Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig

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Three and a half stars, read in July and August 2018.

This is one of those books in which perfect strangers sit down to tell each other their—or other people’s—life stories. Like Mr. Lockwood in Wuthering Heights, the narrator we first meet turns out to be nothing more than the impetus for one such story, that of Anton Hofmiller, a lieutenant in the Imperial Army. In fact, once Hofmiller begins his story, the narrator never appears again. So very little actually happens in this book, but it’s told in extensive detail.

I couldn’t stop picturing Armie Hammer as the protagonist, and although that was distracting at first, I think he would be a pretty good casting choice. I enjoyed the book, but it’s not going to be one of my favorites; though there were plenty of thoughtful insights about human nature—

For the first time I begin to perceive that true sympathy cannot be switched on and off like an electric current, that anyone who identifies himself with the fate of another is robbed to some extent of his own freedom.

__

Again and again we fall hopelessly into the foolish error of thinking that Nature sets a special stamp on outstanding individuals so that they may be recognized at a glance.

__

No envy is more mean than that of small-minded beings when they see a neighbor lifted . . . out of the dull drudgery of their common existence; petty spirits are more ready to forgive a prince the most fabulous wealth rather than a fellow-sufferer beneath the same yoke the smallest degree of freedom.

__

Strange as it may sound, nothing oppressed our friend more at this moment of speedy victory than the fact that his victim had made his victory too easy for him. For when one does another person an injustice, in some mysterious way it does one good to discover (or to persuade oneself) that the injured party has also behaved badly or unfairly in some little matter or other; it is always a relief to the conscience if one can apportion some measure of guilt to the person one has betrayed.

__

For the first time in my life I began to realize that it is not evil and brutality, but nearly always weakness, that is to blame for the worst things that happened in this world.

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A human being will accept the strictest disciplinary measures with a better grace if he knows that they will fall with equal severity on his neighbor. Justice in some mysterious way makes up for violence.

—goddamn, did Hofmiller become tiresome as his interminable story went on. I can empathize with so much of his internal struggle, but even I—with my infinite empathic ability to not just understand but literally feel what other people feel—can’t imagine what it’d be like to be so entirely self-absorbed.

As it happened, while I was reading this book some friends introduced us to Bohemian Brewery, a local restaurant that serves Czech, German, and Austrian food. The atmosphere is cozy, everything we ordered was delicious (including all the beer we tried; my favorite was Cherny Bock), and upstairs the restaurant has a collection of scooters going back several decades. I’m not really a meat person, but my pierogies and bratwursts were fantastic. We’ll be going back frequently as long as we’re living in Utah.

 

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