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.