Of Nostalgia and Sentiments

Going through influential writers of Austrian literature – a seminal part of the vast literary world that has produced esteemed names such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Musil, Thomas Bernhard, and Nobel Laureate in Literature (2004) Elfriede Jelinek – it is inevitable to cross paths with Stefan Zweig. Born in 1881 in Vienna, Zweig’s prodigious writing talent manifested as early as his teenage years when he would write poems and articles which he sent to literary journals. He also corresponded with important literary figures of his time. There was no way but up for the budding writer who published his first book, a collection of poetry while studying Philosophy at the University of Vienna. At the same time, he had various pieces published in the Neue Freie Presse, considered the most prestigious newspaper in Vienna.

He spent the years following his graduation from university traveling across Europe. This peripatetic life brought him to major European metropolises such as Paris and Berlin. For the young Zweig, this was an eye-opening journey as it allowed him to get acquainted with famous poets, writers, and artists of his time, such as Auguste Rodin, Romain Rolland, and his countryman Rainer Maria Rilke. This period also proved to be a seminal period in his literary career. It was during this period that he started to focus on his literary endeavors. He got more productive as a writer, writing more novellas and dramas, furthering his vita. Apart from fiction, Zweig was also renowned for writing biographies and for his historical studies of famous literary figures and events.

Zweig would rise to be one of the literary superstars of the 1920s and the 1930s. His novellas and other literary works have captivated readers the world over. Among these works was Ungeduld des Herzens. Originally published in 1938, Ungeduld des Herzens stands out in his oeuvre, a collection that features several outstanding works such as Amok and Brief einer Unbekannten (Letter from an Unknown Woman), both published in 1922. It was the longest of his works, thus, many a literary pundit considered it his first novel. In the same year it was published in German, the book was translated to English as Beware of Pity although the book’s German title literally translates to The Heart’s Impatience.

“Again and again, day after day, I found fresh opportunities for indulging, trying out, this passion that had suddenly possessed me. And I said to myself: from now on, help anyone and everyone so far as in you live. Cease to be apathetic, indifferent. Exalt yourself by devoting yourself to others, enrich yourself by making everyone’s destiny your own, by enduring and understanding every facet of human suffering through your pity. And my heart, astonished at its own workings, quivered with gratitude towards the sick girl whom I had unwittingly hurt and who, through her suffering had taught me the creative magic of pity.”

~ Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity

At the heart of the novel is Anton Hofmiller, the book’s main protagonist. While he was the main narrator, the book opened with an anonymous character, an unnamed writer who Hofmiller came across by accident through a mutual friend. The year was 1938 and the setting was a Viennese restaurant. At this point, Hofmiller is an esteemed and highly decorated officer of the Austro-Hungarian Army, recognized for the bravery he displayed during the First World War. Hofmillier however, was quick to dismiss these claims to greatness: “After all, I knew better than all these strangers who gaped at me that the man behind the Order was anything but a hero, was even definitely the reverse – one of those who only rushed headlong into the war in order to extricate themselves from a desperate situation, men who were running away from their responsibilities rather than patriotic heroes.”

To understand the source of Hofmiller’s pain, he recounted his experiences when he was a young cavalry lieutenant. The year was 1914, the period immediately preceding the First World War, and the young Hofmiller was designated to an Austrian garrison town close to the Hungarian border. He was idealistic and, compared to his fellow officers, he descended from a humbler background. Imagine his surprise when he was invited, through a mutual friend, to the home of Herr Lajos von Kekesfalva for dinner. A member of the aristocracy, Herr Kekesfalva was the wealthiest man in the area, building his fortune from being a landowner. As was expected of him, the usually reserved Hofmiller cordially accepted.

Hofmiller was late to the dinner but he was nonetheless warmly welcomed by his host and his niece, Ilona. To the impressionable young lieutenant, it was a new world that he was reeled in. At the dining table, a vast and fine array of dishes and wines were offered, leaving him in awe. The festive atmosphere also started trickling into him as his shy façade gave way to a gayer version; he even interacted with Ilona. The deeper the evening went, the looser Hofmiller became. At the banquet following the dinner, he danced with almost everyone, except for one. As the banquet was about to conclude, Hofmiller realized that he had not asked Edith, Herr Kekesfalva’s only daughter, to a dance. What he did not expect was the scream of horror, the cry of anguish that seized Edith’s face once he asked her to dance. Unbeknownst to Hofmiller, Edith was partially paralyzed and despite being aided by crutches, Edith was unable to walk too far.

Out of sheer humiliation for his slander and miscalculation, the young lieutenant fled from the Kekesfalva household. Worried that his brass actions would ruffle feathers and be the talk of the town – it was a small town after all – he tried to make amends by sending Edith a basket of flowers immediately the following day. His form of apology was accepted and was returned with another invitation, now to tea. He again did the gentleman he accepted, again out of courtesy. One invitation led to another. Hofmiller’s mere presence, it seems, was enough to lift Edith’s gloomy spirits up. But the young lieutenant was too young, too inexperienced, and too naïve to process what was happening around him. He did not have an inkling that these simple acts would set into motion a chain of events that would alter his life.

“But – and I think I’ve already once warned you on this score – pity is a confoundedly two-edged sword. Anyone who doesn’t know how to deal with it should keep his hands, and, above all, his heart of it. It is only at first that pity, like morphia, is a solace to the invalid, a remedy, a drug, but unless you know the correct dosage and when to stop, it becomes a virulent poison. The first few injections do good, they soothe, they deaden the pain. But the devil of it is that the organism, the body, just like the soul, has an uncaring capacity for adaptation. Just as the nervous system cries out for more and more morphia, so the emotions cry out for more than one can give.”

~ Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity

As the title of the book suggests, pity was the primary element that moved the story forward. Compassion is a simple and inherent human emotion. It is innate and we display it toward nearly everyone around us, from strangers to our family to our friends. It can even be a vicarious experience. Sometimes, we even pity ourselves. But how can a display of human compassion set into motion events that can irreversibly impact a young man’s life? It is important to note that compassion stems from a more complex source: our emotions. Different human emotions were displayed in the story. Aside from compassion, we read about love, shame, and even fear.

Our emotions, in turn, play a seminal role in the decision we make in our lives. The way we respond to an event or a circumstance is different because the manner in which we process our emotions is unique for every individual. This was what Zweig captured in his story. In the story of the young Hofmiller, in particular, it was the pity that he felt that clouded his judgment. This was also captured in the story of the other characters. Because of the pity that the characters felt, they anchored their decisions mainly on how their decisions will impact a particular individual or group of people. A doctor, for instance, married his wife because she was blind. His inability to cure her of her blindness and the pity he felt for her drove him to this decision. Thankfully, it worked well for him. A father, believing he is doing everything for his dysfunctional daughter, dotes on her, offering virtually everything that his money can buy.

Because of our compassion, we inevitably create allowances for the people we felt compassion for. To protect them, we lie, we sugarcoat our own emotions in order to avoid hurting them or adding further burden to them. This, however, can create an adverse impact. Once people recognize that other people are taking pity for their plight, they take advantage of it. They weaponize this feeling of compassion in order to gain an advantage or favor. They use this to guilt trip other people, basically manipulating how the people around them behave. But forcing people beyond what they can feel or accommodate can also lead to damaging consequences. Zweig was asking his readers to throw some caution in the wind. It was a caveat for while we do come with the purest of intentions, our actions can instead lead to us unintentionally hurting others.

The complexities of human emotions were vividly captured by Zweig. There was also value in Zweig’s depiction of how we respond to people with physical disabilities. There is an internal switch that immediately turns on when we realize that we are dealing with an individual with a physical affliction. The way we deal with them instantly becomes different. This, however, does not preclude us from having prejudices, although we obscure this. Again, we don’t want to intentionally add affliction. The same can be said of Hofmiller when he realized that Edith can have feelings too: “What! A ‘pathetic cripple’ and a ‘hapless invalid’ like her can have human feelings like falling in love? Who would have thought?” These realizations, which at times made Hofmiler feel internal strife, made him abruptly grow up from naïveté to a young man who witnessed the complexities of human emotions.

“Pity – that’s all right. But there are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion but only an instinctive desire to fortify one’s own soul against the sufferings of another, and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond it. It is only when one goes to the end, to the extreme, bitter end, only when one has are inexhaustible fund of patience, that one can help one’s fellows. Only when one is prepared to sacrifice oneself in doing so – and then only.”

~ Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity

Zweig’s exploration of the complexities, even pureness, of human emotions was commendable. The influences of his deep interest in psychology, coupled with his interest in the teachings of Sigmund Freud, were palpable. He complemented his portrayal of the complex human mind and emotion with an equally penetrating prose that dissected these elements with sharpness, diving into their every corner. But the book was without its flaws. The story had the tendency to be repetitive. In its repetitiveness, Zweig was deliberately reeling the readers into the world of Hofmiler and Edith, even to the point of melodrama. The catastrophic conclusion then comes across as predictable. But this lack of emotional restraint has the ability to inflict affection for the characters and their personal afflictions, both physical and emotional.

A literary superstar of the 1920s and 1930s, Zweig has established quite a commendable vita that will be enshrined for years to come. Beware of Pity is a testament to his brilliance not only as a storyteller but as a dissector of the complexities of our human nature. Equal parts nostalgic and nauseating, Beware of Pity was a compelling story of a young man, and his complicated journey to emotional maturity juxtaposed with the backdrop of an empire on the cusp of collapse. It may be about pity but it was also about love, shame, self-preservation, and internal strife. It was about the complexities of emotion and of the human mind. It was an atmospheric tale magically rendered under Zweig’s dexterous hands.



Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
Writing (25%) – 
Overall Impact (15%) – 

Prior to the pandemic, I have never heard of Stefan Zweig. I have never come across any of the works of the Austrian writer although I would, later on, learn that some of his novellas such as Amok and Chess Game were listed among the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. He was, apparently, a lucrative writer of novellas. However, it was Beware of Pity that I would first encounter, a book I came across through an online bookseller. Beware of Pity is considered by literary pundits as his only novel, owing to its length; it is his longest work. Always interested to discover a new writer and a new world, I made Beware of Pity a part of my 2022 foray into works of European literature; apparently, my venture into Austrian literature is quite limited. Anyway, I find the book rather thick. I get the point of the novel but I somehow find the story overwritten. The repetitions plodded the story and Edith was quite an unbearable character; I guess it is understandable given her affliction. Toni, on the other hand, cannot seem to make a decision for himself. But then again, it was also understandable because of his provenance. Overall, Beware of Pity was an interesting work that delves into the complexities of compassion and human emotions.

Book Specs

Author: Stefan Zweig
Translators (from German): Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Publishing Date: 2003
Number of Pages: 365
Genre: Historical, Literary


In 1913, a young second lieutenant discovers the terrible danger of pity. He had no idea the girl was lame when he asked her to dance – his compensatory afternoon calls relieve his guilt but give her a dangerous glimmer of hope. Stefan Zweig’s only novel is a devastating realisation of the torment of the betrayal of both honour and love, realised against the background of the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

About the Author

Stefan Zweig was born on November 28, 1881, in Vienna, Austro-Hungarian Empire (now in present-day Austria) to Ida Brettauer (1854–1938), a daughter of a Jewish banking family, and Moritz Zweig (1845–1926), a wealthy Jewish textile manufacturer. He was raised in Vienna and studied philosophy at the University of Vienna. In 1904, he earned his doctorate degree from the same university with a thesis on The Philosophy of Hippolyte Taine. While studying at the university, he published his first work, a collection of poetry, in 1901. He also had various pieces published in the Neue Freie Presse, the most prestigious newspaper in Vienna. Zweig’s interest in literature was palpable as early as his teenage years when he would send poems and articles to literary journals and corresponded with important literary figures.

Post-university, Zweig traveled across Europe, spending time in major cities such as Berlin, Paris, and Brussels before settling in Salzburg, Austria. It was during this nomadic period that he got acquainted with famous poets, writers, and artists such as Auguste Rodin, Rainer Maria Rilke, Romain Rolland, W.B. Yeats, and Pirandello. It was also during this time that he started to get more involved in his literary career. He wrote novellas and dramas. Among the renowned works of fiction in his prolific and illustrious literary career are the novellas Die Wunder des Lebens, (1903, The Miracles of Life), Amok (1922), Brief einer Unbekannten (1922, Letter from an Unknown Woman), and Schachnovelle (1944, The Royal Game or Chess Story or Chess). He published the psychological novel, Ungeduld des Herzens (Beware of Pity) in 1941 while the novels Clarissa and  Rausch der Verwandlung (The Post Office Girl) were published posthumously in 1981 and 1982, respectively.

Apart from writing works of fiction, Zweig is also renowned for writing historical studies of famous literary figures, such as Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky in Drei Meister (1920, Three Masters). He also published nonfiction books about seminal historical events such as the Decisive Moments in History (1927) and Conqueror of the Seas: The Story of Magellan (1938). He also wrote biographies of Émile Verhaeren (1910), Joseph Fouché (1929), Mary Stuart (1935), and Marie Antoinette (Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman, 1932). Zweig also wrote plays, published collections of essays, and translated the works of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Émile Verhaeren. Some of his works were also adapted into films.

Because of his Jewish ancestry, Zweig would again leave Austria in 1934, following the ascent of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. He moved to the United Kingdom, then to New York City before finally settling down in Brazil. On February 22, 1942, Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte were found dead in their apartment in Petropolis, Brazil. They have taken an overdose of barbiturates in an apparent suicide.