Beware of Pity’

In the 1920s and 1930s Stefan Zweig was an immensely popular writer, a man who had to barricade himself in his house in Salzburg in order to avoid the fans lurking around his property in the hope of waylaying him. According to his publisher, he was the most widely translated author in the world. Today, while he is still read in Germany and also in France, his name is barely known to the average Anglophone reader. In the last few decades, however, there has been an effort on the part of several publishers to get Zweig back into print in English. In my opinion, no book of his deserves reissue more than his one novel, Beware of Pity (Ungeduld des Herzens, 1938).

Zweig was a friend and admirer of Sigmund Freud, his fellow Viennese, and it was no doubt Freud’s writings, together with the experience of two world wars, that persuaded him of the fundamental irrationalism of the human mind. Absolutely central to his fiction is the subject of obsession. And so it is with Beware of Pity. To my knowledge, this book is the first sustained fictional portrait of emotional blackmail based on guilt. Today, it is a commonplace that one person may enslave another by excessive love, laced with appeals to gratitude, compassion, and duty, and that the loved one may actually feel those sentiments—love, too, of a sort—while at the same time wanting nothing more than to be out the door. But even in the iconoclastic Thirties, gratitude, compassion, and duty were not yet widely seen as potential engines of tyranny. It was partly for his cold examination of those esteemed motives that Zweig admired Freud—”he enlarged the sincerity of the universe,” Zweig wrote—and in Beware of Pity he carried the analysis forward.

The story opens in 1913, in a small garrison town on the Hungarian frontier. Stationed there is Anton Hofmiller, a second lieutenant of the Austro-Hungarian cavalry. He is twenty-five, but having spent much of his life in a military academy, he is younger than his years. One night he wangles an invitation to dinner at the local Schloss, the home of Herr Lajos von Kekesfalva, a great industrialist. He spends the evening in a daze of Tokay and admiration. The halls are hung with Gobelins; the dinner is magnificent; his seatmate, Kekesfalva’s niece Ilona, has arms “like peeled peaches”; he dances the night away. Then, as he is about to leave, he remembers that his host has a daughter—Edith, seventeen or eighteen years old—and that he should ask her to dance. In a side room, he finds her, a frail-looking girl with gray eyes. He bows to her, and says, “May I have this dance, gnädiges Fräulein?” Her response is not what he expected:

The bowed head and shoulders jerked backwards, as though to avoid a blow;…the eyes stared fixedly at me with an expression of horror such as I had never before …

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Letters

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