KLASSEN ON BOOKS - April 2016 - By John Klassen (Reviews)



Stefan Zweig: Beware of Pity

Zweig (1881-1942) was an Austrian novelist, playwright, librettist, journalist, and biographer. At the height of his literary career in the 1920s-1930s, he was one of the most popular, and most translated, writers in the world. As Hitler consolidated power, Zweig left Austria, in 1934, to move to England. In 1940, Zweig and his wife moved to New York where they lived for two months before moving again, to Brazil where they committed suicide in February, 1942. Looking at the state of Europe, Zweig wrote in his suicide note: "I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearings a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth."

Beware of Pity


In pre-WWII Austria, Anton Hofmiller is lionized as a war hero and recipient of the country's highest, and rarest, award for bravery. But he has a darker past and his accounting of that, in the period leading up to WWI, forms the narative of the novel. (This is a technique that Zweig used often: a secondary narrator provides a sort of case-history, a fascinating tale, that the original narrator recounts as the story.) Hofmiller is a young calvary officer stationed in a small garrison town. His life is the army with it myriad regulations, patterns, procedures, and hierarchy. His world opens when he is befriended by a local wealthy baron who introduces him to connections and more intellectual interests and, most importantly, the affections, and love, of the baron's crippled daughter, Edith. The relationship between Hofmiller and Edith begins with a terrible gaffe on his part: not realizing that Edit is crippled, Hofmiller, out of a sense of social duty because she is the daughter of his host, asks Edith to dance. She explodes into a paroxysm of despair, but rather than deal with it on the spot, Hofmiller beats an ignominious retreat. Relations are repaired and become very close, but the pattern set in the initial encounter repeats: a pattern of blindness, innocent or obtuse, denial, flight, and then reconciliation; however, the intensity ratchets-up with every incident until finally, there is too much by way of mixed and missed communications and events spiral out of control with dire consequences.

Beware of Pity is Zweig's only full-length novel  It was first published in 1939, but was composed over a number of years during a period of great personal turmoil for Zweig who was wrestling with his decision to leave Austria for England in the face of the growing authoritarianism and anti-Semitism in Germany and in his own country. 

Through the voice of the primary narrator, at the beginning of the novel, Zweig does 'comment' on conditions in Europe in the late 1930s. At a dinner party, contrary to those arguing that the present generation would not be as innocently tricked into war as was the last one, our narrator states: 

"Even now, while Europe was at peace, the general attitude of servility had, thanks to modern methods of propaganda, increased to unbelievable proportions, and one ought boldly to face the fact that from the very moment when the news of mobilization came hurtling through the loudspeakers, no opposition could be looked for from any quarter. The grain of dust that was man no longer counted today as a creature of volition....as is borne out by experience, the instinct of self-deception in human beings makes them try to banish from their minds dangers of which at bottom they are perfectly aware by declaring them non-existent, and a warning such as mine against cheap optimism was bound to prove particularly unwelcome at a moment when a sumptuously laid supper was awaiting us in the next room."

Unexpectedly, Hofmiller seconds these arguments and expands upon them: 

"During the war, practically the only courage I came across was mass courage, the courage that comes of being one of a herd, and anyone who examines this phenomenon more closely will find it to be compounded of some very strange elements: a great deal of vanity, a great deal of recklessness, and even boredom, but, above all, a great deal of fear--yes, fear of staying behind, fear of being sneered at, fear of independent action, and fear, above all of taking a stand against the mass enthusiasm of one's fellows."

Hofmiller and our first narrator leave the dinner party together and the former offers to tell the story of his life before the war and how that determined his later 'courage' in the war. 

The novel does not deal directly with the changing tone of politics in Europe, but Hofmiller alludes to a broader message when he opines: "...it is not evil and brutality, but nearly always weakness, that is to blame for the worst things that happen in this world." The sorrow is that Hofmiller sees the weakness in himself, but his moral cowardice and personal vacillation have terrible consequences in what is, perhaps, also a message with broader application.   


An observer commenting on Zweig as a writer once said: "Zweig's major subject was human limitation, above all the ways in which the best of intentions can lead people into the murkiest of emotional and moral cul-de-sacs." This is a perfect description of Beware of Pity which turns around pity as a "confoundedly two-edged business. Anyone who doesn't know how to deal with it should keep his hands, and above all his hear off it." Zweig was not a terse writer; some might even find him verbose.  However, he wrote a clear prose narrative that pulls the reader along. The principal characters: Hofmiller, Edith, Edith's father and her doctor, are well developed as individuals and in their interactions. Beware of Pity feels like a tumble-dryer of emotions and relationships that the reader knows must eventually stop with some sort of resolution, but of what nature, what will emerge, what will be left of the characters? 


Zweig has enjoyed a revival in recent years, thanks primarily to reprints of some of his books by Pushkin Press and the NYRB Classics series. He has done so to generally positive and welcoming reviews, one exception being Michael Hofmann, a well-known writer, critic, and translator of a number of German authors, who penned a scathing review in the London Review of Books that eviscerated Zweig as a writer and as a man. This, in turn, prompted a spate of responses by Zweig defenders on the Internet. Personally, I think Hofmann moved well beyond literary criticism to a vitriolic ad hominem attack. I tend more to the view of Clive James, a literary and social critic whom I admire, who characterized Zweig as "the incarnation of humanism" who, in his long list of biographies, "took the idea of cultural cosmopolitanism to heart and looked for its seeds in the past in a series of individual studies that form a richly endowed humanist gallery...". 

A note on the title of the novel. In German, it is Ungeduld des Herzens. It is most popularly known in English as Beware of Pity, but it has also been published as Impatience of the Heart. In a recent discussion with friends, it was agreed that the latter more accurately reflects the original title, and also reflects better the thrust of the novel. Penguin Books has just published (2016) a new translation, as Impatience of the Heart, by Jonathan Katz.


Andrea Molesini: Not All Bastards Are From Vienna

Molesini is Professor of Comparative Literature at Padua University. He is a poet and author of children's stories. Not All Bastards Are From Vienna won the Campiello Prize for Literature in 2011. It was translated and printed in English in 2015. 

Not All Bastards Are From Vienna

The Campiello Prize was inaugurated in 1962 and is awarded annually to promote Italian literature. The first recipient was Primo Levi, who won again in 1982. 

This novel is set in the autumn of 1917, in the small town of Refrontolo in Northern Italy, not far from Venice. The Spada family owns the largest estate in the area and their villa is occupied by the invading Austrian army. The story is told by Paolo, an orphaned seventeen-year old living with his eccentric grandparents, a headstrong aunt, long-time staff, plus the steward of the estate who is also also an agent for the Italian secret service working with an English aviator-spy, and the priest of the town. The arrival of the Austrians brings not only the war, but also the conflicts and dangers of collaboration and resistance . Paolo grows up quickly in this caldron of tensions which includes his sexual initiation with a twenty-five year old woman with a compromised past.

Overall, the narrative of the story moves well. The best pieces are descriptions of the horrors and madness of war when a major battle rages nearby and the estate is turned into a fetid field hospital of injury and death. Throughout the novel, there are glimpses of common humanity across conflicted national interests, but these cannot overcome the trammels of military discipline and exigencies of war. In the end, mercy cannot compete. There is the strong sense of the end of an era; no matter what the outcome of the war it is clear to all concerned that the social, political, economic worlds they have known have been torn apart; the future is unknown, but it certainly won't be what existed before.  

The protagonists are defined, but because the novel is told in the first-person we don't hear their interior dialogues and can only judge them from their actions which tend to follow character: the cynical, aphorism-spouting grandfather (who is the most interesting character), the intelligent, elegant, wise grandmother, the alluring and articulate aunt, the mysterious steward-spy, the Catholic priest typical of his time and place but who gets points from the people for not fleeing before the invaders as did most of the members of the town's upper society.  

I liked the flow of the story and the characters and the novel is a good read, but a couple of weaknesses niggled at me. There is a major incidence of betrayal that turns the whole direction of the story; I didn't feel that it had been foreshadowed or developed enough for motivation. And the end of the novel wobbles with a deus ex machina that saves our narrator-hero instead of inflicting a more wrenching, but more realistic, denouement.

I was intrigued by the aunt's plea, at the end of the novel, for pity from the Austrian commander who has ordered the execution of three persons for resistance to the occupying forces: "...You contribute to the destruction of the civilization to which you and I...and this boy..belong, and that civilization is more important than the fate of the Hapsburgs themselves, or the House of Savoy You won't like the world that is coming into existence any more than I will: there will be no room for pity, nor for that gentility of manner that we care...so much about. With your severity you think you're doing justice, but it's the other way around, Baron, you're just blazing a path to a time when a corporal will claim the title of general, and the people will make fun of us, of you...."

The line about a corporal claiming the title of general is a stretching prescience, looking forward from the vantage point of 1917, but I was reminded of a line from Stefan Zweig in Beware of Pity, to the effect that pity can be a two-edged sword. The aunt appeals to a higher morality and value of life, but the Major is bound by the dictates of his position and his fear that showing pity would be a weakness that could undermine his world. In either case, the aunt's comment about not liking the world that is coming into existence echoes quite precisely those of Zweig twenty years later.  

There is a vast library of literature, memoirs, history, poetry centred on the Western Front in WWI. Much less is available on the Austrian-Italian front, or at least much less in English. One book I would recommend for anyone interested in this area is The Sardinian Brigade by Emilio Lussu. It is a searing account of trench warfare in the winter, in the Alps, and of the brutal incompetence of Italian military leaders who sent thousands to their deaths in attacks that had absolutely no chance whatsoever of any success. 



Tags: John Klassen