Friday, January 18, 2013

Ah, what do we know about time and space? - Schnitzler loots Tolstoy

Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Dying reminded me of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych in its insightful depiction of the thoughts over time of a dying man, and Schnitzler impressed me by giving equal attention to the thoughts and fears of his wife or girlfriend or - I’ll just say wife for today’s purpose.

In his recent Anna Karenina hatchet job, obooki singles out the well-known passage in which Anna is in a carriage, turning over recent events but being distracted by shop signs.  Here is a sliver of Anna’s thoughts:

Office and warehouse … Dental surgeon … Yes, I will tell Dolly everything. She doesn’t like Vronsky. [I’ll skip a bit]  I won’t give in to him. I won’t allow him to teach me … Filippov, pastry cook – I’ve heard he sends his pastry to Petersburg. The Moscow water is so good.  (Pt. VII, Ch. XXVIII)

And so on.  The ellipses are in the original, an orthographic feature, although different translators treat them differently.  They signify Tolstoy’s pauses, not obooki’s omissions.  This is an early example of stream of consciousness used for a specific purpose, (I am quoting obooki) “to show a disordered human mind – a mind pushed to emotional extremes – rather than the everyday state we find ourselves in.”

The dental surgeon is foreshadowing, and the pastry cook's pancakes – but I am not writing about Tolstoy.

Schnitzler’s dying Felix and the faithful Marie have been in the mountains, hoping to improve Felix’s health, and are now returning to Vienna by train.  Felix's mind is understandably disordered:

She looks so pale, or is that just the light? ... Ah, yes, the overhead lighting is on.  But it isn’t entirely dark outside yet …  And now autumn is coming … autumn, such a sad, quiet time …  We’ll be back home in Vienna this evening …  And then I’ll feel as if I’d never been away …  [I gotta skip some of this]  There are a great many passengers in a worse way than me on the train …  It’s good to be alone …  How has this whole day passed?  Was it really today that I was lying on the sofa in Salzburg?  It’s so long ago …  ah, what do we know about time and space? ...  the mystery of the world, perhaps we’ll solve it when we die …  And now a melody sounded in his ear.  He knew it was only the sound of the moving train, yet it was a melody …  A folk-song, a Russian song …  monotonous …  very beautiful …  (67)

He is asleep by the end.  Ellipses again in the original.  Somewhere in the middle I was thinking, gee this sounds, and even looks, a lot like that part of Anna Karenina, and then Schnitzler drops in the Russian folk-song, out of nowhere.  The previous scenes in Salzburg had taken place in the midst of “a great festival of vocal music” (53), but there was nothing Russian until this moment.

“Russian” is like a signature or seal – “yes, dagnabit, I have been reading Tolstoy!”

Why I do not write reviews – just look at these:  Winston’s Dad, Lizzy’s Literary Life, John Self, and Pechorin’s Journal, all enjoying Arthur Schnitzler’s Dying.


  1. Hatchet job's a bit strong; I was thinking more "balanced review". Things like the bit you quote were very good indeed.

    It's good that you're reviewing Schnitzler and Zweig together, since I have difficulty distinguishing them in my mind anyway. There's some about both that doesn't appeal to me; though I'm not convinced Joseph Roth's much better either.

  2. I love this idea of inserting a "signature of seal" to acknowledge an influence. There's a scene in Virginia Woolf's The Years that's very similar, where the main character is riding in a car (or maybe a bus - it's been years since I've read it) and reading a letter, with her thoughts shifting continually back and forth between what's in the letter and what's physically around her. I should look at it again to see if there's anything Russian or Austrian mentioned in the passage

  3. I like the style of stream of consciousness. I like your analysis of this text.

    I will just add that what people describe as a confused state of mind to me seems like regular thinking. Maybe this sys something about the way that I think:) Or perhaps it is because I have read a few books on brain research that have lead me to believe what goes on in our heads is always very chaotic.

  4. That passage in AK is really impressive. The build up to Anna's suicide left me in awe; I knew it was coming, but the way Tolstoy makes her arrive at it, ah!

    Incidentally in one of his four books on literary criticism, Milan Kundera makes a wonderful analysis of this passage; it's very much worth reading for his ideas - I like how he explains that before she dies, AK stops seeing any beauty in the world, and how the text is full of examples, and damn it he's right!

  5. That Tolstoy passage is almost too good to be used here. Schnitzler follows Tolstoy's structure, but line for line, well, if literature is not a competition why is there such a clear winner and loser? I mean, "autumn, such a sad, quiet time," please.

    Maybe everyone knows this - I have not read "Lieutenant Gustl" (1900) but that is obviously the post in the distance at which this one is aiming. Schnitzler had barely gotten started in 1895.

    Brian - I suspect you and the brain researchers are right, but then the interesting question becomes why writers like Tolstoy and Schnitzler chose stream of consciousness only when they wanted to portray these particularly heightened moments but do not use it for regular thinking, and similarly what later writers like Joyce or Woolf are trying to accomplish when they do use it for ordinary thought. Semi-ordinary thought. What passes for ordinary thought in fiction.

    Speaking of Woolf, I will bet that The Years is much too late (1937) to show the slightest sign of anxiety of influence. Maybe in an early novel, and there it should be Dorothy Richardson who gets the acknowledgment. obooki has actually read Richardson and can tell you all about it.

    "Hatchet job" is a compliment! A time-honored form of criticism. I wish I knew how to write them.

    Anyway, I am developing a strong sense of Schnitzler, imaginary but strong, but Zweig is still a mystery. Here is a similarity: in those three stories, Zweig had no sense of humor whatsoever, and the same is true so far of Schnitzler - but only in his fiction! His plays have jokes, humor, high spirits, etc. That is another item on my list - keep an eye out for humor in Schnitzler's fiction.

  6. I said all that stuff about disordered minds of course, because it linked up with Dostoevsky, but I couldn't help remembering that that wasn't the only or first stream-of-consciousness passage I'd noticed in Anna Karenina. I just couldn't be bothered to look up the other passage - which I knew wasn't a depiction of a disordered, even though I'd even remembered what page it was on.

    It's Part 7, Chapter 22. Oblonsky is listening to Lydia Ivanovna reciting some nonsensical book detailing the ideas of the crazy Christian cult she belongs to:

    "The most incongruous thoughts whirled through his brain. "Marie Sanin is glad her child's dead ... It would be nice to have a smoke now ... To be saved, one need only have faith, and the monks don't know the way to salvation but the Countess Lydia Ivanovna does ... I wonder why my head feels so heavy? Is it the cognac or because all this is so very odd? I think I've behaved all right so far. Still, it wouldn't do to ask any favour of her now. I've heard it said they make one say one's prayers. Supposing they want me to! That would be too absurd! And what twaddle she is reading, but she has a good accent ... Landau - Bezzubov - what's he Bezzubov for?""

    That's it. Much shorter but proving, like all literary theories, mine only works through cherry-picking.

  7. I don't think this passage - which I did not remember at all - is so far off the disordered path. Oblonsky is confused and "could not get his bearings" and he is also falling asleep. The lien where he is capable of nothing more than parroting what he is hearing is pretty funny.