This is my review of Beware of Pity (Stefan Zweig’s classic novel) (B-Format Paperback) by Stefan Zweig.
Set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire just before the outbreak of the First World War, a story which you might expect to find dated proves very gripping. It is written from the viewpoint of Anton Hofmiller, as he looks back ruefully to the time when, as a young cavalry officer, emotionally undeveloped after spending his adolescence in army training, he was first flattered to be wined, dined and treated with unwonted respect in the house of a wealthy local aristocrat, then moved by the plight of the teenage daughter of the house, paralysed by an unspecified illness.
Although you may guess the general direction of the tale it is remarkable for the depth with which Zweig explores the narrator’s complex emotions, and for the vivid evocation of a world about to end – the privileged, snobbish, ritualistic ostrich-like world of the ossified Austro-Hungarian army. He describes with great realism the joys of riding in close formation with one’s men, or galloping freely across the countryside, the huge social pressure to conform in this community rife with gossip and banter bordering on bullying. The book reminds me strongly of Roth’s “The Radestky March”.
If the style sometimes seems anti-semitic, this must be a reflection of the times, since Zweig was himself a Jew. I admit to finding the emotional intensity overwhelming at times, although Zweig has a gift for taking you to the limit of endurance and then introducing a fresh development which releases the tension and shifts you to a contrasting mood – which may in turn become too much. In view of Zweig’s suicide during World War 2, a few years after this book was written, one wonders how much it reflects the overwrought emotional rollercoaster of his own thoughts.
I understand why some reviewers feel the plot is too slight for a full length novel, but on balance Zweig “carries it off” as a psychological study and period piece. I could have done without the “frame” device used, apparently quite popular in the early C20, i.e. to commence with another narrator describing how he meets Hofmiller who implausibly recounts the story in great detail.
Recommended for reading on Kindle.