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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 encountered in my whole life. The next moment a shudder passed through the whole convulsed body…. And suddenly there burst forth a storm of sobbing…. The weeping went on, grew, if anything, more vehement, breaking forth again and again, like a gush of blood, like a hot agony of vomiting, in spasm after spasm.

Hofmiller retreats to the salon, where Ilona intercepts him. “Are you mad?” she says. “Didn’t you see her crippled legs?” No, he didn’t; she was sitting at a table. He bolts from the house, his heart “hot with shame.”

Edith has thus made her first strike, spontaneously. (As we discover, she often has such fits when something displeases her.) But for the folie à deux that is the novel’s subject to take root, Hofmiller must make a complementary response. Already that night, he is appalled at having given such pain: “I felt as though I had struck an innocent child with a whip.” At the same time, another thought—one that will become important as the story progresses—begins working on his mind: his prestige as an officer. He has committed a gaffe, a social error, and has thereby dishonored both his regiment and himself within the regiment: “At our mess table every piece of idiocy on the part of any one of us was chewed over for the next ten or twenty years.”

The following morning, spending all he has left of his month’s pay, he sends Edith a great bouquet of roses. In return, he receives a note from her, inviting him to tea. He needn’t say what day he’s coming, she adds: “I am—alas! —always at home.” Already she is appealing to his compassion, and when, the next afternoon, he pays his call, she does so again, telling him how, before the illness that paralyzed her legs five years earlier, she loved to dance, she wanted to be Pavlova. But alas!

The day after this visit, the innocent Hofmiller is riding out to the morning parade, his men behind him:

I am passionately fond of riding. I could feel the blood flowing from my hips, coursing through my relaxed limbs in a warm, pulsating, life-giving stream, while the cold air whistled round my brow and cheeks. Marvellous morning air: one could still taste the dew of the night in it, the breath of the loosened soil…. On, on, on, gallop, gallop, gallop! Ah, to ride thus, to ride thus to the ends of the earth!

But suddenly, in the midst of this ecstasy, he remembers Edith, and is ashamed of his physical strength, physical enjoyment. He orders his men to slow to a trot. Disappointed, they obey. That, Hofmiller says, was “the first symptom of the strange poisoning of my spirit by pity.”

Interestingly, anti-sentimentally, the object of his pity is not endearing. Edith is narcissistic and imperious—a diva of pain. At tea the day before, she had had to leave her guest early (the masseur had arrived), and, though accustomed to using a wheelchair, this time she insisted on walking:

She pressed her lips firmly together, raised herself on to the crutches and—tap-tap, tap-tap—stamped, swayed, heaved herself forward, contorted and witch-like, while the butler held his hands out behind her to catch her should she slip or collapse. Tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap—first one foot and then the other, and between each step there was a faint clanking and squeaking as of tautly stretched leather and metal [the sound of her braces]…. She wanted to show me, me in particular, to show all of us, that she was a cripple. She wanted, out of a kind of mysterious vindictiveness born of despair, to torture us with her torture.

In the course of the novel, that “tap-tap” will come to sound like something out of Poe, and Edith’s witch-like character will become more pronounced. When she speaks, it sounds to Hofmiller as if she were “hacking away at something with a knife.” When she laughs, “the sound was as sharp and jagged as a saw.” In a way, her father, grieving for her, his only love (he is a widower), appeals more powerfully to Hofmiller’s compassion than Edith does. Zweig makes it clear, however, that the wounded do deserve our pity. And how are we to withhold it, though in giving it in the measure they ask—Hofmiller is soon expected at the house every afternoon—we may feel coerced?

That, in any case, is Hofmiller’s reasoning as, from day to day, he doles out the greater and greater reassurances that Edith demands. She of course falls in love with him, and her doctor tells him that he cannot disabuse her as to his feelings, or not yet, for this would doom a cure that she is about to undertake in Switzerland. So he descends ever deeper into hypocrisy. In the process, Zweig gives us a piercing analysis of the motives underlying pity. Gradually Hofmiller realizes how much he enjoys the courtesies paid to him for his emotional services, how it pleases him that when he arrives at the Schloss his favorite cigarettes—and also the novel (its pages already cut) that he had said in passing that he wanted to read—are laid out on the tea table. Nor is it lost on him that his own sense of strength is magnified by Edith’s weakness and, above all, by his growing power over the Kekesfalvas, the fact that if he, a poor soldier, does not present himself at teatime, this great, rich household is thrown into a panic, and the chauffeur is dispatched to town to spy him out and see what he is doing in preference to waiting on Edith. Beyond the matter of power, however, Hofmiller finds that the emotion of pity is a pleasure just in itself. It exalts him, takes him to a new place. Before, as an officer, he was required only to obey orders and be a good fellow. Now he is a moral being, a soul.

That anatomy of compassion is one of the book’s foremost contributions, but any psychoanalyst could have done it. What only Zweig could have created are the scenes between Hofmiller and Edith: the concrete, subtle, and hair-raising enactments of ambivalence, hers as she vacillates between appealing to his pity and asking for his love, his as he is torn between solicitude and recoil. Late in the novel, during one of his visits, she finds his attentions insufficient. She starts to have one of her fits, and to allay it, he places his hand on her arm:

Suddenly the spasm ceased; she grew rigid again and did not stir. It was as though her whole body were straining to understand what this touch indicated, to know whether it was a gesture of…love or merely of pity. It was terrible, this waiting with bated breath, this waiting of a tense, motionless body. I had not the courage to withdraw the hand which had with such marvellous suddenness stilled the paroxysm of sobs, and on the other hand I had not the strength to force from my fingers the caress that Edith’s body, her burning flesh—I could tell—so urgently awaited. I let my hand lie there, as though it were not a part of me, and I felt as though all the blood in her body came surging in a warm pulsating stream to this one spot.

Now she moves his hand to her heart and begins caressing it:

There was no avidity in this fervent stroking, only serene, awe-struck bliss at being allowed at last to take fleeting possession of some part of my body…. I enjoyed the rippling of her fingers over my skin, the tingling of my nerves—I let it happen, powerless, defenceless, yet subconsciously ashamed at the thought of being loved so infinitely, while for my part feeling nothing but shy confusion, an embarrassed thrill.

The image of Hofmiller standing there awkwardly as Edith fondles his captured hand, the sheer, no-exit suffocation of the situation: the great psychologists of love (Stendhal, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Turgenev) never went further than this. The scene combines their moral knowledge with a kind of neurotic, subdermal excitement reminiscent of Schnitzler, a friend of Zweig’s and another legatee of Freud. Nothing in the book is more striking than this sustained and morbid tension: the nervous laughter, the drumming fingers, the moments of happiness than convert in an instant to fury and grief, with the cutlery suddenly thrown onto the plates. Like Hofmiller, the reader is dragged down, by the neck.

  1. *

    This essay appears in slightly different form as the introduction to a new edition of Beware of Pity, published by New York Review Books in June 2006.

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