Monday, November 12, 2012

Arthur Schnitzler's short fiction - “You bastard!” he screams, and throws the pages in his face.

For last year’s German Literature Month, I tried out Arthur Schnitzler’s best known play, Der Reigen / La Ronde, which was about sex and its discontents.  This year I tried some of his short fiction, which is not just about sex but rather sex and death, over and over again.  Eight out of nine stories in Night Games (Ivan R. Dee, 2002, tr. Margret Schaefer): sex, death, death, sex.

My one criticism as such of Schnitzler is that, based on what I have read so far, he is kinda narrow.  The same translator and publisher have produced two more volumes of Schnitzler’s novellas that I am eager to read, to see if I am right, or wrong, or who cares.  Schnitzler is deep rather than broad.  Well, he is not always that deep, either, but here is what I am getting at, every story in this book has at least one moment where I could say, ah, yes, that’s it, that is just what that character in that situation would do, although not being an insightful psychologist like Schnitzler I would have guessed something else entirely, likely some cliché.

For instance, in “The Widower” (1894) Schnitzler gives me a husband who has just lost his young wife (“He still doesn’t understand it; it all happened so fast”).  Left alone, finally, in his house he begins rummaging “mechanically” in his wife’s desk.  Why, there is a locked drawer.  Why, it contains – oh no, speaking of clichés!  It contains love letters between his wife and, who else, his best friend (death, sex).  After a few hours of angry, painful reflection, the friend arrives – “The door opens and his friend is there.”

Now I will skip to the last sentence:

“You bastard!” he screams, and throws the pages in his face.

That sentence is, I suppose, predictable given the setup I have described, but Schnitzler arrives at it from a surprising direction.  The reason for it, the psychology, is surprising yet true, insightful.

In this sense many of Schnitzler’s stories are built like many stories published today, where ordinary people, facing some moment of stress, react in an unpredictable way, and the quality of the story is in part determined by the arbitrariness of that single climatic moment – does the final action feel random, or right?

Schnitzler reminds me of Chekhov or Joyce or Giovanni Verga in that he has crossed the line that divides us and them.  Schnitzler is still us, still now.  Kipling, Stevenson, and Maupassant, innovators, masters of their own kind of short story, are them and then.  Take the metaphor for what it is worth, please.

A couple more days of Schnitzler’s fiction, Schnitzler’s Vienna.

German Literature Month is up and running, by the way, so this is part of that.


  1. I think I have a Criterion DVD or two based on Schnitzler's work (unseen "TBR style," of course), which makes me curious how the sex and death thing would have been treated on film--i.e. in a more immediate or a more removed way than on paper. Have you seen any of the adaptations?

  2. Based on the bibliography at kirjasto I have not seen any filmed Schnitzler.

    Most of the films are of plays, which presumably contain their own solutions, but not all of them.

    In some of the stories, the sexual material is really all in flashback, but a couple of them resort to a "fade out."

    Now, La Ronde is the test case, since the sex takes place in the middle of the scene - every scene - and is represented by three dots. The theater director has to do something - douse the lights for three seconds, freeze the actors, I don't know.

  3. The movie version I saw of La Ronde, directed by Max Ophuls, was extremely well done based on the "fade out" aspect of showing the sex. The addition of an emcee was a stroke of helps adhere the story much better than the symbolism added in the movie.

    1. Fernando Meirelles, the director of City of God, The Constant Gardener and Blindness, has directed a new version:

      Of Schnitzler I'm only familiar with 'Dream Story,' such a perfect and bizarre novella.

  4. I had that very post of yours up in a tab, ready for a link, and then - then - I do not remember. An emcee is a great idea - make the whole thing into a Big Show.

  5. I've enjoyed the Schnitzler I've read (and when you take away sex and death, there's not that much left really...). Have you read 'Fräulein Else'? That's probably the one I enjoyed most - and yes, sex and death...

  6. I certainly agree with the sex and death or death and sex conclusion but what I find quite special is that he is not as sentimental as Zweig. On the other hand he is not as deep or broad as Roth. But there is certainly alos a huge different between his major novellas and some of his short stories. Let's see what you think of the longer ones.

  7. What's the huge difference? Don't keep me in suspense!

    I haven't read Zweig, or Roth for that matter.

    "Fräulein Else" wasn't in this collection, nor was the famous "Lieutenant Gustl" - the novellas are "Dream Story" and "Night Games."

    1. I'm not sos sure you'll turn into a huge Zweig fan but I'm very confident that Roth is for you. He is just a small step away from Musil...
      Why is it that most of the time when i think of "German literature" I actually mean Austrian...

    2. I bet you are right. The amount of J. Roth in English now is staggering.

  8. Isn't "Dream Story" the basis for Eyes Wide Shut or something like that?

  9. I love his works but agree he is maybe focused on a narrow line of characters but think it is common with lot writers in German from round that time ,all the best stu

  10. So when I used the word "narrow" it was in regard to theme rather than character. But Schnitzler is also narrow as a creator of character. Maybe I'll get to that in more detail later.

    Otherwise, Stu, names please! We can't have an argument without evidence.

    Fontane's character work is far more distinctive, his themes more diverse. Kafka is off in some other world. Wedekind's "Spring Awakening" is kind of a cousin of Schnitzler.

    Maybe you mean T. Mann? There is a fair amount of Eros\Thanatos nonsense in the very limited Mann I have read. But again, thematically his work is much bigger than that, isn't it?

    As if I understand what Thomas Mann is up to.

    1. Blogger keeps going funny on me, so hope I can comment. But wanted to say, I'm currently reading Dream Story and found your remarks fascinating, particularly:

      'ordinary people, facing some moment of stress, react in an unpredictable way, and the quality of the story is in part determined by the arbitrariness of that single climatic moment – does the final action feel random, or right?'

      That seems highly pertinent to me - loved it. Thank you for the insight.

    2. I took another run at the same idea today, so you have a chance to review. "Oh, you just meant that?"

      In fact I may have just repeated myself for 500 more words.