Jan. 19th, 2017

osprey_archer: (books)
I finished Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity, which fulfills my first challenge for the 2017 Reading Challenge! *pause for cheering and kazoos* This book has been on my TBR list since 2008, so I'm glad I finally read it, but I have mixed feelings about it as a book; it spends more time musing philosophically than I think any novel that is not Sophie's World ought to do, and quite a bit of that philosophical musing is about the Nature of the Invalid, which gets tiresome. "Can the healthy and the sick ever bridge the chasm between them? PROBABLY NOT."

It's a bit like an A Passage to India of illness, now that I think about it.

The characters are finely enough observed that I think they would have stood the test of time much better if the narrative left more room for interpretation. Too finely observed to be sympathetic in some ways; I understood and even empathized with Hofmiller's bad decisions, because he makes them entirely - as the title suggests - out of pity (I think a modern Hofmiller would call his feeling sympathy; it's not as condescending as pity implies) - and yet some of them are horrible decisions, like the time that he wildly exaggerates the likelihood that a new treatment will help Edith, a young woman partially paralyzed by I think polio, although the book never specifies the disease.

Well, he wants to make her happy, which is understandable and yet so terribly, terribly, wickedly short-sighted. And having set himself on this path, he's too weak to pull himself out of it; he begs Edith's doctor not to tell her that Hofmiller exaggerated (even though the doctor intends to do this in the gentlest way possible: Hofmiller is a layman, didn't understand the technicalities, certainly no suggestion that he was exaggerating on purpose because it was just so pleasant to be the bearer of good news, etc. etc.). Hofmiller promises that he'll tell her himself when the time comes, and I guess the doctor must be taken in by Hofmiller's cavalry uniform and the honor and backbone it seems to promise he possesses, because he agrees to this dubious plan.

In the event, Hofmiller is never put into a position where he has to confess, but I don't believe he ever would have managed it. The keystone of his character seems to be that he does whatever he thinks will be most approved by the people he's with at the time; and at no point would Edith or her father ever want to hear that this new treatment is in fact totally unsuitable for Edith's condition.

What I liked about this book - and also what made it painful to read - is that the Hofmiller's flaws are so small and common and in ordinary circumstances would probably cause only small problems, but he finds himself in a situation where they end up leading to tragedy. It's a sort of small-scale Greek tragedy - a small and sordid tragic flaw, leading despite Hofmiller's good intentions to a bitter ending.


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