Beware of Pity

Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig

Before we get to the contents of the book, it must be said that the recent Pushkin Press edition is a satisfying object, reassuringly chunky with a nice clear font and an invitingly smooth cover.  The cover blurb (where did this need for celebrity guidance spring from?) informs us that Colin Firth was “riveted” by it. And well he might be. From an embarrassing but ultimately minor faux pas (pun intended) a series of events ensues, the outcome of which is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts: in 1913 a young Austrian cavalry officer, Anton Hofmiller, asks a girl to dance, unaware that she is lame.  Enter the ‘pity’ of the title. It’s not a particularly short novel at 450 pages, but – I dislike quoting from other people, however the Preface puts it well – “it zips along almost effortlessly, like a clear-running stream”. Such is the power of the writing that as we read we are fully persuaded of the moral dilemma of the young officer and we literally cringe at the decisions he makes – or fails to make – as the situation develops. To quote again from the Preface: “Beware of Pity has moments of high melodrama that, over seventy years on, still have the power to make one put one’s free hand over one’s mouth as one reads”.  And seventy years on, the nature, purpose and point of pity still give pause for thought.

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