“How do I define history? It’s just one fucking thing after another” – Alan Bennett, The History Boys
At first glance, Zweig sets out in this his first and only novel to beat up the notion of pity. The issue for Zweig is that pity (which in the book is really weakness) is at the root of all ills in the narrative. Set against the backdrop of the fall of the Habsburg empire the novel pits Lieutenant Toni Hoffmiller against the emotional minefield of a 17 year old girl, crippled by illness, motherless and over-indulged by her millionaire widower father. Starved of love and drifting on the fringes of social acceptance, the girl is not a piteous creature except in as far as her almost psycopathic desire to walk without crutches colours and ruins every aspect of her life.
There is a shallow gloss of inevitability to the events of the novel; the girl, Edith von Keksfalva, falls madly, punishingly, in love with the young Lieutenant Hoffmiller who naturally, on account of the girl being unable to walk, cannot consider returning her feelings.
Yet the ending is far from inevitable. The girl has psychologically crushed by the social implications of her state, but she is still capable of enjoying, still capable of living an intense and rich life driven by passions. A fact which comes as a surprise to the narrator and seemingly the other characters: “From every direction long lines of people moved forward like dark caterpillars through the waving gold of the fields, and just as we drove through the – not altogether clean – main street, scattering in alarm a flock of cackling geese, the droning of the bell ceased. Mass was about to begin, and surprisingly enough, it was Edith who impetuously demanded that we should all get out and attend it.”
Pity is characterised in the novel as the Old Man of the Sea – a djinn in the tales of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights who dupes a young Samaritan into carrying him on his back out of pity before clamping his legs around the young man and making him a beast of burden. This character, pity, is intended to be the motor of the narrative and Hoffmiller is the young man, a slave to this notion ptiy – the guiding djinn by which the narrative is focused, refined, the prism through which the narrative is revealed to the narrator.
Pity, the narrator would like us to believe, is the silent voice of truth, recounting the story from a long time distant. Instead, Zweig’s narrator reads, like an old man justifying past ills to his audience, blinded by guilt, explaining the world to future generations in justification: history, as it were, being written by the victor. It is a masterful act of writing by the author, projecting his meaning through the smoke screen of the narrator.
“For the first time in my life I began to realise that it is not evil and brutality, but nearly always weakness, that is to blame for the worst things that happen in this world.”
What the prism of Hoffmiller’s narrative reveals most clearly, however, is that it is not pity that is to blame for the cacophanous mess that is the ending of this novel. It is the paucity of a system ascribing strength to some and weakness to others on physical appearance.
On the one hand, Hoffmiller engages himself to the girl out of pity and then denounces her out of cowardice to his fellow officers; his brothers in arms alongside whom he was expected to fight and perhaps to die. On the other hand, Edith declares her love for Hoffmiller against the dam of social pressure – out of a surge of strength, an outpouring of love, and then she kills herself in a lonely and terrifying leap to the ground. Which is the piteous, which the courageous?
It is not pity that the novel lances but cowardice. Hoffmiller’s military prowess, born, he suggests, out of a desire himself to be dead, is a source of shame to him. He ascribes it to pity with so much emphasis that it cannot convince. Or as he says himself: “There was no one to accuse me, no one to judge me. I felt like a murderer who has buried the corpse of his victim in a wood: the snow begins to fall in thick, white, dense flakes, layer upon layer for months. He knows this concealing coverlet will hide his crime, and afterwards all trace of it will have vanished forever. And so I plucked up courage and began to live again. Since no one reminded me of it, I myself forgot my guilt. For the heart is able to bury deep and well what it urgently desires to forget.”