Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"Lieutenant Gustl" - Arthur Schnitzler innovates

Arthur Schnitzler’s longish story “Lieutenant Gustl” (1900) is commonly considered the first pure piece of stream-of-consciousness fiction, meaning that all of the usual information of the story, the plot, characters, setting, and so on, with one crucial exception, is provided somewhere in the supposed thoughts of the title character.

No cheating, then – no narrator, no background, nothing that would not be part of the thoughts of this character at this moment.  So an extra degree of cleverness is required to turn the mental chaos into a coherent story with all of the usual features.

The exception is the first thing I see, the title, which at least suggests the possibility that the lines that begin the story belong to a fellow named Gustl with the title of lieutenant:

How much longer is this thing going to last?  Let’s see what time it is… perhaps I shouldn’t look at my watch at a serious concert like this.  But no one will see me.  If anyone does, I’ll know he’s paying just as little attention as I am.  In that case I certainly won’t be embarrassed…  (251, ellipses all in the original)

A time, a place, a little bit of insight into the shallow ego of the character.  I might question  the coherence of the sentences – “perhaps I shouldn’t”? – and wonder about those ellipses but it is easy enough to go along with the conceit, to accept that the text does not reproduce but at least resembles thought.

Gustl looks at his program, looks for pretty girls, and lets slip that “day after tomorrow I might be dead as a corpse” (252).  He does not have a great talent for metaphor, this guy.  Since it is a Schnitzler story about an army officer, a duel is as a matter of course part of the story.  How Schnitzler hated dueling.

But then I, like the character, am surprised.  Gustl is a jerk in the coat-check line and is quietly reprimanded, insulted, by a baker who is clearly used to dealing with hothead officers.  A duel with a lowly baker is out of the question, so there is only one way to erase the stain on Gustl’s honor.

Most of the remaining two-thirds of the story consists of Gustl wandering around central Vienna planning his suicide, his thoughts flitting to his mother, his career, women he has known or not (“A window is being opened up there. – Pretty creature. – Well I would at least put on a shawl or something when I go to an open window,” 271).  I was constantly reminded of Mrs. Dalloway, since Schnitzler anticipates so many of Woolf’s technical flourishes.

I doubt that Woolf or Joyce or Dorothy Richardson had any idea what Schnitzler had done.  I doubt Schnitzler had any idea.  Woolf et. al . were looking for solutions to a more general artistic problem of the representation of consciousness.  Schnitzler was looking for a novelty hit (and also a way to follow the thinking, such as it is, of this particular nitwit).  The great clue is the nimble twist ending.  Under the innovative wrapping, “Lieutenant Gustl” is a first-rate Maupassant story.

Schnitzler would write a longer and more complex stream-of-consciousness novella, Fraulein Else, but that was not until 1924.  It is curious to see what would later, in English, be thought of as an important breakthrough in literary technique treated by Schnitzler as one more demonstration of his cleverness.  “One more” meaning: more clever Schnitzler tomorrow.

Quotations from the version in the German Library Plays and Stories of Arthur Schnitzler, tr. Richard L. Simon and Caroline Wellbery, Continuum, 1982.


  1. Édouard Dujardin is also credited with the first stream-of-consciousness fiction, with "Les lauriers sont coupés," in 1888. Did Schnitzler read Dujardin, I wonder?

  2. It's not like the idea of stream-of-conscious writing was new even in 1888. Not to discount the technical breakthrough of writing an entire story in this manner, but it does seem to be primarily an extension of the long soliloqueys already to be found in plays. Shakespeare is full of the stuff.

    Though what Woolf et al (and I suppose Schnitzler whom I have not read beyond snippets on this blog) were doing is different from what Shakespeare was doing, as Shakespeare provides a lot of context for the interior voices where the Modernists build exterior context up from within the interior voices. If that makes sense. I'm inventing my terminology as I go along. It shows.

  3. Good another one to add to the list - but frankly it sounds like it adds little more to the stream-of-consciousness method that what you can find in Odoevsky's 1844 story The Living Corpse.

  4. There are so many precursors. Writing an entire story in the technique is the innovation, whoever did it, not the technique itself. The word "pure" in my first paragraph is doing all of the work.

    Schnitzler himself credited Dujardin (the book Doug mentions) and the Dostoevksy story "Krotkaya \ A Gentle Creature," but he has a curious comment about Dujardin (who knows if that link, to a 1954 Gleb Struve essay, p. 1111, will work):

    "Nur dass dieser Autor [Dujardin] für seine Form nicht den rechten Stoff zu finden wusste."

    Or - please correct my paraphrase - that Dujardin did not find the right content for his new form.

  5. Oops, obooki beat me to the button.

    That story is in the Odoevsky collection I read, but I surely do not remember it. Russian literature seems to have more than its share of passages or stories that get awfully close to whatever is going on in Schnitzler.

    There is a lot of commentary about how Schnitzler is working with Freudian ideas when he works in this form, which is probably true, but that is not much help with explaining Gogol or Dostoevsky or Odoevsky or that passage in Anna Karenina you wrote about recently.

    1. No, the Odoevsky isn't a memorable story - or possibly even a good one. But since when was originality connotated with literary worth?

  6. "An entire story" is true of the Odoevsky and the Dostoevsky too, though possibly they're shorter.

    Dujardin - who was friend and influence on another occasional stream-of-consciousness writer, George Moore - was apparently somewhat obsessed with the Christian religion, and so are his books. Moore also wrote a lot of religious stuff. The character of Ralph Ellis in Moore's The Lake is based on Dujardin; and The Brook Kerith was much influenced by him. Apparently. (I might read this latter soon).

  7. 'Under the innovative wrapping, “Lieutenant Gustl” is a first-rate Maupassant story.'

    That's really the point, though.

  8. "Les lauriers" is entirely stream-of-consciousness, but it does have dialogue, as part of the stream. So, that may disqualify it, depending on your definition. No Christianity in it, as I recall; it's the only Dujardin I've read. The content is a young man who doesn't realize that the object of his affections is swindling and manipulating him; not the best subject, maybe, but, of course, it's all in the telling. Well, you'll have to read it, Tom, if you haven't already. It's only 90 pages...

    1. Fair enough, I've not read it. I was going by an article I had about Dujardin and Moore. Dujardin wrote other books called, for instance, La Source de Fleuve Chretien and Le Dieu Mort et Ressuscite (plus a few accents). - Possibly these works, being seemingly factual, aren't written in a stream-of-consciousness manner - or he's more innovative than I thought.

  9. OK - Dujardin is on the way, under its old New Directions title We'll to the Woods No More.

    I will look at that Dostoevsky story, too. Maybe the distinction people have made will be obvious. Or maybe it will be sophistic twaddle.

    obooki has made a strong case for Moore, but that will have to wait I guess. A collection of the correspondence of Moore and Dujardin has been published. La Source de Fleuve Chretien is available in English in a 1911 edition, so anyone interested should read that.

    1. If you do read Moore, bear in mind the following I was just reading in another article, which neatly sums up what I've so far discovered about him:

      Ford Madox Ford said "there was not a critic "with any pretensions to knowledge of letters who would not acknowledge when challenged that Moore was infinitely the most skillful man of letters of his day - the most skillful in the whole world" ... [But t]o speak of him with authority one must read a vast quantity of poor and sloppy fiction and disentangle it from what is undeniably first-rate; and one has to be aware of the author's different intent in each of his numerous fresh starts. There is no such thing as a typical George Moore novel. And again, when we compare the heterogeneous mass of Moore's novels with the uniform suave urbanity and originality of his critical and autobiographical writings, we are confronted with a contrast that does not lend itself to ready generalizations. In the nonfiction writings Moore reveals himself as a thoroughly modern spirit, even as far back as the eighteen-eighties. But in his fiction of the 'eighties and 'nineties there is much tameness, timidity, and compromise, and we even see occasional capitulation to the conventional moralizing that Moore so bitterly attacked in his critical writings"

      So, stick to autobiography and c20th novels.

    2. And if you do read Dujardin, don't expect "delightful" and "charming," as ND claims. Glum and lyrical, maybe...

  10. A great story, but 'Fräulein Else' is where it gets really interesting - very happy my German version was a double of these two stories :)

  11. I remember obooki warning people away from Esther Waters, the one George Moore book most likely to be read. Some of that FMF quote sounds like a description of FMF.

    I remember Tony saying "Fraulein Else" Was even more impressive than "Gustl."

    If I were less tired, I would dig up the links.