Tuesday 24 February 2009

'Poor Hofmiller!'

Beware of Pity
by Stefan Zweig

Billed not only as a great novel but one of the greatest ever by no less a man than my father, there was quite a lot riding on this, my first experience of Zweig, whose reputation in the English speaking world is enjoying a bit of a renaissance thanks to the efforts of Pushkin Press and NYRB Classics. My Dad thankfully knows his stuff (he's 'phone-a-friend' clever) and Beware of Pityis a brilliant novel on many levels. That warning contained in the title is a hugely relevant corrective to anyone who finds themselves in the habit of looking after those they feel sorry for, a dubious motivation as Zweig quickly points out when he describes the 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.'

In an introduction it is explained that this story was related in person by its protagonist, Captain Hofmiller of the Commissariat, in the years leading up to the Second World War. Irked at the way others regard him as a decorated soldier he determines to 'compel you to hear from my own lips by what torturous paths I attained the status of hero.' In 1913 as a 25-year old second lieutenant with the Imperial Uhlans he commits what the French call a 'gaffe', a social faux-pas which sets in motion a series of events from which it is difficult, even after the passage of many years, 'to decide exactly where my sheer gaucherie ended and my guilt began.' Keen to use what he can to advance his status Hofmiller gratefully accepts the opportunity to attend a dinner at the imposing schloss of Kekesfalva. The evening doesn't begin well when he is late (before such a thing became fashionable) but it isn't long before he is enjoying his surroundings and when the evening develops into a night dancing he gets caught up in the atmosphere, remembering as a matter of protocol, not to mention a possibility of further increasing his positive image, to ask the daughter of the house to dance. He is baffled by her extreme and emotional reaction, horrified to see the head-turning and music silencing effect it has on the evening. Edith, it turns out is lame and Hofmiller makes what apologies he can during the confusion, beating a hasty retreat from his evening amongst the higher echelons.

First with flowers and then personal visits, Hofmiller attempts to right this wrong and Zweig is brilliant at showing the consequences of this single event on Hofmiller, the Kekesfalvas and the characters that surround them. Beyond that he is able to develop his theme of pity so that it extends backwards into the past and, as we have already seen from the novel's opening, forwards into the future. Such is the novel's scope that it can also be seen, especially through the depiction of the military and its strict structure, as a memorial to the decline of Austro-Hungarian power framed by two World Wars.

In one fantastic section Hofmiller describes his passion for riding, the pride of being 'lord and creator of this exhilaration' as he gallops ahead of his troops as they ride to the parade ground. but when they pass the schloss, aware subconsciously of Edith's physical proximity he slows his troops to a trot, guilty of having enjoyed his physical freedom so much. It is only once they are entirely clear of its line of sight that he shakes of this sentimentality and gives the order once more to gallop. Within the military unit he is a fairly anonymous component but his burgeoning status within the Kekesfalva household encourages him to continue his visits, especially given his 'conviction that I was an utterly superfluous individual, uninteresting to other people and at most an object of indifference'.

What he is unable to see until it is too late is that for Edith the visits have become vitally important, she feels that she has someone to get well for and each time he walks through the door he is giving her something that she has been lacking since she was first struck down by her disability: hope. In fact through his pity he cannot stop giving false hope to both Edith and her father. The theme of pity is totally dominant throughout the book, particularly after Hofmiller has spent an evening with Dr Condor, the man charged with helping Edith. Condor himself is not exempt; the story runs that he married his wife after failing to cure her of the blindness which had brought her to him as a patient and which he had promised to rid her of. But as Hofmiller becomes more aware of the domestic side of Condor's life he begins to realise the complexities that lie behind local legends. Condor relates to him the history of Herr von Kekesfalva, the local aristocrat who is neither local nor aristocratic. A man who has bought his title and the grand schloss which carries it, but not only that; bought it cheaply. The story of how he swindles the heir of the Kekesfalva estate is chillingly executed with a denouement that brilliantly unites it with the plight of Hofmiller. Condor advises him not to disappoint this man, now clearly weakened by his life, symbolised by Zweig in the black coat which has been ever present throughout his story but which is now 'shabby and shiny... at the elbows.' Hofmiller infact finds himself incapable of not offering him some hope.
'I could feel the old man's confidence increasing as I spoke, and for the first and last time in my life I had some inkling of the elation that accompanies all creative activity.
What I said to Kekesfalva on that paupers bench I no longer know, and never shall know. For just as my words intoxicated my avid listener, so did his blissful hanging on my words rouse in me a lust to promise him more and yet more.'

Within the strict constraints of Austrian society of the period and also of course Hofmiller's military discipline there are some shockingly frank exchanges between characters. Edith especially, after the constant diet of 'trumped-up stories' she is fed about her physical progress, wants to be honest, despite her emotional immaturity making such honesty impossible. When she throws herself at Hofmiller, stealing a desperate hungry kiss he reels from the room and confronts us with the shockingly brutal and offensive honesty of his realisation that he
'had never even thought of Edith as a member of the opposite sex; it had never even so much as crossed my mind that her crippled body was possessed of the same organs, that her soul harboured the same urgent desires, as those of other women. It was only from this moment that I began to have an inkling of the fact (suppressed by most writers) that the outcasts, the branded, the ugly, the withered, the deformed, the despised and rejected, desire with a more passionate, far more dangerous avidity than the happy; that they love with a fanatical, a baleful, a black love, and that no passion on earth rears its head so greedily, so desperately, as the forlorn and hopeless passion of these step-children of God, who feel that they can can only justify their earthly existence by loving and being loved.'

Zweig is unafraid of presenting a cast of characters with massive flaws, with far from altruistic motivations. Even Edith, who could have been an innocent, is far from that. Whilst she remains physically confined to her chair or her bed she is able to reach much further, an emotional tyrant within the house, her petulance indulged and her threats of drastic action thrown around cheaply for effect. She even has the power, as we saw earlier to bring a galloping horse to a respectful trot. The skill with which he charts the emotional landscape means that by the novel's close you too may be subject to your own pity and all too aware of the dangers.


Anonymous,  24 February 2009 at 17:12  

I'm glad you wrote this because a year or so ago I bought the NYRB Beware of Pity and then read some negative reviews of it. I loved my other experience with Zweig, but this book is still sitting on the shelf. Now I have the courage and desire to read it. Thanks!

William Rycroft 24 February 2009 at 19:26  

What were the negative points that were raised Trevor? I'm intrigued because I have nothing to measure this against (apart from all the other books I've ever read!) Zweig-wise.

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