Review: Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig

pityIt is 70 years since Stefan Zweig committed suicide with his wife in Rio de Janeiro and while he died despairing of the future of Europe and it’s culture, the ongoing popularity of Zweig’s books suggests that perhaps the future was not as bleak as he supposed. This month, Pushkin Press are publishing four Zweig books with elegant new covers designed by David Pearson and I am pleased to see that they have included Zweig’s only full-length novel, Beware of Pity, in a translation by Anthea Bell.

I have been re-reading Beware of Pity remembering how I originally came to it with some trepidation, not being overly keen on books which focus on unrequited romance. However, I was soon swept up into it’s unfolding drama and was surprised to find it difficult to put down, with a captivating but simple message: if you live entirely to please others you will bring disaster, not only on yourself, but also on those to whom you imagine you are so vitally important.

The novel, set in the Austro-Hungarian empire in the early part of the 20th century, tells the story of a young second lieutenant, Toni, who finds himself embroiled in a relationship with Edith, a partly paralysed 17 year old girl. Edith’s family encourage the relationship and it is only when it is too late that Toni discovers that the girl is deeply in love for him and that she has embarked on a new course of medical treatment so that she can get better “just for him”.  The young soldier is faced with the  impossibility of breaking Edith’s heart, knowing that such a course would jeopardise her recovery from her disabling condition.

The relationship is made all the more difficult because of the near-obsessive desire of Edith’s father to see her cured and happy.  The old man loves his daughter greatly and it breaks his heart to see her in constant pain, unable to take part in the life she should expect as a well-to-do young woman.  He goes every week to the University library to read all the latest medical textbooks and journals in the hope that he may find a cure and he has promised vast sums of money to the synagogue and the church in the event of his child’s recovery.  With such a desire to see his daughter happy and fulfilled Edith’s father falls on Toni with as much enthusiasm as does his daughter and when he see the small changes in her which result from her new relationship with Toni, he piles even more emotional pressure on the young man.

Stefan_Zweig2

Stefan Zweig

Beware of Pity is not just about a love affair; it is about obsession, guilt, and the way the expectations of others can so easily dominate our choices so that we act as others expect us rather than as we want to.  It is interesting to view this story in the light of modern assertiveness training, because all the way through the reader can see that Toni, the young officer, is subjugating his own needs for the needs of someone to whom he has no obligations whatsoever – he has allowed himself to become ruled only by the girl’s romantic fantasies and the expectations of her father and sister.

The novel is remarkably suspenseful because the plot unfolds gradually and at each stage the reader cringes as the net of this sick love slowly ensnares him.  While Edith is preparing for a new round of agonising medical treatments, Toni learns from the family doctor that Edith’s whole treatment so far has been a sham, an attempt to pacify the girl and her father who cannot live without at least a vestige of hope.  The metal supports and splints, the electric baths, the gruelling exercises have all been prescribed simply to raise the spirits of the girl and her father, with no prospect at all of aiding her recovery.

The book is full of strong characters: the doctor who treats the young woman and slowly involves Toni in her treatment regime; the brutal old colonel who turns out to be wiser than the other characters; the girls father who’s whole life is a quest for his daughter’s well-being.  Different aspects of these characters are revealed as the novel slowly travels towards its inevitable conclusion and each one has a unique role in the ensnarement of the young officer.

Beware of Pity is a lengthy novel, and gives the impression of being written in the 19th century rather than the 20th, but it zips along at tremendous pace and is not a difficult read despite it’s subject matter.  It has been beautifully produced by Pushkin press – the clear typeface, fine paper and strong cover makes this a pleasure to read.

Alas, this is Zweig’s only completed novel and like so many Zweig fans I have since had to content myself with novella’s and short stories, fine though these are.  The other three Zweig books which Pushkin Press are publishing at the same time are The World of Yesterday, Journey Into The Past and Letter from an Unknown Woman. What a fine set of covers they are -

world journeyletterpity

20 comments to Review: Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig

  • [...] This post has now been replaced with an updated new one here [...]

  • I’ve only read a couple of Zweig novellas so far, but I’m keen to read more. I think I’ll save this one for later though – a few more novellas caught my eye first :)

  • Great review – I’ve only read Chess and the Hesperus edition of travel writing ‘Journeys’. Lots more to go.

  • Thank you very much for the review! Being Austrian like Stefan Zweig I know some of his works, but this one slipped my attention so far – just because of the title having the touch of romance that you’ve mentioned in you review. Good to know now that the first impression is wrong.

  • I have never read Zweig. Beware of pity sounds fantastic. I like the theme that living only to please others can lead to catastrophe.

  • love the new covers I d read zweig what ever he wrote about just because I liked his style ,I ve one on my tbr so may get one of the two of these I ve not read ready for german lit month ,all the best stu

  • This is an author I’ve read a little of, but have and want to read more.

  • Tom

    Tony – you have to be selective don’t you. It’s great to read reviews and file things for later but then in a few weeks time they don’t seem quite so important!

  • Tom

    Hi Alan, thanks for visiting. There are so many Zweig books these days but I do feel that some of them are rather scraping the barrel.

  • Tom

    Edith- thank you for visiting my website. I would say this is the best of Zweig’s works and it has the feel of a great classic book. I shall now go and visit your website

  • I must admit that I’m only just discovering Stefan Zweig along with other great Austrian writers of the time like Franz Werfel and Joseph Roth. There are so many good writers and so many good books still waiting for me to read… and so terribly little time to do so! However, ‘The World of Yesterday’ is on my pile already and ‘Beware of Pity’ is on my wish list now.

    For the rest: thanks for visiting my blog – it’s a rather new experiment for me and therefore everything’s still under construction in a way.

  • I’ve never read any Zweig but have a couple of his novellas on my TBR pile. This sounds very dark but rather fascinating so it’ll have to join my stash…

  • Tom

    Hi Alex, I think you’d enjoy this one. Thanks for visiting. I’ll nip across and take a look at your website now.

  • Tom

    Hi Edith, I regret I didn’t enjoy The World of Yesterday at all. But Beware of Pity is superb in my view. A great writer – it’s a tragedy that he took his own life while he was still in full flow

  • Hello Tom, as far as I know (before having read the book) The World of Yesterday is very autobiographical and maybe explains in a way why Stefan Zweig decided to commit suicide. He couldn’t bear the idea that the war – above all Hitler’s terror regime – would never end and that he would never be able to return to his beloved Austria. The tragedy was that he would have had to hold on for only another three years and a few months, but he was too depressed to believe in the future.

  • Tom

    Hi Edith – I wish you luck with The World of Yesterday. I found it to be a depressing read with little interest to me. However, it has received good reviews from many other people so perhaps you will enjoy it more than I did

  • I read Beware of Pity last year and was so surprised by how suspenseful it is. A really fantastic novel.
    I have also read one of the short stories – “Chess”, which is also well worth reading, available from Penguin I think.

  • I’ve read a few Zweig novels and really enjoyed them. This one s one the shelf (with a few others) and I can tell from the review that I’ll really like it. I happen to agree with the novel’s basic message.

  • Tom

    Guy – thanks for visiting. I think this is far and away the best of Zweig’s novels and I’m sure you’d like it.

  • [...] Further Reading: Tom’s review at A Common Reader [...]

Leave a Reply