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Stefan Zweig

Ungeduld des Herzens (Beware of Pity)

Category: Fiction | Published: 1939 | Review Added: 13-06-2009

Rating: 3 - Worth reading

Anton Hofmiller, a young officier in the Austrian army, is stationed in a small Hungarian town shortly before the First World War, where he makes the acquaintance of a widowed local millionnaire and his crippled daughter. Both of these characters make strong emotional appeals to the officer, and start to pin unrealistic hopes on him that he is too weak-willed, and too overcome with sympathy, to deflect competently. Capitalulating to this emotional pressure, and to guilt arising from his own low self-esteem, he starts to commit himself to a relationship with the daughter, Edith, beyond what he has any desire for. Events take on their own momentum and come to a head on the same day as the outbreak of the War.

This novel is very good in places, but flawed in others. Zweig is a very fine writer when at his best: he has a gift for poetic description and a good sense of the interaction of fate and character. Hofmiller, who narrates the story, is believable: capable in his professional life, where his decisions are all made for him, but hopelessly vascillating in his private life when he is challenged by his conscience. The millionnaire, Kekesfalva, is also portrayed well, as a lonely wandering Jew who made his money through hard-headed resourcefulness in his youth, but whose latent emotional, vulnerable nature manifested itself, for better and worse, when he married and had a family. Finally, the behaviour of the daughter, Edith, is mostly convincing, who in her desperation veers between the extremes of tenderness and rage.

The problem is with the unevenness of the writing. In a largish portion of the book it is amateurish and feels rushed: this applies to both the prose and the plotting. Most unconvincing is the behaviour of a doctor, Condor, who despite being saintly in his personal life thinks nothing of burdening Hofmiller with unfair insinuations of guilt and selfishness. It shouldn't have been difficult for Zweig to let Hofmiller's own sense of inadequacy determine his behaviour, rather than have others spell out the course he should take.

The novel also suffers from verbosity and occasional sentimentality. Hofmiller indulges in much tragic Teutonic breast-beating, and too often his emotions are spelled out rather than suggested. In fact, one gets the sense in many passages of Zweig padding out the narrative to push it up to novel length. This 400-page novel is really a pumped-up short story, lacking sufficient breadth of action and range of characters to sustain momentum. The ending, too, is a little weak.

What's so strange is how a writer can be so naive and facile at times, while showing great penetration at others. I thought the best part of this novel was the story, related by one of the characters, of Kekesfalva's past, where Zweig demonstrates a worldliness and an insight into human destiny almost worthy of Tolstoy or George Eliot. It's a shame he subsequently slackens off.

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