This is a beautifully written, deeply moving novel, set in 1914 in a small, provincial garrison town near the Hungarian border, told in retrospect, using the present tense, by Anton Hofmiller, principal character, a second lieutenant in the army. Bored with the town and his dull life (while being a good Army man, disciplined and focused, and respected by his charges), he accepts a dinner invitation from Herr von 'Kekesfalva' (Hofmiller protects his and his family's true identity, no doubt to avoid bringing further shame upon them and himself, as well, presumably, out of a sense of honour and integrity), who is the 'richest man in the whole neighbourhood. Practically everything belonged to him-'. In fact, Hofmiller not only takes up the invitation out of a wish for an exciting change to his otherwise dull life, but also more from a desire to be introduced to Kekesfalva's neice, whom he describes upon first seeing in a patisserie as an 'elegant nymph', and more besides, that we know already he is absolutely smitten by her.
Intoxicated emotionally and quite literally from the riches of the evening of the dinner - the delicious food, fine wines, cigars, the elegant service, the beautiful house, and the dancing afterwards - Hofmiller only late in the evening suddenly realises that he has committed a terrible faux-pas: throughout the entire evening, he has neither spoken to, nor asked a dance of, Herr Kekesfalva's only daughter. And soon enough, we are gradually, relentlessly along with Hofmiller drawn into a profound, troubling story of how his original sense of honour and good intentions, intermingle seamlessly with a sense of pity for the daughter, who cannot walk without crutches. In turn she misunderstands his intentions, even at one dramatic point challenging him, he still denies his true state of feelings, because in some ways he does come to love her genuinely, though again this originates from the complex issue of pity and, by the time he truly realises his love for her, it is, tragically, too late.
It is a fascinating, remarkable, melancholic, philosophical novel - i.e., a deeply searching and questioning exploration on the complexity of the subject of pity as it plays itself out - pity, and its many terrible ramifications, from guilt, angst, fear, hatred and self-loathing, to dishonour, betrayal, and, desperately, eventually, devastating loss in the form of suicide. And yet, while complex in terms of psychological depth and characterisation, it is a story that is told elegantly, smoothly, is easily absorbed and totally absorbing. In studies of European literature, it is justifiably regarded as one of the most important novels by one of Europe's most important 20th century novelists and intellectuals. For those who haven't read Zweig before, and would prefer something shorter in length - my edition runs to 365 pages - by way of an introduction to his fiction, I would strongly recommend some of his compelling shorter works, such as Confusion, Burning Secret, Fear or Chess (Penguin Mini Modern Classics).show more