Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Old-Fashioned, in the Best Sense

On the flight home to Houston on Tuesday I started reading Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig’s only novel, recently reissued by New York Review Books. First published in 1938, the year of the Anschluss in Zweig’s native Austria, the book is old-fashioned in the best sense, immediately engaging and full of foreboding for the cataclysm already overtaking Europe and the world. Fortunately, a Zweig revival in the English-speaking world seems to be underway, just as the great Joseph Roth has been returned in the last decade or so to his rightful eminence, at least in England and the United States.

The novel opens with a brief prologue written in the first-person by a nameless narrator. This is the creaky but pleasingly Conradian device of the frame-tale. The rest of the narrative is related by Lt. Anton Hofmiller, an Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer, to the first narrator. Hofmiller meets him in 1937, but tells a story set in 1914, on the eve of World War I. Here’s a passage from the narrator of the frame-tale, describing the reaction of others to his pessimism about the likelihood of war:

“Of course, they were all against me, for, as is borne out by experience, the instinct of self-deception in human beings makes them try to banish from their minds dangers of which at bottom they are perfectly aware by declaring them non-existent, and a warning such as mine against cheap optimism was bound to prove particularly unwelcome at a moment when a sumptuously laid supper was awaiting us in the next room.”

The passage immediately reminded me of Theodore Dalrymple, who, as it happens, wrote an essay about Zweig, “A Neglected Genius,’ later collected in Our Culture, What’s Left of It. Beware of Pity, he writes, “explores the disastrous consequences that flow from sentimental and insincere pity. Of Zweig’s work in general, Dalrymple writes:

“In the realm of personal morality, Zweig appealed for subtlety and sympathy rather than for the unbending application of simple moral rules. He recognized the claims both of social convention and of personal inclination, and no man better evoked the power of passion to overwhelm the scruples of even the most highly principled person. In other words, he accepted the religious view (without himself being religious) that man is a fallen creature who cannot perfect himself but ought to try to do so.”

As of Tuesday evening I had read only 100 pages of Beware of Pity, but Dalrymple’s diagnosis, as usual, is reliably acute. In addition, the translation, by Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt, reads like good, solid English prose, though I wonder about the original German idiom corresponding to "before you could say Jack Robinson."


yasser said...

I really like your site; maybe you should also add pics or links for the books you read and review as well;

Anonymous said...

I also enjoy your site and look forward to reading it everyday! Theodore Dalrymple is one of my favorite writers. His articles in the journal, City Journal, is the first ones I read when I receive my issue. Since finding this blog, I have read Samuel Beckett and Eric Hoffer. I will try and find a copy of "Beware of Pity", it sounds like a good read. PLEASE DON'T STOP WRITING! I LOOK FORWARD TO READING YOUR ENTRY EVERYDAY!!