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Beware of Pity
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Group Reads Archive > November 2014- Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

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message 1: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 1002 comments Mod
Welcome to November's group read of Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig.


Nigeyb Thanks so much for this nomination Val. I am so glad it won the poll as I doubt I would have read it otherwise, despite really enjoying Stefan Zweig's fascinating memoir "The World of Yesterday" which we did as a no-fiction group read a few months back.

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig is a very powerful work and well worth reading.

It's also Stefan Zweig's only full length novel. Stefan Zweig generally cut and cut his longer stories until arriving at the essence of the tale. Beware of Pity is therefore an anomaly, one that forces me to conclude he should have written more novels.

Memorable characters abound in this book that actually contains three extraordinary stories, the primary one set against the lead up to World War One. The protagonist, Lieutenant Anton Hofmiller is an idealistic Austrian army officer and it is his pity, something of a double edged sword, which is at the root of this tragedy.

Had Stefan Zweig written more novels I would have already added them to my "to read" list, as it is at least he created this one memorable work.

I am looking forward to discovering what other BYTers make of this splendid novel.

message 3: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val Stefan Zweig took some pride in his paring down of his stories to the essentials, so it is more surprising that he thought this one deserved to be a novel. I think it could be seen as three potential novellas which he felt needed to be linked to complete the story.

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I've read about two thirds of this novel now and agree with you that it is powerful, Nigeyb - it's hard to put it down and get on with anything else.

It's a pity Zweig only completed this one novel, but I'd like to go on to the other book he intended as a full-length novel and didn't complete, The Post-Office Girl and also some of his short stories and novellas.

message 5: by Nigeyb (last edited Nov 03, 2014 02:42AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nigeyb ^ Thanks Judy.

Judy wrote: "it's hard to put it down and get on with anything else"

Yes, that can be an issue.

When you finish it I'd be very interested to know which of the three stories you enjoyed the most.

Judy wrote: "I'd like to go on to the other book he intended as a full-length novel and didn't complete, The Post-Office Girl and also some of his short stories and novellas."

I feel a Group Read or Hot Read coming on :-))

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Nigeyb, I'll admit I just didn't see it as three stories. To me it is a great novel which hangs together as one, and the 50-page section of 'back story' about Edith's father gives information about the character and the family which is important to the main story about Hofmiller.

But, in any case, I loved it all! And that group read or hot read idea sounds tempting. :)

message 7: by Val (last edited Nov 05, 2014 04:03AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val The back story would also make a perfect short story in its own right though. (Well, perfect if Stefan Zweig wrote it as one.)

message 8: by Nigeyb (last edited Nov 05, 2014 06:21AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nigeyb ^ Agreed - I love that story, which I do see as separate to the Hoffmiller tale, albeit intertwined. The denouement is especially wonderful - but really there's so much in that story.

As there is with other sub-story, the one about the ex-soldier and his tale of how he came to be a rich man.

What really comes to the fore though is Hofmiller's ongoing appalling judgement...

...there is the terrible gaffe he makes which sets the whole terrible train of events in motion; there is his initial impression that Kekesfalva is a genuine venerable Hungarian nobleman (as per the first sub story); and, perhaps more significantly, his initial impression that Dr. Condor is a bumpkin and a fool.

Expanding on the last point, there's the scene where, on the night of their first meeting, and as he looks at their respective shadows illuminated by moonlight, Hofmiller imagines himself to be better put together than Dr Condor:

And as we walked down the apparently snow-covered gravel drive, suddenly we were not two but four, for our shadows went ahead of us, clear-cut in the bright moonlight. 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.

Is this Stefan Zweig obliquely criticising the Nazis for their notions of racial superiority? Especially given that these notions were in part based on appearance. Just a thought. I'd be interested in what other BYTers think. Either way, it's a great example of Zweig's amazing writing isn't it?

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Very interesting thoughts, Nigeyb. Definitely a great passage, which underlines Hofmiller's appalling judgement, as you say. Condor is another character whose own love story is woven into the main novel.

I wondered if there was a film of the book, and discovered it is about to be filmed by director Bille August, who says filming will start in the spring:

There are no details here of casting.

It has already been filmed once by a UK studio, in 1946, directed by Maurice Elvey and starring Lilli Palmer, Albert Lieven and Cedric Hardwicke. Sadly it doesn't look as if the film is available to watch in any form at all in the UK, though it is on Amazon instant video in the US. I did find a clip of the opening 10 minutes on Youtube, which ends with the gaffe:

It looks quite good, and I would love to see the whole thing, but I've realised that I have a vivid mental picture of Edith from reading the book and Lilli Palmer doesn't fit it - besides being too old, as she was over 30. I hope they find a teenager to play the role in the new film.

message 10: by Nigeyb (last edited Nov 06, 2014 01:48AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nigeyb ^ Great detective work Judy.

I certainly wasn't expecting any film adaptations, let alone two (albeit one not actually made yet).

That clip is promising enough.

I agree that Lili Palmer is far too old to play Edith. She is described as quite girlish in the book.

message 11: by Judy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Thanks, Nigeyb - I thought the clip looked promising too. I wonder if that film might be issued on DVD soon, given the high interest in Stefan Zweig at the moment.

Nigeyb ^ Let's hope so Judy.

message 13: by Pink (new) - rated it 3 stars

Pink My copy has arrived at the library, so I'll be starting this in a couple of days. I'll read through the comments above and add my thoughts after I start.

Nigeyb ^ Hurrah - wonderful news

message 15: by Judy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments One of the sections of the book that made a strong impression on me was the part near the beginning where Anton first visits Edith's family home. He finds the whole atmosphere, the food, drink and dancing, so enchanting and so beyond anything he had imagined.

It reminded me of the party that the main character wanders into in Le Grand Meaulnes - in both books there is the feeling of an outsider entering into a dream world which they will never quite manage to recapture.

I'm wondering if anyone can think of any other great meal/party scenes in literature which have this same seductive atmosphere? I'm sure there must be some obvious ones, but nothing comes to mind.

message 16: by Nigeyb (last edited Nov 12, 2014 03:14PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nigeyb ^ What an astute and interesting comparison Judy.

Judy wrote: "I'm wondering if anyone can think of any other great meal/party scenes in literature which have this same seductive atmosphere? I'm sure there must be some obvious ones, but nothing comes to mind. "

None of these has the seductive atmosphere but I offer them to you as great meal scenes in literature...

The Crachit's Xmas meal in A Christmas Carol - and lest we forget, raising a toast to Scrooge, and Dickens again, and a different scene, but food related, Oliver asking for more in Oliver Twist

The Mad Hatter's tea party

There's a dinner party scene in Richard Yates' rather wonderful Revolutionary Road

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov contains multiple descriptions of Russian delicacies

message 17: by Judy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Thanks, Nigeyb - what a great selection of meal scenes. As a Dickens fan, I'm very pleased to see two of his meals getting a mention. Must admit that I haven't read the Yates as yet, though I hope to. I have read the Bulgakov, but hadn't remembered the Russian delicacies.

I've woken up with a couple of thoughts... it's now struck me that the party in The Great Gatsby has a similar atmosphere - something I really should have thought of before, since Gatsby came up a lot during our discussion of 'Le Grand Meaulnes'. Brideshead Revisited might fit the bill too... I'm not sure if there is an actual party, but I think there are some grand meals at Brideshead which have the same sort of atmosphere.

It seems as though in each case the outsider is seduced by something which isn't really what it seems, and the person holding the dinner or party takes on an impossible glamour. There's also the fact that the narrator is looking back at something which is lost, not just the party but the whole way of life.

message 18: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val That is a good insight Judy. I see what you mean about the seductive atmosphere of the party and the outsider being dazzled by it.
That sense of glamour and loss is present in Beware of Pity, The Lost Estate, The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited (Sebastian and Charles have a picnic and look at the house).
I think I would add The Go-Between and The Shooting Party to that list.

message 19: by Nigeyb (last edited Nov 13, 2014 12:31AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nigeyb ^ Thanks Val - and thanks Judy. I love it when a discussion takes this kind of interesting and relevant digression. The more I mull it over the more I agree that the symbolism of the sumptuous meal as a way of seducing the overawed newcomer is wonderfully resonant.

Judy really nails it here, particular with her insight that perhaps all is not as it appears, and there might also be a yearning sense of loss and nostalgia...

Judy wrote: "It seems as though in each case the outsider is seduced by something which isn't really what it seems, and the person holding the dinner or party takes on an impossible glamour. There's also the fact that the narrator is looking back at something which is lost, not just the party but the whole way of life."

I wish I still had my copy of Beware of Pity to reread that dinner party scene, especially the part when the music starts. I recall Hofmiller is not even sure it's real as it seems too perfect, and then, of course, the dancing starts...

What a wonderful read.

message 20: by Judy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Many thanks, Val, I'd forgotten about the picnic in 'Brideshead Revisited'.

I've just remembered that Evelyn Waugh added a preface apologising for all the descriptions of food in the novel and saying it was because it was written in wartime, during rationing... just found the quote I was thinking of, thanks to Wikipedia:

"It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English — and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful."

Zweig was writing in wartime too, of course, so I suppose some of the same factors were working for him, although he had lost a lot more than Waugh had. I think the 'gluttony' for the past is part of what gives both books such an emotional pull.

message 21: by Judy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Thanks also to Val for mentioning The Shooting Party (which we could soon be reading here!) - I read it not so long ago and do remember that atmosphere "of glamour and loss" as you describe it.

The Go-Between is a novel I read many years ago but don't remember very well - I would like to revisit it.

Thanks also to Nigeyb - I like your description "of the sumptuous meal as a way of seducing the overawed newcomer".

I've been obsessing about this novel over the last few days, so will hope to come up with some more topics on it!

Nigeyb ^ I have never read it. I do have some hazy yet positive associations with the 1960s film adaptation.

message 23: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val Would those hazy yet positive associations be the young and very pretty Julie Christie by any chance?

Nigeyb ^ You can read me like a book Val


I was wondering how quickly you would make the connection

Roisin | 729 comments I have not read the Go-Between, but have read Brideshead. Interesting points made. I'm looking forward to reading Zweig's book.

message 26: by Nigeyb (last edited Nov 17, 2014 11:10AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nigeyb Roisin wrote: "I'm looking forward to reading Zweig's book."

I'm looking forward to reading your reaction to Zweig's book.

When are you starting it Roisin?

Roisin | 729 comments I've just got my copy so probably from tomorrow.

message 28: by Judy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Hope you enjoy it, Roisin. I'm sure you will.

Roisin | 729 comments Probably due to the film, but my local bookstore has been selling several of his works of late over the last few months that I have noticed.

Roisin | 729 comments Which is good, because all of the other bookshops have closed, sadly. Nice to see an independent other than Waterstones about.

Nigeyb Roisin wrote: "I've just got my copy so probably from tomorrow."


Roisin | 729 comments I can see why his writing is addictive. Wonderful stuff!

Nigeyb ^ Glad to hear that you're enjoying it so far Roisin

message 34: by Pink (new) - rated it 3 stars

Pink Just about to start this :)

Nigeyb ^ Exciting times. Pink and Roisin to hopefully post a few thoughts soon.

message 36: by Pink (new) - rated it 3 stars

Pink I'm halfway through, I sort of skimmed the comments above, but was unsure if I'd spoil anything for myself so haven't read them properly. I'm at the part where the story has switched and the doctor has recounted his tale to Hoffmiller, so you should know where I'm up to if you've finished, but that won't give anything away if you haven't read it yet! The writing style is very easy and though it's quite a long book, it's quick to get through. I'll post more of my thoughts when I've read more!

Roisin | 729 comments You right about that it is an easy read, in a good way.

message 38: by Pink (new) - rated it 3 stars

Pink I finished yesterday and have mixed feelings overall. I liked the writing style and there were many passages that I really enjoyed, as well as the overall story. Yet I did feel that this could have been cut greatly, as Zweig done with his other works, for me it's about 200 pages too long and gets somewhat tiresome in the second half. I really liked the diversion story of Kekesfalva, but didn't think it was necessary in full and probably would have preferred to read it as a short story not within this book. Another problem I had was with Edith and her emotional fits or whatever you want to call them. I found it was very reminiscent of thinkings at the time with feminine hysteria and it began to get on my nerves how she was portrayed, irrelevant of her physical condition. I was not at all surprised to read afterwards that Zweig was friends with Freud. Overall, there was much to like, but I think I might prefer his short stories.

Roisin | 729 comments Thanks for that Pink! I wondered about her illness and how it would be treated in the book. What you said makes sense and has made me think a bit about her condition.

Nigeyb Thanks Pink - I enjoyed reading your thoughts about the book.

I agree that the book could have been shorter. That said, I was never bored and there was so much to enjoy with the story (or stories) that I was happy to go with it.

You raise an interesting point about the portrayal of Edith. I thought Zweig was nailing the small minded and stereotypical attitudes of Hofmiller rather than suggesting it was an appropriate way to depict femininity or disability. And by way of contrast Dr Condor portrayed a much more enlightened perspective: empathetic, patient, no quick fixes, taking a holistic approach to illness, and treating everyone as a human. Condor was the true hero of the story.

As I write this post I am suddenly transported back to the book. For me it's a book that gets better, and richer, the further away I get from reading it. I think I'd enjoy a re-read in a couple of years and I suspect I'd get more out it second time round.

How are you getting on Roisin?

message 41: by Val (new) - rated it 5 stars

Val I agree with Pink about the depiction of Edith fitting Freud's theories about hysteria. It also fits with Zweig's description of Viennese upper and middle class society before the Great War, with its repression of any mention of sexuality, especially by women. I think Dr Condor goes along with the hysteria hypothesis as well, but he is more accepting and understanding, so is not shocked by Edith's passionate outburst in the way Hofmiller is.

Roisin | 729 comments It is a fascinating story and now that I have read some more of the book I can see Nigeyb's comments regarding Condor. Our young cavalry officer is also insecure about himself and his abilities. His value becomes more certain due to his friendship with Kekesfalva's daughter.

'Only when we know that we mean something to other people do we feel that there is point and purpose in our own existence.'

Nigeyb ^ Quite agree. Great quote too.

Roisin | 729 comments It was something that immediately caught my attention. A very striking thought.

Roisin | 729 comments ...and appropriate to describe Hoffmiller's situation and worth.

message 46: by Lori (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lori | 73 comments I finished this book earlier this week. What a fascinating read! I read that Zweig was a good friend of Sigmund Freud – he gave a eulogy at Freud’s funeral – and I think Zweig’s interest in the human mind and motivations are clearly demonstrated in this book, which I would almost describe as a psychological drama.

I loved the frantic pace of the book. The writing makes the reader reel from situation to situation just like Hofmiller, and makes you feel almost dizzy by the end. The complete lack of chapters adds to this, of course.

Did anyone else find Edith a thoroughly unpleasant character? Her situation is obviously awful, but I couldn't find much sympathy for her. The character I really pitied was Hofmiller; although he is the victim of his own naivety and bad judgement, I think he ends up in a bad situation through ultimately trying to do the right thing.

Kekesfalva is an intriguing character. I thought he manipulated Hofmiller and Condor hugely and acts towards them in a way that is clearly designed to make them pity him (kissing Hofmiller's hands etc). I think Zweig added the detail about Kekesfalva's background to demonstrate how he can be devious and turn situations to his advantage. Yet at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling pity for him because he was clearly completely desperate about Edith.

Interestingly, the introduction to my copy says that the original German title, Ungeduld des Herzens, translates as ‘impatience of the heart’ rather than ‘beware of pity.’ Which title do you think suits the book more?

Nigeyb ^ Wonderful Lori - thanks for sharing your thoughts and impressions

I had no idea about the literal translation about the German translation. For me, "Beware of Pity" is the perfect title, so much so I'm amazed it is actually called something different.

message 48: by Lori (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lori | 73 comments ^Thanks Nigeyb.

I thought the original German title may come from this passage:

There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart's impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another's unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one's own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only one at counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond."

I think most of the characters have the first sort of pity but it's only Dr Condor that has the second. As has been said above, he is the real hero of the story.

Nigeyb ^ And thanks to you Lori - a great passage that perfectly illustrates a subtle but important distinction. It also explains the meaning of the German title.


Raymunda (raymundaj) This is the first time I comment here, so first of all I'd like to say hello to everybody and apologise for being late with the reading, since I just finished the book last week.

I've read all of your comments and I agree with most of them, specially with those regarding Edith and the idea of "Condor being the true hero of the story", as Nigeyb put it.

I'd also like to encourage the idea of reading some of Zweig's short fiction, which I love, and recommend Letter from an Unknown Woman , Chess Story and Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, as some of my favourites.

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