Saturday, November 01, 2008

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

According to the author bio in my reprint edition, around the turn of the 20th century the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig was an international literary sensation, his plays, novellas, and biographies translated into more than a dozen languages. Nowadays he is known mainly in his native German, but the good people at NYRB have been working hard to rectify this situation. Judging by Beware of Pity, a meaty, intense novel of obsession and psychological manipulation, one of Zweig's latest works and his only full-length novel, this is something to be extremely grateful for.

Set in the months leading up to the first world war and in the an out-of-the-way Austrian garrison town, Beware of Pity is told through the reminiscences of Hofmiller, a young cavalry officer stationed at the town. Poor and of an undistinguished family, Hofmiller is ill-at-ease among his fellow officers, most of whom are wealthy and titled, and protective of his reputation and honor. When a friend secures for him an invitation to the home of Herr von Kekesfalva, the local landowner and richest man in town, Hofmiller is thrilled, and cuts a dashing figure at dinner and during the dance after it. At the end of the evening, high on good food and good company, Hofmiller realizes that he has made the faux pas of failing to ask his host's daughter, eighteen year old Edith, to dance, but when he does so the girl reacts in horror and hysteria. Having arrived late to dinner, Hofmiller has not had the chance to see that Edith is paralyzed, and once he realizes his mistake he is nearly as horrified as Edith was, and flees the house in shame.

What might have ended as no more than a mortifying incident Hofmiller would shudder to look back on in later years balloons into a full-scale entanglement with the Kekesfalva family when Hofmiller, embarrassed by his cowardly retreat and fearful that his ungentlemanly behavior might become known among his fellow officers, sends Edith an apology and accepts her invitation to call on her. What he finds in the Kekesfalva home is an illustration of Shaw's famous adage that a family is a tyranny ruled over by its weakest member. Once a lively and energetic young woman, Edith's high spirits have been turned against her, feeding her frustration at her disability and the confinement it imposes on her. Her moods vacillate wildly, from determined euphoria to despair, from rage at any hint of pity or condescension to a spoiled, selfish desire to have everything just as and when she wants it. Up until Hofmiller's arrival, Edith's demands fell squarely on the shoulders of her long-suffering cousin Ilona and her equally needy father, who is obsessed with finding a cure for his daughter's affliction, but the young man charms and distracts the invalid. He is immediately folded into the Kekesfalva household, made a pet of and plied with gifts and luxuries to keep him coming back. For Hofmiller, however, the appeal of his friendship with Edith isn't the material gains it offers but the sense of belonging and importance it allows him to feel.
In all sorts of delightful, obvious ways I was made to realize that I was regarded as one of the family. Every one of my little weaknesses and predilections was anticipated and encouraged; my favorite brand of cigarettes was always laid ready for me, the book that on my last visit I had happened to say I should like to read I would find lying, as though by chance, the pages carefully cut, on the little stool; one particular arm-chair opposite Edith's was regarded incontestably as 'my' chair--trifles, mere nothings, all these, to be sure, but such things as imperceptibly cast a homely warmth over a strange room and, without one's being aware of it, cheer and lighten the spirit. There I would sit, feeling more at ease than I ever did among my comrades, chatting and joking away as the mood took me, realizing for the first time that any form of constraint fetters the true forces of the spirit and that the real measure of a man is only revealed when he feels entirely at his ease.
Hofmiller thus embarks on a spectacularly twisted and dysfunctional relationship with both Edith and her father. Though unhealthy, the friendship is, at least at first, mutually beneficial, but soon Hofmiller finds himself being asked to do more and more for the Kekesfalvas, while the consequences of refusing them grow more dire. When Edith's physician Doctor Condor visits the estate for a regular checkup, Kekesfalva asks Hofmiller to get an honest assessment out of the man--who by now has come to view both father and daughter as hysterics in need of being coddled and protected--as to Edith's chances of recovery. Condor tells Hofmiller that there is at present no cure for Edith's condition, but the young man can't bring himself to equivocate with the desperate and obviously ill Kekesfalva, and wildly exaggerates the faint promise of a new treatment. When Edith makes her romantic intentions towards him apparent, Hofmiller is at first disgusted, but is soon made to realize--by Condor and by Edith herself--that to refuse her would almost certainly drive the girl to suicide. The deepening of Hofmiller's involvement with the Kekesfalva family parallels the effect of the placebo medications with which Condor palliates the girl and her father--at first the sheer novelty of his presence effects a positive change, but soon more and more of it and a greater emotional involvement on his part are required to achieve the same effect, until Hofmiller stands on the brink of being devoured whole by the Kekesfalvas' need.

Beware of Pity belongs to that class of novels which seem pitched halfway between 19th century fiction and the modern, psychological novel. For a novel primarily concerned with its characters' interiority and the point of stasis their lives have arrived at, it is remarkably plot-driven, with tension building and hinging on real-world events such as a missed train or an undeliverable telegram. It is also characterized by an obsession, which I tend to think of as particularly Victorian, with verisimilitude. Hofmiller's narrative is framed by that of a writer to whom he is telling his story, and within that narrative other characters often take the storytelling reins to tell Hofmiller how Kekesfalva made his fortune, how Condor met and married his wife, how a former comrade of Hofmiller's fared after leaving the service. Story is, in other words, how Beware of Pity achieves its effect.

At the same time, that effect is undeniably modern, stressing as it does the conflict and indecision that drive its characters. Though characters in 19th century novels can be believable, well-drawn, and complex, they are rarely at war with themselves as 20th century fictional characters so often are. Beware of Pity hinges on this inner turmoil. Hofmiller is elated and gratified by his importance to the Kekesfalvas, but he also grows tired of them and feels trapped by their need. Edith, as I've already said, suffers from wild mood swings, and can't decide whether she'd rather be coddled and lied to about her condition and Hofmiller's feelings for her, or treated like an adult and told the painful truth. The characters are trapped by their indecision, and though the novel ends with both of them taking action to escape their situation, this is a desperate, wild stab that ultimately hurts both of them much more than the stasis they'd been trapped in did. There is none of the rationalism here that characterizes the narrative, and sometimes the actions, in a 19th century novel. The characters act on emotion and impulse, and suffer for it.

Beware of Pity's setting--the young cavalry officer visiting an opulent estate, making the acquaintance of elegant ladies and their patrician guardian--creates expectations of a certain kind of novel, as does the emphasis, in the novel's early pages, on manners and propriety. Hofmiller's early negotiations with the Kekesfalva family are strictly regulated by manners. Upon receiving the fateful invitation to dine in the Kekesfalva home he remarks that
One wasn't dragged up in the gutter, thank God, and knew what was proper in such circumstances! So on the following Sunday morning I got myself up in my very best--white gloves and and patent-leather shoes, my face relentlessly shaved, a drop of eau-de-Cologne on my moustache--and drove out to pay my courtesy call. The butler--old, discreet, well-cut livery--took my card and murmured apologetically that the family would be extremely sorry to have missed the Herr Leutnant, but they were all at church. So much the better, said I to myself. Paying one's first call, whether official or private, is always a ghastly business. At any rate, you've done the right thing. You'll go to dinner on Wednesday evening, and let's hope you'll have a good time.
This elaborate dance of etiquette continues throughout dinner and all the way up to Hofmiller's insult to Edith--which, of course, is caused precisely because he remembers his manners and asks the young lady of the house to dance--but from that point on propriety is gradually worn away at until there's nothing left, not only in Hofmiller's increasingly intimate relationship with Edith and her father, but in his dealings with his fellow officers. Part of the reason for Hofmiller's determination to do right by Edith after asking her to dance is that he fears his comrades will get wind of his failure of manners and cut him, but by the end of the novel it becomes clear that it's not manners that the officers in Hofmiller's regiment care about but appearance.

When, towards the end of the novel, Hofmiller promises himself to Edith and then repudiates the engagement in front of his friends, he is so scandalized by his ungentlemanly behavior that he contemplates suicide. Turning instead to his Colonel, Hofmiller discovers to his dismay that what matters to the older man is not whether one of his officers has acted disgracefully but whether that disgrace can be hushed up. By that point, of course, Hofmiller has become thoroughly disillusioned. Kekesfalva is not the courtly nobleman. Edith is not the shy, angelic maiden. Their family and estate are not the embodiment of a more genteel, more civilized way of life and the promise of its continuity--and it is surely no coincidence that the novel is set just prior to the outbreak of the first world war, which will mark the beginning of the end for that way of life. In this sense, Beware of Pity is very similar to L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between, which is also told through the eyes of a young person who is enchanted and star-struck by an aristocratic family whose members, falling far short of his idealized image of them, take advantage of and destroy his innocence. Much like Beware of Pity, The Go-Between seems half like a Victorian novel, half like a modern one.

It is precisely this confusion of modern and pre-modern literary tropes and attitudes that renders Beware of Pity so much more ambivalent about its characters and the dilemmas facing them than we, as 21st century readers, might expect it to be. In its descriptions of Hofmiller's deepening involvement with the Kekesfalva family, Beware of Pity puts one in mind of most episodes of House, and of that character's insistence that to selflessly sacrifice oneself and one's happiness for another is nothing but self-gratifying selfishness in disguise (while simultaneously demonstrating, in his own behavior, how unchecked selfishness can become a black hole of need that sucks down and exhausts the best intentions of anyone who tries to help), but Zweig's novel is a great deal less cynical than the television series. The difference, I think, is that we've been taught to think of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation as nearly unmitigated evils, traps that prevent people from achieving their full potential and true happiness. Beware of Pity, for all that the selflessness it describes is ultimately pointless and unsuccessful, still takes the 19th century attitude which sees sacrifice as something noble and worthy.

Hofmiller is repeatedly confronted with examples of people who have sacrificed themselves for others and lived happier and more fulfilling lives for it, most notably Doctor Condor, who married a patient after failing to save her sight. It's Condor who tries to educate Hofmiller in the difference between the self-serving selfless impulse, and the self-sacrificing one, in a passage that also serves as the novel's epigraph:
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...; 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.
Or, to put it another way, there are no half-measures. If Hofmiller wants to do real good, he has to give himself over completely, to renounce his own wishes and desires and gratify another's. This is, understandably, an off-putting notion, especially coming as it does right on the heels of our first glimpse of Condor's home life, in which his hysterical, fearful wife clings to him and makes demands on him as urgently as any of his patients. It is also, however, a seductive one, not only because of the romantic appeal of self-sacrifice but because, as the character is described until that point, it seems entirely likely that to sacrifice himself for Edith might very well be the most useful and meaningful thing Hofmiller could do with his life.

The novel goes to great lengths to stress just how unremarkable Hofmiller is to anyone but the Kekesfalvas, how little effect he has on the world when out of their home. He's an undistinguished officer about to fight a pointless war which will decisively relegate his branch of the military to a purely ornamental role. He has no dreams, no hopes, no aspirations. He is immature, undisciplined, and has a weak character--as demonstrated by his repeated inability to break away from the Kekesfalvas or speak truthfully to them. In the framing story Hofmiller is a decorated veteran, but he looks dimly on his alleged heroism, presumably out of an awareness that he's missed his one chance to be an actual hero to the one person who truly needed him. I'm not sure whether readers in 1939 would have had this reaction, but coming to the novel in 2008 this suggestion that it might have been better for Hofmiller to burn himself up in Edith's service (while at the same time stressing the monstrousness of her need, and the possibility that even Hofmiller might not have been enough to sate it) is both disturbing and exhilarating, so different is it from what I'm used to finding in modern fiction.

Of course, the fact that Edith is so desperate for Hofmiller's love, or the promise of a cure for her condition, or both, is down to another 19th and early 20th century attitude which 21st century readers might have trouble with, and that is the infantilization that both her gender and her disability force on her. As terrible as Edith's selfishness is, one can't help but notice that it has been bred in her, and is being reinforced by the belief of everyone around her that, as a woman, she must be protected from the truth, and as an invalid, she can't be expected to function fully as a human being. Beware of Pity is littered with examples of these intentionally weakened women who become millstones around men's necks. Edith's mother, the emotionally battered companion of a mean-spirited noblewoman, inherits the Kekesfalva estate after her employer dies. Rather than rejoice at this windfall, the poor, broken woman is terrified by the responsibilities it entails and the naked hatred the old woman's relatives subject her to. Kekesfalva (then a shady businessman by the name of Leopold Kanitz) swindles her out of her inheritance, but is so haunted by her helplessness that he ends up marrying her. Condor's wife, as I've already said, is clingy and fearful--when Hofmiller visits Condor's home and finds only the wife there, she is nearly beside herself with fear, and hysterically tries to drive him out of the house. (It is perhaps telling that the only able-bodied and able-minded female character, Ilona, is also the one the novel expends the least attention on, barely even sparing her a mention after Hofmiller makes Edith's acquaintance despite her prominence in the Kekesfalva household.)

One can't help but wonder how Edith might have fared if only someone--Hofmiller, Condor, or even her father--had made demands on her, forced her to use her prodigious force of will to control herself rather than others. The fact that none of Edith's friends and loved ones consider taking this step might be seen as Zweig's blindness to the possibility that a woman might be capable of this feat. On the other hand, it might be yet another illustration of the way the novel and its characters are trapped between 19th and 20th century attitudes. Edith is too strong, and Hofmiller is too weak, for either of them to play the roles that a 19th century novel would assign to them--the saintly invalid content with her lot in life; the brave cavalry officer willing to shoulder the responsibility for her emotional and physical well-being--but neither of them know how to be anything but those characters.

Beware of Pity is a slippery, undefinable novel. Part rationalist, stiff upper lip Victoriana (I've been using this term throughout this review though obviously it is inappropriate for a novel written by an Austrian--I'm just not sure what comparable term would be appropriate for European novels of that same period), part minutely-described irrationality. At the same time decidedly old-fashioned and disturbingly modern. Whatever its classification, it is as pitch-perfect a description as I can imagine of the universal, conflicting human impulses to help others and free ourselves from their need. As such, it offers a double pleasure--a glimpse at one of the transition points on the path towards the modern novel, and an excellent and engaging piece of writing.


Mae Travels said...

That's a fascinating review, Abigail. I've recently read a few Zweig short stories -- especially Buchmendel. Have you read his autobiography "The World of Yesterday"? Also very penetrating.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hi Mae,

No, I haven't read anything else by Zweig, though I'm definitely going to do so.

Anonymous said...

What an outstanding review Abigail.

I had just read a French article on Zweig, " Le mystere Zweig " Pourquoi est=il toujours best-seller? Sa bibliographe mene l'enquete.

Your "essay" is certainly goading me into reading
"Beware of pity", tout de suite.

Merci ! beatricelangeais'AOL.COM

Anonymous said...

This is my favorite book of all time. Thank you for reviewing it with great thought.

Anonymous said...

I read "Beware of Pity" about twelve years ago and have been mulling it over from time to time ever since. I found your review helped elucidate many of the aspects of the book with which I was struggling. The way you put the book into its context in time, place and literature was also valuable. Thankyou very much.


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