Thursday, January 17, 2013

Schnitzler's Dying - some idle speculation

Another pleasant Pushkin Press book today, their edition of the 1895 Arthur Schnitzler novella cheerily and accurately title Dying.  A young writer, Felix, learns that he has a year to live and we watch him live out that year, badly and well by turns.  At times the story and Felix’s behavior reminded me a bit of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), but in a fundamental shift the point of view of Felix alternates with that of Marie, his wife or girlfriend.  Sometimes their views of life and death sync up, sometimes not.  Mostly not.

Now that is an odd detail there, isn’t it, that I do not know if the couple is married.

The novel opens with Marie waiting for Felix in a Viennese park.  They are young, they are a couple – “she said lovingly,” “he took the hand she casually offered him.”  Felix acts like a jerk for a while before admitting the bad news he got from a doctor, so that is how the story moves.  I assumed that the couple was unmarried, especially once Felix demands that Marie leave him to spare her the suffering and similar balderdash.  But Felix and Maria also cohabitate, share a bed, stay in hotels together, and so on.

Perhaps their surnames would provide a clue, but Schnitzler never mentions them .  Maybe a legal matter comes up, like a will.  No.  Perhaps another character, say a family member, will mention something, but neither Felix nor Marie have any family at all.  In fact, Dying only has one other character of consequence, a friend who happens to be a doctor.  So this is a deliberate ambiguity.  Maybe the translator missed something, but the translator is Anthea Bell, so I strongly doubt that.

Dying reinforces my sense that Schnitzler is a powerful but narrow writer.  No family, no religion, no work except some vague writing about which the dying man claims, near the end of the story, to have “thousands of fresh insights” (p. 96).  I cannot remember, actually, a single reference to religion in any of the Schnitzler I have read so far, although I was not looking for them, so who knows.

Schnitzler’s imaginary world is cramped.  Many of the scenes in Dying are not much more than two people in a bedroom or railroad carriage, talking or fighting or thinking.

This is strange, too.  The three earliest Schnitzler stories I have read, aside from Dying, are about:

1.  “The Widower” (1894): a young man’s wife has just died.

2.  “A Farewell” (1896): a young man’s secret mistress has just died, and he cannot grieve properly because of course the husband makes all of the funeral arrangements.

3.  “The Dead Are Silent” (1897): a young adulterous couple have a carriage accident; the man is killed.

You cannot say that Schnitzler does not squeeze the juice out of a conceit when he gets hold of it.  His plays from the same period, like La Ronde and Liebelei, do not fit this pattern.  Still: narrow.

I have done no justice to Dying, so we are stuck with it for another day.


  1. Great observation about the narrowness of Schnitzler's writing. I think that is an interesting, and useful way of analyzing all artistic or for that matter any intellectual endevour. I think that such narrowness can enhance and add uniqueness to a work. Of course I am glad that not all writers craft their work like this, as "big picture thinkers" are vitally important. I do think that there is plenty of room for both kinds of art.

  2. I was writing a reply and the essential concepts quickly spiraled all out of control, over the horizon. But I'll try anyway. "The world" in fiction is always an abstraction, and how much the author attempts to represent/imply the real live "whole world" will vary, though of course even stories with tremendous sweep only apply brushstrokes here and there on the surface of an abstract real world, right? There is no work of art that comes close to representing the great messy expanse of existence, though we can pretend along with the artist that the whole of wholeness is implied. Maybe Schnitzler is just leaving out the things that are nonessential; perhaps "narrow" isn't the right word, and he's merely focused? I am not sure what I'm arguing about here. Possibly the idea that Brian's "big picture thinkers" are no less narrow in their core ideas, and that their big pictures are just more elaborate sets that hold stories which aren't any larger than these tales of Schnitzler. Of course I haven't read the Schnitzler and I don't really know who Brian means by "big picture thinkers." This is all a hash, but I'm hitting "publish" anyway.

  3. Focused is good, and kinder.

    I'm thinking more in hedgehog / fox terms, I guess. My idea of Schnitzler, at least earlyish Schnitzler, is becoming awfully prickly. La Ronde tricked me.

    Maybe another way of thinking about this is that I am asking myself what kind of fantasy world does Schnitzler create? Big or small, detailed or patchy? Some of this is just categorization, not judgment. What kind of trick does this particular magician do?

    Yeah, Brian, who are the "big picture thinkers"? Thomas Mann, someone like that? Or Tolstoy or Hugo, writers with gigantic casts? Yes, plenty of room for both.

    Where Dying will look weak is when we compare it not to something as different as Buddenbrooks but to - I will just blast away - a small, similar story like "The Lady with the Little Dog." Then Schnitzler's artistic narrowness is brought into relief.

  4. That's a useful comparison. "The Lady with the Little Dog" is a focused story, a small story if you will (perhaps "intimate" is better than "small"), but it feels like there's a whole world around the story. The lover has a wife and a job. The lady has a husband, friends and hobbies. They each have pasts, etc.

    The size of the implied fictional world is something I think about a lot lately. I'm trying to think of an author I'd call "narrow." Maybe Camus. Not much exists beyond his main characters. Narrowness of theme is another matter completely. I stay away from that discussion.

  5. Right, exactly. And Schnitzler obviously removes all of this stuff on purpose. It is easy enough to slip in fleeting mentions of deceased parents or something to let me know Marie is no longer a practicing Catholic - or whether the characters are married!

    So he is deliberately minimizing the size of the "world around the story."

    I do wonder if this is a play that metamorphosized into fiction.