Share via Email The lost world Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive When Stefan Zweig , forced into a peripatetic life by the rise of Nazism, arrived in New York in , he was persistently asked to make a statement about the treatment of the Jews in Germany. He refused to be drawn out, and said in correspondence that his reason was that anything he said would probably only make their situation worse. And one would have thought that Zweig, himself Jewish and fully aware that his books were being burned in universities all over Germany might have had more to say publicly on the subject. Well, it almost has nothing to say about the times in which it was written.
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Share via Email The lost world Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive When Stefan Zweig , forced into a peripatetic life by the rise of Nazism, arrived in New York in , he was persistently asked to make a statement about the treatment of the Jews in Germany. He refused to be drawn out, and said in correspondence that his reason was that anything he said would probably only make their situation worse.
And one would have thought that Zweig, himself Jewish and fully aware that his books were being burned in universities all over Germany might have had more to say publicly on the subject. Well, it almost has nothing to say about the times in which it was written. Which means that it has something to say about them; obliquely, and passed across your eyes quickly, like a Hitchcock cameo.
In other words, it was in direct but non-violent opposition to the loathsome qualities that were deemed desirable, indeed compulsory, in society at large. One of the earliest writers to note what Freud was doing, Zweig took on board early the lesson that directly dealing with terrible things is not necessarily the way the mind works.
His stories are full of characters poisoned by things left unsaid, or situations misread. We tell ourselves stories about what is going on; but sometimes these are the wrong stories. In Beware of Pity we have a hero who makes a habit of getting things wrong.
Against my will I had to keep watching those two black companions who persistently marked out our movements ahead of us, like walking silhouettes, and it gave me — our feelings are sometimes so childish — a certain reassurance to see that my shadow was longer, slimmer, I almost said "better-looking", than the short, stout shadow of my companion. Hofmiller is a famously decorated soldier, but he treats his decoration — the highest military order Austria can bestow — with disdain bordering on contempt, and only speaks to the framing narrator when they meet accidentally at a dinner party later on.
And it is at this moment that we should realise that the message of the book is not only the ostensible one — that pity is an emotion that can cause great ruin — but also that we must not judge things by appearances. Hofmiller may be entitled to wear the Order of Maria Theresa but he can tell you that, in his case at least, what others might regard as courage is actually the result of a monumental act of cowardice.
Stefan Zweig was extremely famous throughout the world as a writer of novellas and short stories, as well as popular histories and biographies, so it is remarkable that he wrote only one full-length novel. It has led some commentators to suggest that in this instance he overstretched himself, that he became prolix or, more charitably, that Beware of Pity is actually two novellas of unequal length stitched together.
The loop back in time that Zweig is taking us on has to be accounted for; it has to take time. He wanted this to be the Great Austrian Novel, and so a certain scope was demanded of him. And he had to go back to before as that was when everything began to go wrong. In his story "The Invisible Collection", first published in , a collector of rare prints who has gone blind is deceived by his family: they have sold his valuable collection bit by bit in order to feed themselves, and him, during the disastrous inflation that followed the first world war, and have replaced the prints with blank paper of the same dimensions and thickness.
When he strokes the blank sheets the narrator notes his happiness: "Not for years, not since , had I witnessed an expression of such unmitigated happiness on the face of a German. It is a scene of such potent and telling symbolism that it verges, tremulously, on the corny.
But that is not to gainsay its validity and power. The Great War ruined and erased everything, and reduced the past almost to a state as if it had never been. Interestingly, he does not, in Beware of Pity, allude to, or make any real use of, the atmosphere of stifling sexual repression that animates "Eros Matutinus", one of the best chapters of The World of Yesterday, in which Zweig acknowledges there were some very significant aspects of genteel society the world was right to discard.
If anything, the return to the values of is tacitly endorsed, albeit in a complex and ambiguous fashion, when Hofmiller discovers, to his horror, that Edith has sexual desires. But Beware of Pity ends with a note of almost bitter disillusionment. And it is a very useful kind of bildungsroman, in which it is not only the chief character who learns something by the end of it, but the reader, too.
Beware of Memory: On Reading Stefan Zweig’s “Beware of Pity”
Biography[ edit ] Stefan Zweig standing in Vienna with his brother Alfred, circa Zweig was born in Vienna , the son of Moritz Zweig — , a wealthy Jewish textile manufacturer, and Ida Brettauer — , a daughter of a Jewish banking family. Zweig studied philosophy at the University of Vienna and in earned a doctoral degree with a thesis on "The Philosophy of Hippolyte Taine ". Religion did not play a central role in his education. Yet he did not renounce his Jewish faith and wrote repeatedly on Jews and Jewish themes, as in his story Buchmendel. Zweig married Friderike Maria von Winternitz born Burger in ; they divorced in As Friderike Zweig she published a book on her former husband after his death.
Rereading: Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig
Did you become entrancedas I didby its nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire in those moonlight days before the Great War? Beware of Pity , the novel which inspired the film, was written by Stefan Zweig--in exile, in Londonduring the time when the Nazis occupied his beloved Vienna, when Germany subsumed Austria into itself, and Austria--alas! Did you become entranced—as I did—by its nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire in those moonlight days before the Great War? Beware of Pity , the novel which inspired the film, was written by Stefan Zweig--in exile, in London—during the time when the Nazis occupied his beloved Vienna, when Germany subsumed Austria into itself, and Austria--alas! How ironic: at the very moment Zweig was mourning the cultural demise of the cosmopolitan empire of twenty-five years ago, Hitler was accomplishing the political death of the country on which it had been built, the present day republic that was his home. Zweig was indeed a man of ironies. The title of this novel—and its overriding theme—Beware of Pity--has its ironies too.