Beware of Pity
By Stefan Zweig
Translated by Anthea Bell
Cover illustration by David Pearson
Pushkin Press, 2013
It begins about May 1914.
Anton Hofmiller, an officer in the Austrian Army, gets an invite to a fancy dinner party. He arrives late, when all the diners are already seated; a crucial point. For if he’d been early, he would have known that Edith, the girl he later asks to dance, is lame. And an unintentional mistake that has mighty consequences never would have happened.
Hofmiller’s heart is awakened, it shakes and moves him, but he is not quite equal to the emotions swirling within. Our hero can pity and/or be nice to a disabled girl, can act the perfect gentleman without any worries, but he cannot love her. When she responds to his kindness with passion it is a total shock to him. Just think: a disabled girl has sexual desires, may wish also for children. The final pages bring a terrible, terrifying realisation: like Orpheus, Hofmiller has lost the girl who loved him most, who could have given him… something he’ll never know.
Stefan Zweig’s only novel was published in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War and some three years before his death, and its tale of a naive army officer in pre-World War One Austria seems to be set wholly apart from the terrible times he was living through. But it would be a mistake, in my view, to see it as an escape into ‘the world of yesterday’. Instead, I’d read the novel as an attempt to locate the low poisonous roots of Nazism, roots which later found expression in the despicable doctrine of Lebensunwertes Leben, in the world that Zweig was so familiar with. By doing so, he called into doubt all he knew. These are the gathering shadows before the awful darkness that was to come: one man’s failure of the heart. And it is surely no accident that Edith is Jewish, as well as disabled; there are no accidents in Zweig’s fiction.
A great novel, terrible and prophetic, beautifully translated by Anthea Bell.