Thursday, November 15, 2012

Night Games - Schnitzler stretches out

I read two novellas collected along with the shorter stories, Dream Story (1926) and Night Games (1927).  Please note that these works are from thirty years later than the other stories I have been writing about, and are similarly far from the composition of La Ronde.  Schnitzler’s career was impressive.

In Night Games  an Austrian officer in a single night gambles himself into massive debt.  Nothing is so artificial in fiction as the tension created by gambling, and Schnitzler is not above giving me a shot of the cheap stuff, but the wins and losses do have meaning.  Winning big means sex, because the officer will finally be able to marry; losing big means death, since the officer’s code makes it likely that he will choose suicide over dishonor.

In other words, the officer embraces or succumbs to the “death drive” as described in Freud, Sigmund, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920.

Schnitzler’s protagonists can be generic.  They are often a bit more like representative specimens than individuals.  In La Ronde, the characters are not even given names but are just Soldier or Actress, and in most of the stories this would work just as well.  The greater length of the novella allows Schnitzler to include some idiosyncratic secondary characters in Night Games.  Since they are not part of the psychological study, they are allowed to be a little bit strange.

He looked around the circle as though he sought approval.  Everyone was silent.  Herr Elrief looked away, very aristocratically, and lit a cigarette; Wimmer bit his lips; Greising whistled nervously, almost soundlessly; and the theatre manager remarked somewhat rudely, as though it were trivial, “The lieutenant has really had bad luck today!”  (VII, 32)

The short stories did not have much room for these sorts of individualizing touches, characters who will now be packed away, never to return in the fifty remaining pages.

I have been describing the plots of Schnitzler’s stories, however compactly, more than I usually do because so much of the meaning of the stories comes directly from the plot.  A typical person, the generic representative of a particular social status (bourgeois wife, poor officer), stumbles into an atypical situation.  The steps  the character then takes begin to generate meaning, begin to individualize the character and move him from the generic to the specific.  The climax of the story is simultaneous with the complete creation of the character, the moment of greatest individuality.

So now, back in Night Games, the game has ended and the officer needs to scrounge up a lot of money, or else.  As a result he encounters the best character in the story, his aunt Leopoldine, who he happens to have known previously to her marriage to his uncle.  Sex has again intersected with death:

He saw the little gold ring with the semi-precious stone on the ring finger of her right hand, which was lying on top of the red bedspread, and the slender, silver bracelet that encircled the wrist of the left hand that she had stretched out toward him in waving him farewell from the bed as he was leaving.  She had pleased him so much that when he left he was firmly determined to see her again.  It happened, however, that just at this time another woman had prior claims on him, a woman who, since she was being kept by a banker, didn’t cost him a kreuzer – a consideration given the circumstances.  (XI, 59)

Schnitzler cleverly begins to tell Leopoldine’s story not alongside but somehow behind the rest of the officer’s story.  Because of their entanglement, because of her story, he makes a decision that is not itself a surprise; however the reason for his decision is a shock.   It’s very impressive, but aside from the variety of characters and greater intricacy of the plot, this is exactly how Schnitzler was writing stories thirty years earlier.

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