I’d not heard of ‘Beware of Pity’ until last month when a friend declared it to be the best book he’d ever read. Published in 1939 by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, I thought it an unusual choice, so I dived in. Set in 1913, it’s the story of a young Austrian cavalry officer, Anton Hofmiller, who’s invited to the grand house of a wealthy nobleman for a party. He goes in search of his host’s daughter to ask her to dance (driven by etiquette or vanity?) and persists when she declines, until it dawns on him that she’s crippled. It is one small blunder on his part that leads to disastrous consequences and sets into motion a whole chain of events driven by pity, kindness but also by vanity, appearances and misplaced self-regard. The book is essentially a study of pity – why we pity people, how pitying someone can make us feel and what the real drivers are behind it. Essentially the message of the book is that pity can cause great ruin. It’s also about appearances and perceptions – how people and situations are often not as we perceive them to be. The further into the book you get, the more claustrophobic you feel – like a vice being tightened around you.
It’s a really thought-provoking book that makes you question your own behaviour and motivations. I was also intrigued by it because Stefan Zweig completed it in 1938 having fled to America to escape the rise of Nazism. He was a very famous Jewish writer – mainly of novellas, short stories and biographies. Beware of Pity is his only novel. Yet in it he makes no mention of the current times. He refused to be drawn publicly on them. But somehow he manages to say a lot by saying so little…read it and you’ll see what i mean.