If you have read any covers of books by Stefan Zweig (1881 – 1942), you probably know that his writings were among the most admired literary works of the interwar period. The Austrian writer, mostly known through his numerous novellas, pioneered a way of making feelings and events influence each other in a dialectical interplay that brings to the surface the most intimate drives of the human mind. Strongly influenced by Sigmund Freud’s teachings, Zweig earned a fame of a psychological writer who managed to pose moral dilemmas and demonstrate the fragility of the human mind. In his only completed novel, Beware of Pity, the core topic is pity, as the standard English translation shows.
The original is named Ungeduld des Herzens or Impatience of the Heart, quoting a phrase that appears a few times in the text. Handicapped Hungarian Edith is doomed to not leave her luxurious estate, where she lives with her old father Mr. Kekesfalva, her cousin Ilona and their butler. One day, in her life appears lieutenant Anton Hofmiller, who, oblivious of her disability, invites her to dance with him. Following Edith’s impulsive outburst, Hofmiller finds himself caught in a net of pity. It is pity that drives him back to Kekesfalva’s home – soon he befriends the family and his visits become a routine to whose interruptions Edith shows utmost aversion. Soon, the net of pity becomes increasingly twisted and degenerates into a vicious circle from which Hofmiller cannot escape. Being the narrator, he explains in thorough detail his discovery of the fact that Edith is in love with him. At the same time, his feelings towards her are pity in its purest form; it is pity that drives him to suggest, reluctantly, that he will marry her if she heals. Being the sensitive and tempestuous young girl that she is, Edith shows him unambiguously that she will not hesitate to take her own life if he disappears from her life.
Another important figure in the work is Emmerich Condor, Edith’s doctor. Scientifically sophisticated and interpersonally experienced, he becomes Hofmiller’s psychological vent. Condor explains to the narrator that there are two forms of pity – a sentimental one, nothing more than “impatience of the heart” to escape from being involved in others’ misfortunes; and a productive one that is driven by enough patience to endure together with the object of pity until no more pity is required. The German title of the novel shows which form of pity the narrator chooses, or rather is uncapable of escaping from. This incapability leads to unfortunate events. Hofmiller enters World War II, switching the focus of his emotional energy from Edith’s suicide to Franz Ferdinand’s murder and lives long enough to tell his story to the narrator in shadow with whom actually the book begins. The text, notably brilliantly written, poses one clear question: how can one switch from sentimental to productive pity? In Zweig’s world view, as presented in the novel, pity is an integral function of the human mind and is therefore unavoidable; complete disengagement is impossible – which, in my view, is what makes Zweig’s characters so humane and amiable. It appears that the key to this dilemma is patience. Sentimental pity sooner or later disintegrates into fear and anger. However, if one has enough patience to walk the long way towards a state where pity becomes needless, the psychological equilibrium of all the involved can be restored. And yet, there is another question, external to the text. Is productive pity possible at all? In the light of this question, Zweig’s notion becomes almost naïve. Pity is often a byproduct of the unconscious, and as such, it can be brought under control only with difficulty and introspection. Equally naïve is the idea that one must beware of pity, as the English translation of the work suggests. The only cure that Zweig’s text offers is patience. Unfortunately, it does not come with instructions for use.
German original: Stefan Zweig – Ungeduld des Herzens, S. Fischer Verlag, Berlin, 1939
English translation: Stefan Zweig – Beware of Pity, Cassell, London, 1939