Monday, May 26, 2008

Beware of Pity

After reading Zweig's 'Beware of Pity' recently, I came upon a less than generous review of the story in Time's: of those puddle-depth stories that, draining themselves with a sort of literary eye dropper, pretend to contain oceans of ideas. The tedious technique might seem justified if it conveyed vivid people, or even lively situations. Beware of Pity conveys only one droplet of an idea (there are two kinds of pity: good & bad) diluted in gallons of plot.
Though the review was being written for the movie, it is clearly meant for the story itself. I personally thought the review rather unjust. Though there were times when I thought the author was purposely leading us to believe that there was far more severity to the situation than there actually was, and was over-analyzing/dramatizing the sequence of events, I found it remarkable for its very thorough analysis of 'pity' and detailing of mind's working when faced with moral choices. By chewing repeatedly the same idea, Zweig has been successful in presenting a complete psycho-analytic case. Which,perhaps, is what he intended, as he apparently 'saw himself as a kind of Freud of fiction'. I also think it is an unreasonable demand to expect an ocean of ideas from every good piece of literature - a good piece of literature can also choose to present one idea completely and thoroughly, and that sometimes has greater merit.

The story, in short is about a young second lieutenant Anton Hofmiller, who after spending most of his life in the military, is rather immature and clumsy in his social behavior. Invited at a landowner's place once for dinner, he asks his daughter for dance, to which she violently reacts as she is a cripple and unable to stand on her feet. Ashamed with his insensitive behavior, Anton tries to atone for it with a friendly visit,and before he knows, is thoroughly engulfed in a vortex of sympathy which finds him spending every day with this girl.

There were a few features in the story which were very remarkable - one of them is a scene where Hofmiller is enjoying a lofty ride on his horse, galloping swiftly, when suddenly reminded of the girl, feels guilty for this speed and his joy at horse-riding, and recedes to a slow halt. What is so remarkable is not just the description of the scene, which is very visual, but also the germination of the idea of pity and commiseration, which marks the rest of the book.
At many places, Anton alludes to an Arabian story where a young man takes pity on a flailing old man and puts him on his shoulders. The old man turns out to be a djinn who clutches the man's shoulders in a vice-like grip, refusing to be dislodged. This analogy of pity with a djinn is often repeated and serves quite well to describe the author's suffocation.

I have not read Zweig before, and this is one of his most illustrious works (apparently the only novel that he wrote and published in his lifetime). I would like to read his Chess Story and also The Post-Office Girl. There is a nice article on the latter (and also on Zweig's writing in general) in Nation.
BTW, I am quite intrigued with the parallel between the lives of Zweig and Joseph Roth.


Alok said...

you seem to be on a reading spree! What do I need to do to get your job?

about the book that complaint about how it limits itself to one emotion seemed quite odd... i mean you don't expect every book to have everything, you are better off watching bollywood!

I haven't read it yet, it has been on my to-read list for a long time. this is something that interests me a lot exploring the subconscious motivations beneath emotions which seem noble on surface ... also a critical look at the superficial kind of sentimentality and shallow emotionalism that has become a bane of our contemporary culture...

Madhuri said...

These days am catching up on most of my reading either on flights or depressive hotel rooms - either places that do not offer many alternatives other than reading :) I think that my perception of these books may be getting seriously colored by the transient state of my mind. But its true, my current profession does allow me a little more time to myself.

Yes, the book is remarkable in trying to probe the subconscious. It also exposes the exaltation of feeling superior. In Hamsun's Mysteries,there is a particular passage when Nagel accuses Tolstoy and others of the same corruption - I quite liked the simplicity of thought behind it.