Beware of Pity

Oh, Radio 4, you are spoiling us too much. Already this autumn, as I may have mentioned before, we’ve had the epic adaptation of Grossman’s Life and Fate; now we have an adaptation of another top favourite book of mine, Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity.

This adaptation has had a strange history. Let me quote from Radio 4’s page about it:

Simon Gray embarked on a dramatisation of the book for Radio 4, but it was unfinished at his death in 2008. Another writer, Clare McIntyre, was also attracted by the story and wrote a stage version, but she too died before it was completed. Stephen Wyatt has taken on the task of writing a two part radio version based on Clare McIntyre’s material[…]

Stephen Wyatt is clearly a brave, brave man. But Zweig’s novel is such a pleasure it is easy to imagine why anyone would risk death to work on its adaptation. It’s one of those books where you actually find yourself pleading out loud with the characters, begging them not to do the foolish things they are clearly about to do; you wince at their errors and read on compulsively to find out what happens.

In the book, the dashing Hofmiller unwittingly invites a paralysed girl to dance. His guilt at humiliating her and his pity for her condition result in him showing her rather more attention than he should, with disastrous consequences. Zweig has an extraordinary ability to describe vividly the agonies of emotions such as pride, pity, humiliation – emotions with a social content, caused by his characters’ sensitivity to other people’s opinions. The Post Office Girl, Zweig’s other longer work, also explores these emotions, but in a darker, more bitter way than Beware of Pity, which I prefer.

Although I’ve read and commented on his semi-autobiography, I hadn’t read any of his biographies until recently, when I tackled Mary Stuart. It is another page-turner, although given the material this isn’t surprising: even the driest recounting of poor old Mary Q of S’s life would be fascinating. Mary doesn’t really fit into Zweig’s usual pattern of characters, as seen in his fiction; she’s less of a tortured inward-looking intellectual outsider than he often describes, and yet he still gets to grip with her character in an interesting way. He’s rather harsh on Elizabeth, though, presenting her in a deeply unsympathetic light whilst being quite indulgent towards Mary’s husband-murdering tendencies. I’m glad his isn’t the only biography I ever read on the subject as he doesn’t hide his bias, but it is still an entertaining and atmospheric portrait of Mary and her era.

Anyway, if my incoherent mumblings have not been enough to tempt you to listen to Beware of Pity, bear in mind also that it has Ronald Pickup in it. Ronald Pickup, who recently did a fantastic Lucky in Waiting for Godot and who will forever be dear to my heart as Yakimov in the TV adaptation of The Fortunes of War. Go and listen to it right now, then buy the book too, for good measure.

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