Review : Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

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Lieutenant Anton Hofmiller suffers from a disastrous conjunction of naivety and delicate conscience. He is buffeted by events, by inner turmoil, by familiar practices, by worries of what others may think of him, by advice from his seniors, by arrangements they force on him, by moral pressure, by military command, by his sense of `honour’, by the detailed rules he thinks this `honour’ imposes, and by the pity of Zweig’s book’s English title. He lacks inner resolve ; the ability to resolve these conflicting factors. And it is this lack of resolve, rather than pity itself, which is his ultimate weakness and which leads to disaster. His proactive moments are short-lived ; he is more regularly by default in a passive modus operandi.

Zweig portrays a wide sweep of human motivation and behaviour. Love as compassion, selfless agape love shown by the Christ-like Dr Connor who loves his blind wife. Love as compensation, as some implicit bargain, from Herr Kekesfalva who has duped his wife of her inheritance. Love forced from Hofmiller by Edith’s emotional blackmail when her initial love is unrequited. Friendship, generosity and understanding between colleagues, guilt, resentment, deception, manipulation, are all displayed in Zweig’s human tragedy.

Despite dwelling on the same dilemma in great detail and at great length, `Beware of Pity’ holds its retentive power throughout. It is a moving book in a seamless translation by Anthea Bell.

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