Beware of Pity is a is an astute New York Review reissue and a kind of “ghost book” from a vanished civilization. The characters seem to be in a shadow play in which they act out roles that are about to be rendered extinct. In that respect, I was reminded of the posthumous atmosphere one can inhale in Chekov’s imperishable stories, only the effect is more pronounced in the case of Zweig. Russian culture survived no matter what the hardships. Austrian culture, as a living force, was eviscerated.

But I thought it has lessons to teach us as we pick over its bones. We are presented with an average joe type Austrian lieutenant, 25-year old Hofmiller. He seems to have an adolescent greenness left over in him.

He’s a cavalry officer, heir to a proud Austrian tradition in a 20th century where nobody in his company seems to realize they are obsolescent. They drill, they parade, discipline is tight, as if they were officers in the previous century’s army. They are proud, their prestige is high and enhanced, you sense, by the presence in the social surround of “inferior” ethnic types, the “lesser breeds” of their expansive empire.

In the podunk town where he is stationed, Hofmiller jumps at the chance to attend a dinner party at the Schloss of the Kekesfalvas, a lavish spread of a place on the outskirts. Elder Kekesfalvas is a widower with two daughters, Ilona and Edith. Kekesfalvas is titled and Hofmiller assumes he’s a Hungarian aristocrat but his title came with his property, as did his aristocratic-sounding name. The story of the manor house acquisition would make any Wall Street speculator proud.

Kekesfalvas is Jewish, not a Hungarian aristo. As Joan Acocella points out in her near perfect introduction to the novel, so is Stefan Zweig. His authorship of a libretto for a Richard Strauss opera, The Silent Woman, caused that work to be banned by the Nazis despite Strauss’s quasi-Nazi eminence. But apparently, according to Acocella, that didn’t stop Zweig from showing anti-Semitism towards the East European Jewish émigré that Kekesfalvas represents. It’s a tragedy of conscience twice over since if Zweig thought his ultra-sophisticated Viennese high culture identity was going to exempt him from Austrian bigotry, he found out, as many others did, that he was mistaken.

Spending so many years in the bookselling world, I would sometimes run across colleagues who would be anxious about attending book launch parties for fear they would say something incredibly dumb under the influence of mediocre white wine. Like Hofmiller’s cavalry regiment, publishing never forgets.

Hofmiller attends the dinner party at Schloss Kekesfalvas, and despite arriving late, makes a good impression until the very end when he makes an outrageous gaffe. Realizing that he has not asked the younger daughter of the house, Edith, to dance, he seeks her out in a distant room and asks her, not realizing that she is disabled and can barely walk even with the aid of crutches. The young woman is traumatized by the invitation and has a kind of nervous seizure.

Therein begins the courtship of weakness by strength that is the theme indicated by the novel’s title. I’ve phrased it that way because I’m seeing a dark side to this subject in its Central European context: the pathological fear of “weakness” by a proto-fascist culture, an outlier example of the xenophobic fear of what’s different.

I don’t think Zweig, with his inheritance of Freudianism and Viennese deep-think, is looking at it that way. The hypothetical, hot house, argument recurs as a leitmotif that those that are strong, beautiful and happy don’t need our love, which they would regard merely as an expected acknowledgment of their gifts, our love as their personal adornment. It’s the weak, the sickly, the unhappy, the disappointed who would be transfigured by our love, and therefore are most deserving of it.

That appears to be Hofmiller’s developing syndrome and Zweig appears to believe that the attitude, and Hofmiller’s relationship to Edith, is pathological. That the civilization, the nation, the army, in which this argument takes place is about to be annihilated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the closing pages of the novel only adds to the rich irony and masterful finesse of Beware of Pity.