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.