It 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.
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 –