations endured as a result of Roth's sometime dependence on Zweig's wealth, that have goaded Hofmann into some of the more personal aspects of his attack on all things Zweigian.

Hofmann's review found me many months after it was published, just as, quite by chance, I was reading Beware of Pity and had offered to review it for Asymptote, motivated above all by my wish to pay tribute to New York Review Books and their dissemination of half-forgotten classics, mostly in translation. These include such titles as Sigizmunds Krzhizhanovsky's surrealist Memories of the Future, Bolesław Prus's ode to nineteenth-century Warsaw The Doll and Oakley Hall's neglected Western Warlock, all in an attractive paperback format. Before I get onto Zweig then, let me fulfill my original purpose and express the excitement I experience when I enter a bookstore and discover a shelf devoted to NYRB classics amidst the otherwise predictable displays. I have found, amongst NYRB's publications, many fine books of which I had never heard and I am grateful for having been introduced to them in such an agreeable edition.

But enough of this pussyfooting: what about Beware of Pity? Let me brave Hofmann's anger by stating up front that I enjoyed the novel, and did so despite its flaws, which are manifest and varied but ultimately, I feel, forgivable. The book was first published in 1938 and is, thematically as much as aesthetically, a somewhat nostalgic affair. Set in the years immediately preceding World War I, it narrates the misadventures of an Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer who accidentally gives offence to the lame daughter of a local landowner by asking her to dance and then spends the rest of the novel incompetently making up for his blunder. As the English title implies—the German title, which translates as something like "The Heart's Impatience" is only marginally more obscure, as the phrase is used and elucidated by a character within the book—the novel offers a self-conscious analysis of different types of pity and their attendant psychological states. Hofmiller, the cavalry officer and narrator of his own misadventures, finds himself capable only of a weak, sentimental version of pity that is chained to no resolution and incapable of sacrifice; his inability to either shed it or convert it into a more constructive sentiment results in tragedy. The book is structured around repeated meetings between himself and the crippled girl, and in each consecutive meeting Hofmiller's irresolute feelings only serve to increase the girl's misery.

This is not a particularly flattering summary of Zweig's book, and indeed it is a flawed work: too long, at times overly baroque in style, repetitive in theme, its final catastrophe both predictable and overwrought. In short, the novel repeatedly violates the precepts of good taste by being "too much" of many things and eschewing both emotional and aesthetic restraint. Yet, it is precisely this absence of restraint that endeared the book to me. Beware of Pity strikes me as partaking in what the literary critic Peter Brooks calls the "Melodramatic Imagination": an artistic sensibility and attendant mode of writing that infuses the trivial details of a given moment with dramatic meaning until they seem pregnant with significance. The reader is thus handed a reality both heightened and enchanted, sparkling with significance. In this, Zweig may claim a certain kinship with Balzac, Dickens and Dostoevsky—all three greater writers than Zweig and all susceptible to the charge of having written lines, scenes, entire chapters that are "overwrought", "kitschy", and generally in bad taste. The fruits of the melodramatic imagination may often be gaudy; they have the virtue, however, of rarely being dull.

The girl's reaction to Hofmiller's request for a dance—one of the most dramatic and unrestrained passages in the book—may serve as an illustration. The young cavalry officer has just been treated to a banquet at the house of a social superior. He has drunk too much, has flirted and danced with a succession of ladies and, wishing to please his host, steps up to the daughter's table (where she has been sitting quite ignored up until then), bows and requests the next dance.

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 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.
Nor is it only such genuinely dramatic moments that become almost unbearably charged. Hofmiller's entire perception of reality is shot through with the kind of neurotic sensitivity that—pace Raskolnikov, Dolgorúky, Velchaninov et al—gave Dostoevsky the reputation (deserved, yet toothless and beside the point) of being a "bad realist." In Zweig's universe, too, every look and every gesture has the potential of transforming into a symptom, in the Freudian sense, a surface sign of a disturbance that reaches all the way down to the soul. Consider, for instance, this scene in which Herr von Kekesfalva, the rich aristocrat whose daughter is afflicted, helps the lowly cavalry officer into his coat:

The butler was helping the Lieutenant-Colonel on with his things, and I was getting my own coat, when suddenly I felt someone trying to assist me into it. It was Herr von Kekesfalva, and in my bewilderment (for how could I, a mere youngster, let myself be waited on by the old gentleman!), I mutely protested. 'Herr Leutnant,' he whispered in shy, urgent tones in my ear. 'Oh, Herr Leutnant! You don't know, you can't imagine, how happy it has made me to hear the child really laugh again. She gets so little pleasure in life. And today she was just as she used to be before..At this moment the Lieutenant-Colonel joined us. 'Well, are we going?' he smiled at me kindly. Of course Kekesfalva did not venture to go on talking in front of him, but suddenly I could feel the old man stroking my sleeve, very, very gently and shyly, as one might caress a child or a woman. There was infinite tenderness, infinite gratitude in the very reserve and reticence of the gesture. I felt that it conveyed so much happiness and so much despair that once again I was quite overcome, and as, with respectful bearing befitting a subaltern, I walked down the three steps to the car with the Lieutenant-Colonel, I had to pull myself together so that no one should remark my emotion.
Much of the book, then, is overwrought, and perhaps indeed adolescent, i.e. redolent of a time in life when ordinary events routinely undergo magnification and the tragic has a daily presence in our lives. As such, the appeal of Zweig may in part lie in a sort of yearning for youth. If that is the case, this sense of yearning is augmented by the book's narrative frame and setting. Written in 1939, the book begins in the author's present and recounts a meeting between himself and the war hero he christens Hofmiller. Disturbed by the public's obsequiousness vis-à-vis his supposed heroism at a time when the world is hurtling toward another conflict, Hofmiller then narrates his story of inept pity, set on the eve of World War I. Not only does the story take us back to Hofmiller's naïve and hopeful youth; it also returns us to a time of (relative) historical innocence and displaces all of Zweig's own political anxieties (un-Jewish Jew or not, he was soon to be hunted) into a form in which the roles of abuser and victim are both particularized and oddly conjoined. The results are somewhat messy; to me, they are also welcome. Frustrated as I often am these days with the sleek and tidy lines of many contemporary novels that have been picked over (or so it appears to me) by an editorial team charged with the removal of all that may hint at bad taste, Zweig's excesses remind me, happily, that the experience of reading novels should not be one in which the reader tiptoes from sentence to sentence in admiration of the author's discretion and culture, but one of breathless wonder and immersion. It is, conversely, when Zweig leaves behind the breathless adolescent and starts playing the schoolmaster, when he wishes to earnestly teach his lesson about pity, hard-earned or dryly cobbled together at his desk—I don't know which—that I lose interest:

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...; 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.
As a pedagogue Zweig is indeed second rate.

In any case, despite the accuracy of some of Michael Hofmann's charges, and despite my admiration for the intensity of passion engendered in him by Zweig's misdemeanors, I am pleased to see that a selection of Zweig's books will find a new readership in the English-speaking world, just as I am pleased at the recent revival in interest in Douglas Sirk's hearts-pinned-to-sleeves melodramas which, with their oversaturated, Technicolor backdrops and (soap-)operatic plots, have forced a tear from more than one frigid aesthete of my acquaintance.