Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig
First thing you need to know is that Zweig is pronounced Stzw-iiig. The emphasis is on the last lettering, hence the importance of the iii-ig. How do I know this? A german speaker corrected my poor pronunciation. The second thing you need to know is that this is Zweig’s only full-length novel, that he was an Austrian Jew who lived through the second world war and that he committed suicide after writing his autobiographical tome, the World of Tomorrow, with his wife.
He was a meticulous writer who would, apparently, write huge amounts, only to peel away pages and distill his stories into perfected and much shorter forms. Beware of Pity is 460 pages. He probably wrote double or triple that amount. Zweig was also very famous during his time. He wrote essays, articles and short stories mostly and had his works burnt by the Nazis. He maintained a tight-lipped attitude towards the war, preferring not to speak out too much, believing that repetition made opinions on Nazism less powerful. There is a Guardian review of this book, which suggests that the novel itself is a comment on the Second World War, simply because it makes no allusion to nor indication of Nazism and the rise of Hitler’s Germany.
I must say I disagree. The only comment I felt that Zweig tried to make on the subject can be found in the first pages of the book. It is here that the story begins, but it is a story within a story. A writer is introduced to ‘Hofmiller of the General Commissariat – you know, the man who won the Order of Maria Theresia in the war’ by a hanger-on, someone who enjoys dabbling and making the acquaintance of famous and interesting persons. They find themselves in the same conversation with many others, debating the possibility of going to war, in 1938. Here is the first suggestion of an opinion on such a likelihood. The writer makes clear an unsavoury opinion, that ‘Men today were just motes of dust with no will of their own left.’ That war was inevitable and that the youth of today, even having known war (World War One) would willingly go to war. Only Hofmiller agrees and this surprises the writer, considering Hofmiller’s esteemed military background. Hofmiller makes a further point, stating that ‘It takes far more courage for a man to oppose an organisation than to go along with the crowd.’ Moreover, that his own experiences in the First World War suggested that ‘the instances of courage that I met could be called courage en masse, courage within the ranks, and if you look closely at that phenomenon you’ll find some very strange elements in it – a good deal of vanity, thoughtlessness, even boredom, but mainly fear – fear of lagging behind, fear of mockery, fear of taking independent action, and most of all fear of opposing the united opinion of your companions.’
I feel that this is the crux of Zweig’s silence on the Second World War. Such fear can be easily understood within the Nazi regime itself, that and fear of loss, detention and being killed, giving a rational reason as to why so many people allowed the regime to go on unhindered in Germany itself. I think though, that this same fear of lagging and of ‘opposing the united opinion of your companions’ can be applied to those who opposed Nazism. I don’t mean to say that Zweig supported Hitler’s regime, rather that he was repulsed by the lack of individual thinking from those who opposed it. It wasn’t necessarily through considered thought and understanding that so many people rallied against Germany. It is more likely that people did not want to sit outside of the norm. They wanted to conform and remain a member of society – in the appropriate form and manner. This is speculation and without Zweig’s own personal statements, there is no proof of what I suggest. However, I feel that through this book I could see to the heart of what Zweig was trying to communicate. That in that moment, in that choice of statement, he was making a veiled judgement on those who would pass thoughtless conclusions, whether that conclusion was right or wrong, it still remained thoughtless and that thoughtlessness and fear was often the root of all evil.
But let us discuss the book. In its essence, it is a great deal simpler than my speculation. The book followers Lieutenant Anton Hofmiller, the same Hofmiller who we meet in the first pages, but a younger version. Still a calvary officer and still learning about the world, he is posted at a small garrison on the Hungarian border. Here Hofmiller makes the acquaintance of a large landowner, Lajos Kekesfalva, and his daughter Edith. Hofmiller is invited to dine with the family and their friends, arriving late and committing a faux pas during the evening. His actions set in a motion a set of events and the formation of relationships which lead to disaster. The title rather gives it away but it is his feelings of pity that cause so much of the future heartache.
As always, I would not like to give too much of the plot away. Still, there is much praise to be given for this book. I read this book almost immediately after I finished James Salter’s All That Is, a book which I found boring and a great waste of my time. This book was immediately welcome after that. Where Salter’s book made me away of the silence or noise of any room, Beware of Pity filled my mind with such noise and I felt like my ears were ringing. It is all-consuming and a joy to read because of this. The book is so beautifully written and brings the events and characters to life in such a way that even the most silent of rooms is filled with the noise of the novel. This was my greatest impression of it and I believe a true compliment. It is truly engaging and filled with such clear and important considerations of the human character. D.H. Lawrence is a master of human observation and of documenting every human emotion, even the most shameful of feelings, and I can feel the same strain (if softer and less bitter) within Zweig’s work as well.
The ending did not come as a surprise but the journey to that moment was enjoyable and thought provoking. I really recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading.