Reading Note:
Stefan Zweig
3 December 2018

¶ For years, I resisted reading Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, because reviews of the NYRB republication had led me to expect a sickly, expressionist tale. But I couldn’t find anything in the shelves that was more promising, so I pulled it down. I began reading it late at night, so late that, the next day, I started out at the beginning again. I couldn’t quite finish it before bedtime, but I picked it up right after the Times the next morning, and was soon done. Sickly and expressionist it is not. 

Although the English title is not terrible, a more faithful translation of the original, Ungeduld des Herzens The Heart’s Impatience, perhaps — would be much better. “Beware of pity” is the hero’s warning to the reader, expressive of a regret repeated many times in the novel. But the heroine — think she’s a heroine — is impatient, too. She wants to be cured of the paralysis for which the hero, himself impatient to alleviate misery, pities her — and because of which he cannot love her. 

I gather from Joan Acocella’s introduction that the heroine is generally regarded as a witch, who fans her would-be lover’s conscience with searing waves of guilt. For my part, I found the hero to be a monster of callow vanity, so preoccupied by tending the flame of his self-regard that he doesn’t see that, like the worst of cads, he is leading a poor girl on. She, not unnaturally, takes his daily attention as a sign of affection, but he, understandably perhaps but somewhat less naturally, has simply become addicted to visiting the sick, or at least a a sick person who happens to be a pretty little girl living at the height of luxury. As one of the first novelists familiar with the teachings of Freud, Zweig presents characters whose motives are complicated in what has become a very familiar way. 

Against this psychological modernity, Zweig deploys well-worn melodramatic plot devices with the deftness of a topnotch prestidigitator. In the most exciting of the many scenes that presage the climax, the urgency of avoiding an impending thunderstorm prevents the hero from explaining to the heroine’s ailing father, who shouldn’t be out in this weather, matters that really require a calmer setting. I found the encounter fresh as rain, and far too satisfying to be hokey, which it might well have been in lesser hands. Beware of Pity is also shot through with the hero’s innocent and unconscious denunciation of the Austrian Army’s unpreparedness for the war that interrupts everything at the end. Zweig’s prose is the literary equivalent of architectural Vienna, grand but rarely grandiose, leavened by a wit that is psychological rather than verbal. Beware of Pity is truly thoughtful box of delightful treats. 

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