Friday, May 10, 2013

They are the hands of an old man - Schnitzler's Casanova

Arthur Schnitzler was blissfully free of the aesthetic crises that afflicted so many of his peers.  He wore Viennese culture lightly.  Schnitzler’s neuroses were sexual.  No wonder Freud learned so much from Schnitzler, and vice versa.  I know far more than I want to know about the inveterate womanizer’s sex life from reading Peter Gay’s Schnitzler’s Century (2002).  Readers with German and a high threshold for this sort of thing can enjoy thousands of pages of it in Schnitzler’s diaries.  He was a skirt-chasing dog, and a successful one.

What is interesting here is that Schnitzler was keenly aware of the psychology of his own behavior, and of its moral risks, too, of the dangers his lack of self-control posed to any woman who succumbed to him.  I know this because of his fiction, where he is insightful and ironic about people who behave like he does.

Thus Schnitzler’s interest in Casanova, the subject of the 1918 novella Casanova’s Homecoming and 1919 play Casanova in Spa (which I have not read).  The novella describes an adventure that is fictional but might as well be taken from the memoirs.  Casanova is 53, down but not out; the  author is 56.  This is why he is interested:

“Look well, Amalia.  See the wrinkles on my forehead; the loose folds of my neck; the crow’s-feet round my eyes.  And look,” he grinned, “I have lost one of my eye teeth.  Look at these hands, too, Amalia.  My fingers are like claws; there are yellow spots on the fingernails; the blue veins stand out.  They are the hands of an old man, Amalia!”

She clasped both his hands as he held them out for her to see, and reverently kissed them one after the other in the shaded walk.  “Tonight, I will kiss you on the lips,” she said, with a mingling of humility and tenderness, which roused his gall.  (171)

I will let Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life address the story itself.  Casanova is still Casanova, even if he now relies more on his reputation than his looks.  “It’s hard to find anyone to admire in these pages” Lizzy says, and I would go a step further.  About two-thirds of the way into the story, several characters (not just Casanova) who seemed self-serving reveal themselves as evil.  The word is not too strong.  Rape, blackmail, and murder are the results.  Schnitzler is cruel in Casanova’s Homecoming, building some sort of understanding between Casanova and me, some sense of how his world works, how he lives in it, before pulling the lever that opens the concealed trap door.

Casanova, of course, does not believe that his acts are evil.  By the end of the story, the events have becomes just another episode for the Memoirs.  Casanova has moved on to his next adventure.  Yet, in the last paragraph, “he was overwhelmed with a weariness amounting to pain, while on his lips was a bitter aftertaste which seemed to rise up from his innermost being.”  The author grants his character the gift of sleep, “heavy and dreamless, taking pity on the aging adventurer.”

I read the version in the German Library Plays and Stories of Schnitzler, tr. Eden and Cedar Paul, revised by Caroline Wellbery.


  1. I like the sound of the little touches here: the "mingling of humility and tenderness" which rouse Casanova's gall & how this seems to foreshadow the "bitter aftertaste" left on the womanizer's lips in the last paragraph. Do you have a favorite Schnitzler, though? Do you recommend Schnitzler's Century without reservation?

  2. A favorite - "Dream Story," maybe. These late career novellas are all strong, though.

    The answer to the "without reservation" question is "no," but the reservations are mild. The book is really a summary of Gay's giant five-volume history of the 19th century bourgeois, with Schnitzler serving as a convenient figure to launch any topic Gay wants to cover.

    But the book is a lively social history full of anecdotes and stories that are worth reading.