Authors: Stefan Zweig
Translated from the German by
When Stefan Zweig, forced into a peripatetic life because of the rise of Nazism, arrived in New York in 1935, he was persistently asked to make a statement about the treatment of the Jews in Germany. He refused to be drawn out, and said in correspondence that his reason was that anything he said would probably only make their situation worse. Similarly, when staying in London, he found that while he loved the English way of not getting too het up about things, their
and general decency, he found the regular denunciations of the Third Reich a little too much—he felt that they lost force by repetition.
To which one might have countered—one couldn’t say often enough that the Third Reich was evil incarnate. And one would have thought that Zweig, Jewish himself, and fully aware that his books were being burned in university quads all over Germany (and that, given he was probably the most popular author in the world at the time, would have been quite an impressive conflagration in brute terms of scale), might have had more to say publicly on the subject.
Beware of Pity
, completed in 1938, and composed over a period of years before the outbreak of the Second World War (there are eleven extant—extant, mind—volumes of notes and drafts which attest to Zweig’s painstaking work on this, his only full-length novel), itself very pointedly has almost nothing
to say about contemporary times—on the surface, at least. On the surface it is the story of a young Austrian cavalry officer, Anton Hofmiller, who befriends a local millionaire, Kekesfalva, and his family, but in particular the old man’s crippled daughter, Edith, with terrible consequences.
Well, it almost has nothing to say about the times it was written in. Which means that it has something to say about it; obliquely, and passed across your eyes quickly, like a Hitchcock cameo. But the novel’s very flight from pressing concerns is in itself significant. Of course, Zweig’s temperament was pretty influential here—following Hitler’s rise to power, the first project Zweig embarked upon was a biography of Erasmus, which he described as “a quiet hymn of praise to the anti-fanatical man,” or, in other words, in direct but non-violent opposition to the loathsome qualities that were becoming deemed desirable, indeed compulsory, in society at large. But sometimes evasiveness isn’t a straightforward matter of wanting to keep out of trouble, or stick up for virtues which are in danger of being trampled.
One of the earliest writers to note what Freud was doing, Zweig took on board early the lesson that directly
with terrible things is not necessarily the way the mind works. His stories are full of characters poisoned by things left unsaid, or situations misread. We tell ourselves stories about what is going on; but sometimes these are the wrong stories. In one of his earlier stories,
Downfall of the Heart
(whose original title—
Untergang eines Herzens
—is a proleptic echo of the German title of
Beware of Pity—Ungeduld des Herzens
, or “the heart’s impatience”) a self-made businessman succumbs to a terrible decline after seeing, or imagining he has seen, his daughter sneaking out of a man’s hotel room in the middle of the night. And in
Beware of Pity
a hero who makes a habit of getting things wrong. “Since this seems to be the day for making wrong diagnoses …” says the admirable Dr Condor at one point in the novel, but it is the “hero” (and I had better start using inverted commas around that word, for reasons our “hero” would most certainly approve of ) who keeps making wrong diagnoses. There is the terrible
he makes which sets the whole terrible train of events in motion (it’s a small train, admittedly, but big enough to cause havoc); there is his initial impression that Kekesfalva is a genuine venerable Hungarian nobleman, that Condor is a bumpkin and a fool; and, in one splendidly subtle piece of writing, in which an interior state of mind is beautifully translated into memorable yet familiar imagery, he imagines himself to be better put together than Condor, when they walk out in bright moonlight on the night of their first meeting:
And as we walked down the apparently snow-covered gravel drive, suddenly we were not two but four, for our shadows went ahead of us, clear-cut in the bright moonlight. Against my will I had to keep watching those two black companions who persistently marked out our movements ahead of us, like walking silhouettes, and it gave me—our feelings are sometimes so childish—a certain reassurance to see that my shadow was longer, slimmer, I almost said “better-looking”, than the short, stout shadow of my companion.
This has a ring of interior psychological veracity, which shows just how sharply Zweig could pay attention to his characters’ inner workings. And if, as Henry James said, a novelist is someone upon whom nothing is lost, then we have in Zweig’s “hero” here, a man on whom everything is lost. In more than one sense of the phrase.
When we first meet Hofmiller, though, it is not the eve of the First World War, when the events described in
Beware of Pity
take place, but on the eve of the Second, explicitly, in 1938, when the framing narrator—a famous novelist whom we might as well assume to be Zweig himself—is briefly introduced in a café to Hofmiller by a well-meaning “hanger-on” (who could also, possibly, be said to be a mischievously unflattering self-portrait of another aspect of Zweig’s personality. He was known for that kind of thing). Hofmiller is a famously decorated soldier, but he obviously treats his decoration—the highest military order Austria can offer, her equivalent of the Victoria Cross—with disdain bordering on contempt, and only speaks to the framing narrator when they meet accidentally at a dinner party later on.
And it is at this moment that we should realise that the message of the book is not only its ostensible one—that pity is an emotion that can cause great ruin (although this aspect of the book is given greater weight in English, because of its title in translation, the message is delivered firmly and frequently enough in the course of the work)—it is that we must not judge things by appearances. He may be entitled to wear the Order of Maria Theresia but he can tell you that, in his instance at least, what others might regard as courage is actually the result of a monumental act of cowardice.
Stefan Zweig was hugely famous throughout the world as a writer of novellas and short stories, as well as popular histories and biographies, so it is remarkable that he only wrote one
novel. It has led some commentators to suggest that in this instance he overstretched himself, that he became prolix, or, more charitably, that
Beware of Pity
is actually two novellas of unequal length stitched together. The latter suggestion is certainly worth consideration (how Kekesfalva got his loot is
certainly a story in itself), but
Beware of Pity
is the length it is because it has to be (and, as with all Zweig’s writing, it zips along almost effortlessly, like a clear-running stream; it doesn’t read as though it could do with much trimming). The loop back in time that Zweig is taking us on has to be accounted for; it has to take time. He said himself that the impulses behind the novel were not only nostalgia—itself one of the most powerful of narrative impulses, as anyone who has even heard of Proust knows—but pity—pity specifically directed at Lotte, his secretary, with whom he was having an affair, and who was to become his second wife (and with whom he would successfully undertake a suicide pact in a hotel room in Petrópolis, Brazil). Make of that what you will. He wanted this to be the Great Austrian Novel, and so a certain scope was demanded of him.
And he had to go back to pre-1914. For that was when everything began to go wrong. In his story
The Invisible Collection,
first published in 1927, a collector of rare prints who has gone blind is deceived by his family—they have sold his valuable collection bit by bit in order to feed themselves, and him, during the disastrous inflation that followed the First World War, and have replaced the prints with blank paper of the same dimensions and thickness. When he strokes the blank sheets the narrator notes his happiness: “Not for years,
not since 1914,
had I witnessed an expression of such unmitigated happiness on the face of a German …” (Italics mine.)
It is a scene of such potent and telling symbolism that it verges, tremulously, on the corny. But that is not to gainsay its validity and power. The Great War ruined and erased everything, and reduced the past almost to a state as if it had never been. Zweig’s portrait of pre-war Vienna,
The World of Yesterday,
is a long lament for a vanished world, tantamount to a suicide
note. Interestingly—in fact, very interestingly indeed—he does not, in
Beware of Pity
, allude to, or make any real use of, the atmosphere of stifling sexual repression that animates ‘Eros Matutinus’, one of the best chapters of
The World of Yesterday
, in which Zweig acknowledges there were some very significant aspects of genteel society the world was right to discard. In fact, if anything, the return to the values of 1913 is tacitly endorsed, albeit in a complex and ambiguous fashion, when Hofmiller discovers, to his horror, that Edith has sexual desires.
Beware of Pity
ends with a note of almost bitter disillusionment. (Not to mention the reader’s relief at having finally climbed out of an emotional tumble-dryer, which is just the effect Zweig wanted his best work to have.) In fact, if it didn’t sound so off-putting,
could be a perfectly plausible title for the novel (to go with Zweig’s other one-word titles for some of his novellas—
). But disillusionment is, though often painful—and
Beware of Pity
has moments of high melodrama that, over seventy years on, still have the power to make one put one’s free hand over one’s mouth as one reads—a very necessary process. And it is a very useful kind of Bildungsroman in which it is not only the chief character who learns something by the end of it, but the reader, too.
NICHOLAS LEZARD 2011
may perhaps be necessary for the English reader. The Austro-Hungarian Army constituted a uniform, homogeneous body in an Empire composed of a very large number of nations and races. Unlike his English, French, and even German
, the Austrian officer was not allowed to wear mufti when off duty, and military regulations prescribed that in his private life he should always act
that is, in accordance with the special etiquette and code of honour of the Austrian military caste. Among themselves officers of the same rank, even those who were not personally acquainted, never addressed each other in the formal third person plural,
, but in the familiar second person singular,
and thereby the fraternity of all members of the caste and the gulf separating them from civilians were emphasized. The final criterion of an officer’s behaviour was invariably not the moral code of society in general, but the special moral code of his caste, and this frequently led to mental conflicts, one of which plays an important part in this book.
There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak-minded, sentimental sort, is really just the heart’s impatience to rid itself as quickly as possible of the painful experience of being moved by another person’s suffering. It is not a case of real sympathy, of feeling with the sufferer, but a way of defending yourself against someone else’s pain. The other kind, the only one that counts, is unsentimental but creative. It knows its own mind, and is determined to stand by the sufferer, patiently suffering too, to the last of its strength and even beyond.
“To him that hath, more shall be given.” Every writer knows the truth of this biblical maxim, and can confirm the fact that “To him who hath told much, more shall be told.” There is nothing more erroneous than the idea, which is only too common, that a writer’s imagination is always at work, and he is constantly inventing an inexhaustible supply of incidents and stories. In reality he does not have to invent his stories; he need only let characters and events find their own way to him, and if he retains to a high degree the ability to look and listen, they will keep seeking him out as someone who will pass them on. To him who has often tried to interpret the tales of others, many will tell their tales.
The incidents that follow were told to me almost entirely as I record them here, and in a wholly unexpected way. Last time I was in Vienna I felt tired after dealing with a great deal of business, and I went one evening to a suburban restaurant that I suspected had fallen out of fashion long ago, and would not be very full. As soon as I had come in, however, I found to my annoyance that I was wrong. An acquaintance of mine rose from the very first table with every evidence of high delight, to which I am afraid I could not respond quite so warmly, and asked me to sit down with him. It would not be true to say that this excessively friendly gentleman was disagreeable company in himself; but he was one of those compulsively sociable people who collect acquaintances as enthusiastically as children collect stamps, and like to show off every item in their collection. For this well-meaning oddity—a knowledgeable and competent archivist by profession—the whole meaning of life was confined
to the modest satisfaction of being able to boast, in an offhand manner, of anyone whose name appeared in the newspapers from time to time, “Ah, he’s a good friend of mine,” or, “Oh, I met him only yesterday,” or, “My friend A told me, and then my friend B gave it as his opinion that …” and so on all through the alphabet. He was regularly in the audience to applaud the premieres of his friends’ plays, and would telephone every leading actress next morning with his congratulations, he never forgot a birthday, he never referred to any poor reviews of your work in the papers, but sent you those that praised it to the skies. Not a disagreeable man, then—his warmth of feeling was genuine, and he was delighted if you ever did him a small favour, or even added a new item to his fine collection of acquaintances.
However, there is no need for me to say more about my friend the hanger-on—such was the usual name in Vienna for this particular kind of well-intentioned parasite among the motley group of social climbers—for we all know hangers-on, and we also know that there is no way of repelling their well-meant attentions without being rude. So I resigned myself to sitting down beside him, and half-an-hour had passed in idle chatter when a man came into the restaurant. He was tall, his fresh-complexioned, still youthful face and the interesting touch of grey at his temples made him a striking figure, and a certain way of holding himself very upright marked him out at once as a former military man. My table companion immediately leapt to his feet with a typically warm greeting, to which, however, the gentleman responded with more indifference than civility, and the newcomer had hardly ordered from the attentive waiter who came hurrying up before my friend the lion-hunter was leaning towards me and asking in a whisper, “Do you know who that is?” As I well knew his collector’s pride in displaying his collection, and I feared a lengthy story, I said only a brief, “No,” and went back to dissecting my Sachertorte. However, my lack of interest only aroused further enthusiasm in the collector of famous names, and he confidentially
whispered, “Why, that’s Hofmiller of the General Commissariat—you know, the man who won the Order of Maria Theresia in the war.” And since even this did not seem to impress me as much as he had hoped, he launched with all the enthusiasm of a patriotic textbook into an account of the great achievements of this Captain Hofmiller, first in the cavalry, then on the famous reconnaissance flight over the river Piave when he shot down three enemy aircraft single-handed, and finally the time when he occupied and held a sector of the front for three days with his company of gunners—all with a wealth of detail that I omit here, and many expressions of astonishment at finding that I had never heard of this great man, decorated by Emperor Karl in person with the highest order in the Austrian Army.
Reluctantly, I let myself be persuaded to glance at the other table for a closer view of a historically authentic hero. But I met with a look of annoyance, as much as to say—has that fellow been talking about me? There’s no need to stare! At the same time the gentleman pushed his chair to one side with an air of distinct displeasure, ostentatiously turning his back to us. Feeling a little ashamed of myself, I looked away from him, and from then on I avoided looking curiously at anything, even the tablecloth. Soon after that I said goodbye to my talkative friend. I noticed as I left that he immediately moved to the table where his military hero was sitting, probably to give him an account of me as eagerly as he had talked to me about Hofmiller.
That was all. A mere couple of glances, and I would certainly have forgotten that brief meeting, but at a small party the very next day it so happened that I again found myself opposite the same unsociable gentleman, who incidentally looked even more striking and elegant in a dinner jacket than he had in his casual tweeds the day before. We both had some difficulty in suppressing a small smile, the kind exchanged in a company of any size by two people who share a well-kept secret. He recognised me as easily as I did him, and probably we felt the same
amusement in thinking of the mutual acquaintance who had failed to throw us together yesterday. At first we avoided speaking to one another, and indeed there was not much chance to do so, because an animated discussion was going on around us.
I shall be giving away the subject of that discussion in advance if I mention that it took place in the year 1938. Later historians of our time will agree that in 1938 almost every conversation, in every country of our ruined continent of Europe, revolved around the probability or otherwise of a second world war. The theme inevitably fascinated every social gathering, and you sometimes felt that fears, suppositions and hopes were being expressed not so much by the speakers as by the atmosphere itself, the air of those times, highly charged with secret tensions and anxious to put them into words.
The subject had been broached by the master of the house, a lawyer and self-opinionated, as lawyers tend to be. He trotted out the usual arguments to prove the usual nonsense—the younger generation knew about war now, he said, and would not stumble blindly into another one. At the moment of mobilisation, guns would be turned on those who had given orders to fire them. Men like him in particular, said our host, men who had fought at the front in the last war, had not forgotten what it was like. At a time when explosives and poison gas were being manufactured in tens of thousands—no, hundreds of thousands—of armaments factories, he dismissed the possibility of war as easily as he flicked the ash off his cigarette, speaking in a confident tone that irritated me. We shouldn’t always, I firmly retorted, believe in our own wishful thinking. The civil and military organisations directing the apparatus of war had not been asleep, and while our heads were spinning with utopian notions they had made the maximum use of peacetime to get control of the population at large. It had been organised in advance and was now, so to speak, primed ready to fire. Even now, thanks to our sophisticated propaganda machine, general subservience had grown to
extraordinary proportions, and we had only to look facts in the face to see that when mobilisation was announced on the radio sets in our living rooms, no resistance could be expected. Men today were just motes of dust with no will of their own left.
Of course everyone else was against me. We all know from experience how the human tendency to self-delusion likes to declare dangers null and void even when we sense in our hearts that they are real. And such a warning against cheap optimism was certain to be unwelcome at the magnificently laid supper table in the next room.
Unexpectedly, although I had assumed that the hero who had won the Order of Maria Theresia would be an adversary, he now spoke up and took my side. It was sheer nonsense, he said firmly, to suppose that what ordinary people wanted or did not want counted for anything today. In the next war machinery would do the real work, and human beings would be downgraded to the status of machine parts. Even in the last war, he said, he had not met many men in the field who were clearly either for or against it. Most of them had been caught up in hostilities like a cloud of dust in the wind, and there they were, stuck in the whirl of events, shaken about and helpless like dried peas in a big bag. All things considered, he said, perhaps more men had fled into the war than away from it.
I listened in surprise, particularly interested by the vehemence with which he went on. “Let’s not delude ourselves. If you were to try drumming up support in any country today for a war in a completely different part of the world, say Polynesia or some remote corner of Africa, thousands and tens of thousands would volunteer as recruits without really knowing why, perhaps just out of a desire to get away from themselves or their unsatisfactory lives. But I can’t put the chances of any real opposition to the idea of war higher than zero. It takes far more courage for a man to oppose an organisation than to go along with the crowd. Standing up to it calls for individualism, and individualists
are a dying species in these times of progressive organisation and mechanisation. In the war the instances of courage that I met could be called courage en masse, courage within the ranks, and if you look closely at that phenomenon you’ll find some very strange elements in it—a good deal of vanity, thoughtlessness, even boredom, but mainly fear—fear of lagging behind, fear of mockery, fear of taking independent action, and most of all fear of opposing the united opinion of your companions. Most of those whom I knew on the field as the bravest of the brave seemed to me very dubious heroes when I returned to civil life. And please don’t misunderstand me,” he added, turning courteously to our host, who had a wry look on his face, “I make no exception at all for myself.”
I liked the way he spoke, and would have gone over for a word with him, but just then the lady of the house summoned us to supper, and as we were seated some way apart we had no chance to talk. Only when everyone was leaving did we meet in the cloakroom.
“I think,” he said to me, with a smile, “that we’ve already been introduced by our mutual friend.”
I smiled back. “And at such length, too.”
“I expect he laid it on thick, presenting me as an Achilles and carrying on about my order.”
“Something like that.”
“Yes, he’s very proud of my order—and of your books as well.”
“An oddity, isn’t he? Still, there are worse. Shall we walk a little way together?”
As we were leaving, he suddenly turned to me. “Believe me, I mean it when I tell you that over the years the Order of Maria Theresia has been nothing but a nuisance to me. Too showy by half for my liking. Although to be honest, when it was handed out to me on the battlefield of course I was delighted at first. After all, when you’ve been trained as a soldier and from your days at military academy on you’ve heard about the legendary order—it’s given to perhaps only a dozen men in any war—well, it’s like
star falling from heaven into your lap. A thing like that means a lot to a young man of twenty-eight. All of a sudden there you are in front of everyone, they’re all staring at something shining on your chest like a little sun, and the Emperor himself, His Unapproachable Majesty, is shaking your hand and congratulating you. But you see, it’s a distinction that meant nothing outside the world of the army, and after the war it struck me as ridiculous to be going around as a certified hero for the rest of my life, just because I’d shown real courage for twenty minutes—probably no more courage, in fact, than ten thousand others. All that distinguished me from them was that I had attracted attention and, perhaps even more surprising, I’d come back alive. After a year when everyone stared at that little bit of metal, with their eyes wandering over me in awe, I felt sick and tired of going around like a monument on the move, and I hated all the fuss. That’s one of the reasons why I switched to civilian life so soon after the end of the war.”
He began walking a little faster.
“One of the reasons, I said, but the main reason was private, and you may find it easier to understand. The main reason was that I had grave doubts of my right to be decorated at all, or at least of my heroism. I knew better than any of the gaping strangers that behind that order was a man who was far from being a hero, was even decidedly a non-hero—one of those who ran full tilt into the war to save themselves from a desperate situation. Deserters from their own responsibilities, not heroes doing their duty. I don’t know how it seems to you, but I for one see life lived in an aura of heroism as unnatural and unbearable, and I felt genuinely relieved when I could give up parading my heroic story on my uniform for all to see. It still irritates me to hear someone digging up the old days of my glory, and I might as well admit that yesterday I was on the point of going over to your table and telling our loquacious friend, in no uncertain terms, to boast of knowing someone else, not me. Your look of respect rankled, and I felt like showing how
wrong our friend was by making you listen to the tale of the devious ways whereby I acquired my heroic reputation. It’s a very strange story, and it certainly shows that courage is often only another aspect of weakness. Incidentally, I would still have no reservations about telling you that tale. What happened to a man a quarter-of-a-century ago no longer concerns him personally—it happened to someone different. Do you have the time and inclination to hear it?”