The Pity Trap – “Impatience of the Heart” by Stefan Zweig

Zweig Cover smallContinuing with my mini-series of German books published in English translation this year, this week’s pick is Impatience of the Heart by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881 – 1942).

Zweig has been undergoing a minor renaissance recently after being credited by film director Wes Anderson as the inspiration behind The Grand Budapest Hotel as well as being the subject of a well-received biography by George Prochnik dealing with his years in exile after the Nazis came to power. Prior to being forced to flee his homeland, Zweig was one of the most successful authors working in the German language. His popular histories and novellas, many of them adapted for the screen, became bestsellers and afforded him a life as a literary celebrity in the 1920s and early 30s.

Impatience of the Heart, also published in an earlier translation by Anthea Bell under the title Beware of Pity, is Zweig’s only novel to be published in his lifetime. It was released in 1939, three years before he and his wife committed suicide in Petropolis, Brazil where they lived in isolated and materially modest exile.Set in a small town garrison on the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, the novel tells the story of the young officer Anton Hofmiller, an upstart from a petit-bourgeois family who struggles on his junior officer’s salary to keep up appearances. After committing a social gaffe at a dinner dance and a subsequent abject apology, he is taken in by the rich landowner Kekesfalva, a widower who lives on a vast estate outside town with his disabled daughter Edith and her cousin Ilona.

The entire household revolves around Edith, who is paralysed from the waist down. It is in his interactions with her, that Hofmiller gradually discovers what Zweig calls “the subtle lust of compassion”, a complex emotion which can be both self-serving and selfless.

The young officer finds himself seduced by the feeling of being needed and the attention it attracts, as well as being appreciated by people of higher social standing. His compassion and Kekesfalva’s gratitude become a powerful antidote to his social awkwardness. Gradually, Hofmiller becomes a prisoner of his pity and misguided compassion for Edith. Unable to make a break, this is leading him, against his better judgement, to commit further and further to Edith’s care and wellbeing to the point where he accepts a marriage proposal with disastrous consequences.

Zweig’s strength is that he can examine the facets of empathy in forensic detail without breaking the considerable narrative drive of his plot. As the story is being told as a kind of confession by Hofmiller to the narrator decades later, it focuses on Hofmiller’s weakness: empathy as pity, exemplified in the deceit by the young officer to pretend that Edith will recover soon. It is a kind of empathy designed solely to free oneself of the suffering of others as quickly as possible for which Zweig coined the phrase “impatience of the heart” which gave the novel its title. Zweig contrasts Hofmiller’s conundrum with true compassion exemplified by Edith’s gruff Viennese doctor Condor and his blind wife. Unlike Hofmiller who is caught up in a pity trap of his own making, the doctor embodies an unsentimental but loving compassion firmly rooted in reality.

But Impatience of the Heart is much more than a novel of ideas. It goes well beyond the nuanced dissection of pity, empathy and compassion. Zweig is first and foremost a storyteller who gives us a full-blooded narrative. The novel is brimming with psychological and historical insight, most notably in the elaborate backstory of how Kekesfalva came to acquire the estate, almost a novella in itself, nesting, as so often in Zweig’s writing, within the main narrative. With a vividly drawn cast of main and supporting characters and an acute sense of setting it draws a lively and engrossing portrait of a vanished society – the Austro-Hungarian Empire shortly before its destruction by the catastrophe of the First World War.

Impatience of the Heart remains the masterpiece of a truly compassionate author, a writer able to recreate world which no longer exist by exercising real empathy through completely inhabiting his characters.

Stefan Zweig. Impatience of the Heart (newly translated from the German by Jonathan Katz). Penguin Modern Classic

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