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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Beware of Pity

Stefan Zweig

Once a year my mother comes to visit us, and we reminisce about my father. Her visit last week was especially poignant because an aunt (my father’s cousin) had died in India in the preceding week.

Last week, I also read a review of biographies of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig (by Allan Massie. Read the review here: Standpoint.) and I remembered my father. 

He had insisted that I should read Zweig’s Beware of Pity. At that time, I was unwilling to do so because I was at an age where I couldn't imagine liking anything that he recommended.

Surprisingly, I absolutely adored the novel. It’s a straightforward tragedy – of a soldier’s compassion for a paraplegic being misunderstood by her for love. Many years after I read it, the novel was reissued as a Penguin paperback in the 1980s. I have a copy in Bombay.

Zweig was a German Jew who had to flee Austria in 1934 in the wake of Nazism’s ascendancy. He wrote Beware of Pity while in exile (1939), and committed suicide with his second wife in 1942 in Brazil. 

Wikipedia notes that Zweig “had been despairing at the future of Europe and its culture.” (I also learnt that the novel was turned into a movie in 1946).

In his review, Massie succinctly captures this despair.

“Writing in the Spectator in May 1989, G.M. Tamas, Hungarian philosopher, journalist, dissident, and briefly, after the collapse of Communism, a member of parliament, wrote about central Europe's "dark secret": "a universe of culture was destroyed." That culture was German and Jewish, and its destruction was the work of the two "industrious mass-murderers", Hitler and Stalin. Hitler exterminated the Jews, even though "the Jews, almost everywhere, were to all intents and purposes a peculiar German ethnic group", originally speaking Yiddish, a German dialect, but understanding, enjoying and ultimately transforming literary German. Then in 1945-46 Stalin murdered or expelled the Germans, and central Europe was bereft. Without the Germans and the Jews, Tamas wrote, "our supposed ‘common culture' does not make sense, and never will". 

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