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05 January 2012 @ 12:01 pm
#1, #2, #3  
1. Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig
2. Sprig Muslin, by Georgette Heyer
3. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (reread; from now on I'm adding them in JUST BECAUSE I CAN

1. Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig

This book was actually one of my father's Christmas presents to my mother, so I swept through the first three-quarters of it before I thought she'd miss it. As it turns out, it's a book that does well to be read quickly rather than slowly, because the moment I started taking my time over it the story flagged.

It's a first-person narrative from a Lieutenant Anton Hofmiller, an Austrian army officer, who on the eve of WWI strikes up an uneven friendship with Edith, the crippled daughter of a local millionaire.

Through a sense of pity he lets the relationship develop, but realises too late that Edith's feelings for him are more than platonic. Zweig does an amazing job of capturing Hofmiller's awkwardness at the start of the book, his innocent pleasure at being singled out by Edith's father, and his eventual suffocation under the weight of Edith’s unrequited love for him. Each character is drawn with utmost precision and depth, yet all from a single viewpoint: Hofmiller's. As a result, we shy away from Kekesfalva's fawning manners even as we appreciate why he's acting that way; we can also see clearly how upsetting Hofmiller finds it to be loved by a girl he's not attracted to and whom he struggles not to view as a grotesque unentitled to normal human emotions. For 1914, or indeed 1938 when the book was written, there's scarcely any ableism in it except right at the very end, when Hofmiller denies his engagement for fear of embarrassing himself in front of his fellow officers. Even that can be attributed more to his dislike of being regarded as a 'sponge' on her fortune rather than genuine distaste for her disability.

The ending itself - inevitable from the first foreshadowing in Edith's suicide attempts - feels a bit rushed and predictable. It actually might have worked better in a wider POV, where we could have seen how the assassination of Franz Ferdinand would play havoc with their lives earlier on. Or perhaps the story could have done without it altogether; how much more impact would Edith's death have had without the sequel of millions more and, as Hofmiller even says, the international guilt swamping his own?

The writing itself is superlative. It's clean and brisk, even in translation. The emotions are so palpable as to be choking.

Even in dreams the scrabbling rats of my dark thoughts are on the move, gnawing at the black dish of sleep
after the war it struck me as ridiculous to be going around as a certified hero for the rest of my life, just because I'd shown real courage for twenty minutes

after all, the treatment of the sick is not your profession, so how would you know that invalids and their families do not use the same vocabulary as normal folk, that to their ears every 'perhaps' instantly becomes a 'certainly'?

Zweig has an impeccable grasp on Condor's mindset as a doctor, even the self-sacrificing saintly model. It didn't surprise me to find out he was friends with Freud.

The noble delinquent was not spared a day of his detention - an act of defiance, incidentally, that cost Bubencic any further promotion.

I really liked the little Vimes-ian touch there at the end. It's the sort of sweeping statement that can only be made at the close of a life, because I'm sure Bubencic hoped for promotion till the day he died. What would it be like, living every day with the niggling presentiment that this is as good as it gets? (I sometimes wonder if that's how I'm living mine.)

2. Sprig Muslin, Georgette Heyer

I should have known better than to pick this up on the recommendation of someone who writes Jane Austen paralit. Still, it was in the house, it wasn't her worst and it took me a day, so no harm done.

The story of rescued waif Amanda and her erstwhile protector Sir Gareth, who meets her on his way to offer marriage to the suitable spinster Lady Hester, is a bait and switch in the style of Cotillion, without Cotillion's masterful diversionary tactics or charming protagonists. Amanda grows more objectionable the further the story goes, because while her schemes are ingenuous her reason for carrying them out is little short of utter silliness. I would have liked more time with Lady Hester; I couldn't find her relations that objectionable when Lady Widmore is so hilarious. There's also the matter Sir Gareth's young relations, who are described in detail at the start then summarily dropped from existence. That's not unusual for Heyer, but it equally makes this, along with its other faults, one of her weaker works.

"Never mind that! He is coming, Hester, to make you an offer!"
"Oh, is he?" she said vaguely, adding, after a thoughtful moment, "Does he want me to sell him one of Juno's pups? I wonder he should not have told me so when we met in town the other day. It is not worth his while to journey all this distance - unless, of course, he first desires to see the pup."

I wish more time had been spent with Hester! There was certainly room for it, if all the blather about rescuing Amanda from her various scrapes was cut down to below the border of annoying.
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