Stefan Zweig’s longest novel Beware of Pity starts with a very nineteenth-century framing device (the book was written in 1939 and takes place before the First World War). At a party, Zweig encounters a decorated Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer whose cynicism about his own wartime heroism is intriguingly heretical. He’s been awarded the Order of Maria Theresa, but he insists he was “anything but a hero, and was even definitely the reverse.” Aware of Zweig’s vocation (the author was a celebrity in his day), he offers to tell Zweig his story. What follows is the officer’s narrative, extended to novel-length, and told in the first-person. It is, much like Zweig’s posthumous novel The Post-Office Girl, a rather one-dimensional psychological case-study, enriched by various strangenesses.
The story itself is fairly simple. Before the outbreak of the WWI, a young officer in a military garrison accepts an invitation to a soiree held by the local gentry, a family named Kekesfalva. At the ball, the officer commits a “gaffe” (his word), asking the host’s daughter, a teenager named Edith, to dance. But Edith can’t dance; she’s crippled. She’s also a huge pain in the ass, which makes the experience of reading Beware of Pity, with its grim, admonitory title rather uncanny. Edith isn’t pathetic like Tiny Tim or intellectually formidable like the sickly Fosca in Sondheim’s Passion. She’s a diva, and it’s the daring premise of this exasperating but fascinating book that she finds a uniquely susceptible object for the emotional blackmail at which she excels in the form of our narrator, Lieutenant Hoffmiller.
As L.P. Hartley writes in the prologue to The Go-Between, another backward-looking bildungsroman, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That may be the case, and it may explain the pre-Freudian tendency of Lieutenant Hoffmiller and his abettors to look past what seems to a contemporary reader’s eye a transparent case of self-delusion and hypocrisy. After committing his faux-pas at the ball, Hoffmiller not only comes back to the Kekefalva estate bearing flowers and apologies, but he keeps coming back, even after it should be clear that he has overshot his mark and extracted from Edith something more than forgiveness.
Why is it obvious to everyone but Hoffmiller that Edith has fallen in love with him? And why is he so shocked when he realizes that she has? The idea not only appalls but baffles him: “That this child, this half-woman, this immature, impotent creature should have the temerity to love, to desire, with the conscious and sensual love of a real woman.” In other words, how dare she? And – reading between the lines – how can she? This is all a bit thick, given what we know and what we’ve seen. Day after day, the young lieutenant has been living large on Kekesfalva’s estate, drinking his liquor and smoking his cigars, his only payment being an all-too-blithe willingness to pass the time with a girl for whom he feels nothing but pity.
At first, he relishes the righteousness of charity, not reckoning the dependency he’s creating in one for whom this kind of attention is like coming to an oasis after a lifetime wandering the desert. Hoffmiller’s attitude toward Edith is the picture of propriety; he offers her the kind of benign condescension befitting his rank and her station. But he offers it every day, and on schedule. When he doesn’t show up, the coachman is sent sniffing around the barracks for him. When the coachman can’t find him, Edith’s father searches him out. Zweig’s narrator relates these developments with the moral cluelessness of a child. Had he really no idea of the effect he was having? That he could be this ignorant of human nature we might attribute to the innocence of an era more benighted when it came to psychology (which seems to be part of Zweig’s point), but Edith is surely onto something when she notes about our hero: “You are really a . . . a very . . . a very strange person.”
More than strange, Hoffmiller is a kind of empty vessel, a human being in a vacuum. He has no close relationships, no family ties, no one to tell him he’s behaving like a fool. It happens to be his misfortune that into this vacuum step some of the most single-mindedly opportunistic, wrongheaded, and hypocritical creatures in early twentieth-century fiction. Edith, it turns out, has a veritable microcosm of enablers and mountebanks catering to her whims. Her father, a broadly-drawn Jewish businessman who swindled his way into her mother’s estate, is so monomaniacally bent on her cure that he pours over medical journals in the hopes of correcting doctors who insist she’s incurable. Her cousin Ilona, a healthy and apparently beautiful young woman, is given no inner life; she exists to serve Edith.
I found Ilona’s character vexing to the point of implausibility. It’s important to note that Hoffmiller first learns of the Kekesfalvas through Ilona. In a scene that feels like it’s out of another book entirely, so relaxed and comradely is the atmosphere, we find Hoffmiller chilling at the local patisserie when a beautiful girl walks in. It’s a standard-issue backwater head-turning set-up, where the jaws of local yokels drop in unison as a gorgeous dame strides into the tavern. Surely, one thinks, this will incite some sort of romantic entanglement for our hero. The town apothecary (who will play a key role later on), notes with a nudge and a wink that he’s on good terms with Ilona’s uncle, Kekesfalva (one has to suppose he’s a frequent supplier of pain pills to the young mistress and antidepressants to everyone else) and that he’s pretty sure he can wrangle Hoffmiller an invitation to the Kekesfalvas if the young man should so desire. The young man does. The invitation is wrangled. We’re off to the races, the reader thinks. But not so fast. What follows is Hoffmiller’s gaffe, the kind of minor blunder by which major adversity is triggered.
Or so we are to believe, at least. A pause might be in order here to note that at any time, the Lieutenant could have cast his eye around the Kekesfalva salon and found more suitable companionship with Ilona. He doesn’t. After Ilona upbraids him for asking her cousin to dance, Hoffmiller communicates with her only in order to talk about Edith. There is an element of chastity and puritanism here – in both parties – which is stranger than fiction. If the Lieutenant’s prudishness is meant to indict the severity of the military code of a bygone era, it seems to slide past that target and hit something less universal, more particular to Hoffmiller’s hermetic despondency. When the Lieutenant allows himself to be strongarmed into what surely must rank as one of the most misguided engagements in literature, the town apothecary can’t stop himself from gleefully spreading the word. At last, the dénouement is at hand. Hoffmiller denies to his fellow officers that he’s engaged to Edith – a lie. The apothecary cries foul. The Lieutenant concludes that his only honorable course is suicide.
It goes without saying that it does not go without saying that this is crazy. Hoffmiller’s commanding officer, a Colonel who is meant to represent the most austere version of the Hapsburg military code, listens to Hoffmiller’s story and then sort of stares at him blankly. Actually, this is worth quoting at length because it exemplifies the book’s general problem of proportion. Here’s Hoffmiller:
I told him [the Colonel] as briefly as possible that I had got engaged to the daughter of Kekesfalva and three hours later had flatly denied the fact. But he must on no account think that I wished to say anything in extenuation of my dishonorable conduct – on the contrary, I had merely come to inform him privately as my superior officer t
hat I was fully aware of what was incumbent on me in view of my infamous behavior. I knew what my duty was and would carry it out. [Ed: he’s referring to shooting himself.]
[The Colonel] stared at me somewhat uncomprehendingly.
As do we all. The weakness – or audacity; take your pick – of Zweig’s conceit is encapsulated by the Colonel’s incomprehension. Hoffmiller’s trajectory is fatidic to the point of ridiculousness. While the portrait of a naïf pulled the wrong way by an innocent mistake with lifelong repercussions might be credible (see Mary in Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing), the fact that nearly everyone in the book – with the notable exception of the Colonel – not only does not dissuade Hoffmiller from becoming more entangled with Edith, but actively encourages him to bind himself more closely to her – telling him, moreover, that he is duty-bound to “love” her because if he doesn’t, she will kill herself – beggars belief. Edith’s physical disability is more than matched by the emotional cripples who exploit her in order to work out their own neuroses.
It is disquieting to consider the extent to which the overdetermination examined in Pity reflected the author’s own resignation. 1939, the year of its publication, was hardly a propitious year for mankind, let alone for Jewish writers of Austrian extract. In January 1940, Reinhard Heydrich was appointed by Hermann Göring to solve the Jewish question in Germany; in August of that year Zweig emigrated to Brazil and two years later he was dead by his own hand. Thomas Mann’s reaction to Zweig’s despair was one of unmitigated outrage. Writing to a friend, Mann says of Zweig, “He never should have granted the Nazis this triumph.”
In the end, Hoffmiller does not kill himself – no surprise, considering he’s still around to narrate his own story. Instead he “fled into the war as a criminal flees into the darkness.” And this is a man speaking with the benefit of age and presumably, wisdom. The aura of inevitability hanging over what are really just some poorly thought out decisions makes the reader feel some rather grudging awe of Zweig for sticking with and quite nearly pulling off an unusually bold idea – and pity too, knowing the personal cost he paid for his inability to discern a brighter future for himself.