Tuesday, November 13, 2012

As though everything will be all right again - Schnitzler's breakthroughs

The one hour of voluptuous joy he had experienced with Clara now seemed to him to be surrounded by spine-chilling horror.  (172)

Now that is what I am talking about.  That is the Arthur Schnitzler I have been reading, although this particular story, the 1904 “Baron von Leisenbohg's Destiny,” is admittedly the silliest of the stories in the Night Games collection.  It involves a deadly curse.  A deadly sex curse.  Any effect of a sex curse is of course merely psychological, of course, of course.

Let me try a story that is less unlikely.  “The Dead Are Silent” (1897) begins with a young man awaiting his married mistress in a hired carriage.  The lovers direct the cabbie to the Vienna suburbs, where there is no risk of meeting anyone they know.  An accident occurs, and the point of view deftly switches from the man to the woman, a necessary change because he seems to have been killed, while she is uninjured.

The next five or six pages are mostly just the woman’s interior monologue.  She confronts her lover’s death (“Well, why don’t I believe it? – it’s a certainty… this is death!  A horror seized her whole body,” 92, ellipses in original).  Her thoughts, as one might guess, are confused, but she soon decides to flee the scene (“She can’t be of use to anyone here anymore, and she’s only courting tragedy,” 93).  She spends a four page paragraph walking home, all the while justifying her behavior:

Franz himself would have said she was right to do what she did.  She has to get home, after all.  She has a son, she has a husband, she would be lost if they had found her there with her dead lover.  There’s the bridge; the street seems brighter…  (94)

That passage is typical – thought interrupted by something exterior like a landmark or a racing ambulance on the way to you-know-where.

So far, so explicable.  Schnitzler is moving the character down a clear path.  A reader may support or deplore her behavior but everyone will understand it.  Schnitzler is still working on the surface of the character.  It is only in the last couple of pages, once she is home, safe, that the more complex psychological story can begin.  This is the end:

And she knows that in the next moment she’ll tell this man, whom she has deceived for many years, the whole truth.

And as she slowly goes through the door with her boy, her husband’s eyes on her, a great calm comes over her, as though everything will be all right again…  (100, ellipses again Schnitzler’s).

So Schnitzler spends sixteen pages steadily moving a single action to a resolution and two pages shattering it.  His interest is in that last leap or fall; it is what makes him a great writer.

The story I mentioned yesterday, “The Widower,” has an identical structure.  Most of these stories have the same structure.  The widower discovers his dead wife’s affair with his best friend, and in a several page internal monologue works though his grief and moves to forgive them both.  Yet in the last line he is frothing with rage at his friend for an unexpected reason.  As with the wife in “The Dead Are Silent,” Schnitzler writes a story that breaks his character.  He adds stress, the surface cracks, and I am granted a glimpse of the truth.


  1. I hope you will get to Lieutenant Gustl soon, I'm so keen to see what you will make of it.
    I liked this post a lot. The description of the surface cracking is very true. He does give his charcaters time to come to those final moments.
    It's one of the stories I haven't read but I know it's one of his more famous ones.

  2. I hope to read a lot more Schnitzler soon - the other two easily available volumes of fiction and more plays.

    This particular story had an early translation, and is therefore available online in English. It has a "typical" Schnitzler tone and structure.

  3. Beautiful review! I read 'The Dead are Silent' last year and loved it. I want to read more of Schnitzler's stories. I loved your analysis of the story - the way Schnitzler takes the reader through a particular path and then shatters all expectations in the last few pages.

  4. Thanks, Vishy. In a way, Schnitzler is doing what story writers have always done, his own version of the Maupassant twist. But the idea of the two levels of truth is an innovation, the conscious struggle and the unconscious truth, although one we all take for granted in fiction now.

    And of course in another way Schnitzler is just taming or making "realistic" a long German-language fictional tradition. As if Kleist, Hoffmann, Storm, and Stifter were not writing about the same thing with a different vocabulary.

  5. Yes, Schnitzler seems to be suggesting that an unexpected event or crisis can liberate the mind in a supposedly quite different area of difficulty. The interest would be to understand what links the two, only of course, that would be telling, and S doesn't. The mystery of the process becomes the silent part of the narrative where everything that's important happens.

    This is still a fine point, AR!

  6. I think you are right, that the link is a mystery in Schnitzler. He can give us a good fictional representation of how the "liberation" happens, but not much about "why" - some steps are missing.