If you are rummaging around in that Dedalus anthology of Meyrink, do not miss “The Clockmaker” (1926), which is not one of the Bats but is still quite good. It replaces poisonous blue flowers and time-leeches with baroque descriptions of clocks. I was planning to write about it, but I fear I would just be repeating myself, as Meyrink was, aside from all the fine descriptions of clocks (“they seem to be drunk and asleep, for sometimes they snore loudly or rattle their chains”).
Instead, then, onwards and sideways to Arthur Schnitzler. I have read a few more of his works recently, let’s see. How about I start with the boring one, which is the 1912 play Professor Bernhardi.
It is deliberately boring; boring is a strategy. The play at first appears to be about the petty bureaucratic struggles at a private Viennese hospital. Office politics, personality clashes, budget maneuvering. Near the end of the first act, Dr. Bernhardi, one of the hospital’s founders, commits either an error or an act of integrity or both. He refuses to let a priest give extreme unction to a dying woman, the victim of a botched abortion. The medical reason for barring the priest never made sense to me, but it seems to be taken seriously within the play.
Bernhardi is Jewish. He is accused of the crime of interfering with the Catholic religion, is tried, and jailed for two months. Surrounding this bare plot is a lot of office politics, etc. Act III is set in a conference room! How dull. But of course the central conflict, the collision between professional duty and an increasing vehement and angry anti-Semitic politics, is not dull at all. Bernhardi is made a martyr.
To what, though? To a cause or to pride? I will give away the ending:
WINKLER (a friend of Bernhardi’s): That precisely was your mistake. If one were always to do the right thing, or rather, if one simply began one morning, without any further thought, to do the right thing and simply continued without interruption to do the right thing all day long, he would most certainly wind up in jail before supper.
BERNHARDI: And shall I tell you something, Councillor? In my position you would have done exactly the same thing.
WINKLER: Possibly. Then I would have been – I’m sure you’ll forgive me, Professor – just as unreasonable an ass as you were.
It was a pleasure to read a thoughtful Schnitzler story that was about something other than the battle of the sexes, about a meaningful ethical debate in an interesting social setting. A sort of debate or reconciliation between Bernhardi and the priest in Act IV is even something like an Important Scene, and is probably what I should be writing about.
Look, Professor Bernhardi is a period piece, but I am a student of the period. Tomorrow, something more exciting by Schnitzler, with a duel and gambling and rape and other awful stuff. No conference rooms.
I read the translation in Professor Bernhardi and Other Plays, tr. G. J. Weinberger, Ariadne Press, 1993.