Beware of Pity is the only novel written by Stefan Zweig – who is renowned for his short stories and biographies. I had come across Stefan Zweig only earlier this year, while reading up on translated works by writers such as Antal Szerb and Sándor Márai, as well as books published by the excellent Pushkin Press.
My first encounter with Zweig, Letter from an Unknown Woman, felt like an intense fling. Just enough to make me want to discover what else Zweig has to offer.
Beware of Pity was one of six books that I brought with me on a one-week holiday to Asturias. Admittedly, that was rather ambitious – I thought I’d have endless hours to read since we were going to be in the remote Picos de Europa; I thought wrong – and I ended up reading and finishing two novels. One of which was Beware of Pity, which was the first book that I read on this journey.
I finished the book in two days, in between waiting for AB at the Bilbao airport, waiting for him to finish up work in the hotel room, and taking the pleasantly slow FEVE train from Bilbao to Oviedo.
Side note: It takes about seven hours and 40 minutes to travel on the narrow gauge FEVE (Ferrocarriles de Vía Estrecha) train from Bilbao to Oviedo. If you were to drive, it’d be much faster and takes three hours on the highway connecting the two cities. Travelling on the FEVE is much slower, but it’s a great way to see the magnificent landscape as the train travels in between towns, along the coast and through the mountains with the Picos de Europa looming on one side. I’d recommend doing so if you have a day to spare!
Back to Beware to Pity…
The protagonist, Anton Hofmiller, is a young Austrian cavalry officer who gets introduced to a local millionaire Kekesfalva and his crippled daughter, Edith. He commits a faux pas on his first visit to the Kekesfalvas, setting in motion a vicious cycle fraught with pity, unreciprocated love and desire to belong.
The 2013 edition published by Pushkin Press vividly captures the intense emotional roller coaster that Hofmiller experiences across some 450 pages. It was hard to put the book down and it often felt like something tragic was going to happen with the turn of a page, a looming sense of disaster as Hofmiller stumbles along with the best intentions.
I had stuck tiny stubs of paper to mark pages containing quotes that I like or that struck me. Here are some of them:
“…it is in the nature of youth to be over-excited by every new discovery, and once a feeling carries you away you can’t get enough of it. A strange transformation began to take place in me as soon as I discovered my empathy for other was a force that did not just arouse my own pleasurable sensations, it had a beneficial effect on others as well.”
“…I begin to realise that true sympathy can’t be turned on and off like an electric switch, and when you really share someone else’s fate it means giving up some of your freedom.”
“… pity is a double-edged weapon. If you don’t know how to handle it you had better not touch it, and above all you must steel your heart against it. Pity, like morphine, does the sick good only at first. It is a means of helping them feel better, but if you don’t get the dose right and know where to stop it becomes a murderous poison.”
“Vanity is always one of the strongest motives for our actions, and weak natures are particularly inclined to succumb to the temptation of doing something that will make them appear strong, brave and determined.”
For a more in-depth review, click here for Nicholas Lezard’s take in The Guardian.I took this photo in one of the places that we stayed at in Asturias. Thought it was quite apt that there was a blunt knife lying around. Blunt as the knife may be, it could still hurt and kill.