Valentine’s Day is a day that all sensible people dread. Being sensible, you know that it is ridiculous to get het up about whether or not you will receive a card, flowers, or candlelit dinner, and yet it’s almost impossible not to find yourself desperately wanting all of the above and feeling disproportionately let-down when they don’t quite materialise.
Keen to come up with a plan to avoid this perennial disappointment, I hastened to book tickets to Pushkin Press‘s ‘Zweig Lovers Night’ at the Austrian Cultural Centre. Here was a rare opportunity to do something enjoyable, thought-provoking and un-naf on Valentine’s Day. Surely I wouldn’t care about the lack of candlelit dinner or bunch of flowers with a feast of Stefan Zweig on the horizon.
The evening came around. The husband gave me a very thoughtful writerly card and together we hurried into a grand Knightsbridge house, excited to listen to Amanda Hopkinson, Ali Smith and Antony Beevor talk about why they love Stefan Zweig.
It was fascinating to hear a little of these different writers’ personal connections with his writing. Amanda Hopkinson talked about the editions she’d inherited from her mother, who had met the man himself. These very special books were autographed in Zweig’s signature violet ink, but she had been forced to sell them in order to pay the gas bill during a particularly tough time. Ali Smith talked about the magnetism of Zweig’s prose and read a passage from Fantastic Night, brilliantly capturing the rhythm of Anthea Bell’s translation. (Anthea Bell was there too, quietly approving of the proceedings.) Antony Beevor talked about Zweig as a writer of tremendous empathy and – of course – placed his writing in the context of historical events.
These writers were here as readers, and as they read aloud bits of Zweig’s writing, it was easy to remember why the rest of us readers were Zweig lovers too.
When I read Beware of Pity it felt like being put under a spell. The writing is incredibly intense, unbelievably gripping, forcing you to feel the narrator’s every thought. I felt transplanted inside Hofmiller’s head, into a world of elastic time, where a moment can stretch out into an eternity of pain – such as when he asks Edith to dance – or when a whole lifetime can be condensed into what feels like minutes – like when the Doctor tells him Kekesfalva’s story.
In Beware of Pity Zweig tells the story of Hofmiller – a young army officer who is posted to a small town at the beginning of the twentieth century. Soon he is invited to dinner at Kekesfalva Castle, the home of the richest man in the district, where Hofmiller is enchanted by the grandeur:
It does me good to eat at such an elegantly laid table in so bright and sparkling a room, with liveried servants behind me and the finest dishes in front of me … I have never eaten so well, or even dreamt that anyone could eat so well, so lavishly, could taste such delicacies.
After dinner, there is dancing, by which time Hofmiller is utterly intoxicated:
I hardly know what I am doing, I would like to embrace everyone, say something heartfelt, grateful to them all, I feel so light, so elated, so blissfully young. I whirl from partner to partner, I talk and laugh and dance, and never notice the time, carried away by the torrent of my pleasure.
Then he realises ‘to my alarm’ that he has been so caught up in the evening that he has rudely forgotten to ask the host’s daughter to dance. He searches her out and asks her, but:
Something terrible happens next. She had been leaning slightly forward, but now she flinches abruptly back as if avoiding a blow. At the same time the blood rushes into her pale cheeks, the lips that were half open just now are pressed hard together, and only her eyes keep staring at me with an expression of horror such as I have never seen in my life before … Suddenly she bursts into sobs, a wild, elemental sound like a stifled scream.
Hofmiller discovers that she is lame. He meant to be polite, but instead he has insulted and upset her.
This is his first encounter with the Kekesfalvas, but certainly not the last. Hofmiller’s feeling of pity towards the girl and her father embroils him in their lives … The drama plays out and he becomes more and more of a coward until eventually the First World War breaks out, in which he fights with seeming heroism. As Antony Beevor said on the night, it is a tremendous exploration of the gulf between moral cowardice and physical courage.
I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been completely gripped by Beware of Pity, sucked into Hofmiller’s head and bewitched by Zweig’s spell of a novel. So I was surprised to find this scathing article from an old London Review of Books about Stefan Zweig by Michael Hofman, best known as a translator of Joseph Roth, another celebrated writer of Vienna. Hofman says Zweig is a ‘uniquely dreary and clothy sprog of the electric 1880s’, the ‘Pepsi of Austrian writing’.
I can’t bear reading vitriolic reviews, and find it hard to understand how one writer can find such sadistic pleasure in ripping another to shreds. It would seem, in this plethora of insults, that Hofman finds Zweig to be a name-dropping fake. Admittedly, The World of Yesterday – his memoir about Austria at the beginning of the twentieth century – is full of names, and many of them famous ones. But I don’t see why he shouldn’t mention them if he knew them – isn’t that sort of the point of a memoir? Indeed Nicholas Lezard wrote in the Guardian that:
There are cameo appearances from almost all the major writers of the era (and quite a few musicians too): Gorky, Rilke, Hoffmansthal, Joyce and countless others appear, but, with typical generosity, Zweig prefers to dwell on those whom he fears posterity will overlook.
It is uncanny reading Nicholas Lezard’s review next to Michael Hofman’s – it is as though they are written about completely different books.
Perhaps we can concede that Zweig was a bit of a name-dropper, but Hofman is completely wrong to say that, like Pepsi, he ‘tastes fake’. There is nothing fake about Beware of Pity – it has the drunken reality of a nightmare, reality distorted into something particularly horrific, especially affecting. (Incidentally, Zweig wrote Beware of Pity when he was seeing rather a lot of Freud.) It is hyper-real – every detail has been coloured pixel by pixel.
I came away from Zweig Lover’s Night on Valentine’s Day with a rekindled passion. I’ve spent the days since rereading bits of The World of Yesterday and Beware of Pity and trying to decide which of Zweig’s novellas to read first.
The husband, also a Zweig lover, left the talk feeling hungry. ‘Oh no,’ he said, looking distraught and a bit guilty. ‘Sorry, I should have booked somewhere for dinner.’ The familiar Valentine’s Day disappointment flashed through me as that candlelit dinner once again faded from sight. I managed to shake it off as we walked through an eerie dark Hyde Park and then feasted on Lebanese food on Edgware Road. As we gobbled baba ghanoush, I couldn’t believe that we’d managed to have a fun evening on Valentine’s Day without being at all cheesy.
Just then, the restaurant switched on a spectacular soundtrack of 80s power ballads. It was as though they’d read my thoughts just as easily as Zweig lets us read Hofmiller’s.