It is a universal truth that a reader in want of a good read returns time and again to the backcatalogue of a favourite author. What’s less well known is that there is always one book that puts the dampers on the unmitigated enthusiasm.
I can be thankful, therefore, that Beware of Pity, was not my first encounter with Stefan Zweig because it would have been my last. I read Zweig for the intensity of the experience, emotional highs and lows like no other. His novellas and short stories are first-class and it is perhaps their brevity that makes them so. I recently read the collection Amok and Other Stories, the high point of which was the final story, Incident on Lake Geneva. A WWI Russian deserter is stranded in Switzerland while trying to make his way home. The man’s isolation, incomprehension and despair oozing from every syllable on the page despite his not being able to communicate with the Swiss villagers. Very involving, very painful, very dramatic. As a reader, I was devastated even though the ending had been foreshadowed from the start. Literary control, high emotion, short, sharp and very far from sweet, all in 10 pages.
That same intensity doesn’t map well, though, to a novel of 361 pages. It’s very wearing. More so when the narrative voice is monotonous and the situation doesn’t elicit sympathy from the reader. I found the tone more agonising than agony. A smidgeon of common sense and the whole drama/tragedy would have been avoided. Of course, that would have meant no novel, but perhaps it would have been better if Zweig had stuck to his favourite novella format.
He certainly retains novella-writing techniques in Beware of Pity. The pages are punctuated by stories within stories. The main event, itself, is sandwiched between a prologue and epilogue that take place many years later. An effect that works well in depicting the change in moral outlook brought on by World War I. After all, the conscience of a lieutenant, who has killed many, is no longer affected by the death of one individual to whom he had behaved less than honourably before the war.
Or had he? The epigram is telling:
THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF PITY
One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one’s own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.
It’s a given that the lieutenant’s actions are governed by the first kind of pity but, instead of walking away after making a particularly blunt faux-pas at a ball (he asks a crippled girl to dance), he tries to rectify his error by befriending her. His motives are mistaken for romantic interest but instead of clarifying the situation early on, he allows himself to be sucked in. His honour as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army is at stake. An author’s note emphasises that this sense of honour was tied to a special moral code, higher than that of society at general. A code that led to the mental conflict central to the book and a code that was shattered during the 1914-1918 war. Zweig seems to be saying that this dilemma couldn’t happen in the time he was writing of it and it certainly wouldn’t happen now. This reader simply wishes that it hadn’t happened at all.
Beware of Pity
Amok and Other Stories (Incident on Lake Geneva )