"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

May 4, 2012

Best short stories by Arthur Schnitzler

The writer and dramatist Artur Schnitzler (1862-1931) lived in fin-de-siècle Vienna, in the waning days of the glory and power of the Habsburg Empire. It was the city of Mahler, Freud and Klimt, a culture that has been named "a nervous splendor" (just listen to a Mahler symphony and you will understand what that means!). The city was consumed by intricate social ritual, by great art, but also lowly gossip - for example about the tragic murder-suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress, Mary Vetsera, at Mayerling.

Schnitzler was especially interested in the psychology of the relationship between men and women - its complexity, its ambivalence, and its perversity - and no one understands it better than he did, with a keen, instinctive insight. A second obsession was death - the fear of dying, the contemplation of the state of death and cemeteries. All his writings are basically about these two subjects - love and death.

The following points are characteristic too:
  • Schnitzler was the first to use stream of consciousness techniques in his writings.
  • Schnitzler was the first to apply Freud's ideas about dreams and the subconscious to literature - although Schnitzler preferred to talk about the "middle" or "half conscious" rather than the "subconscious." A medical doctor himself, Schnitzler was keenly interested in psychoanalysis.
  • Schnitzler not only delves into the inner lives of his characters, but through them, also casts a sharp eye at society. The Viennese "local color" gives his stories and plays added interest. 
  • Thanks to the fact that Schnitzler was in the first place a playwright, his language - especially his dialogue - is very supple.
  • The story usually starts in medias res, after which - as the story is progressing -  we learn more about the characters via flashbacks and interior monologue.
Schnitzler's period of greatest fame, both as a story writer and playwright, was in the two decades before WWI. His many plays dominated the Viennese stage in those years. After the war and the fall of the monarchy, the situation changed. In the early 1920s, Schnitzler became embroiled in the lawsuit about his play Reigen, and also had to cope with family (he lost his daughter to suicide) and personal troubles.

This year it is 150 years ago that Schnitzler was born - a fitting time to commemorate this great author, who is still unjustly suffering from neglect brought about by Antisemitism, Nazism and his subject matter which was often too advanced for his contemporaries. I already wrote a post about the extended novella Traumnovelle ("Dream Story," which formed the basis for Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut) - here we look at the other stories Schnitzler wrote.


The best stories are:

Sterben (Dying, 1892). Early novella about a young man who has been told by his doctor that he will die within a year. This causes a neurosis: he feels jealous that life will go on without him and especially that his wife can start a wholly new life. Gradually, this jealousy changes into the wish to take his wife with him and die together... (English translation in Desire and Delusion)

Blumen (Flowers, 1894). A man has been left by his young wife for a lover, but she keeps sending him flowers every month. Then the wife dies - but the monthly flowers keep coming in an almost ghostly way, causing a dissociation process in the mind of the husband. He is saved by a young woman, who throws out the faded flowers and brings in a fresh bouquet. (Translated in Viennese Idylls at Archive)

Der Witwer (The Widower). Richard's wife suddenly dies and he is devastated. But was she really the saint he imagined her to be? What about his best friend Hugo? (English translation in Night Games)

Ein Abschied (A Farewell, 1896). A man has a relationship with a married woman who visits him regularly in his rooms. Then she suddenly stops coming - as it appears, she has died of an acute illness. He blames himself that he who loves her so truly could not be at her deathbed. Clandestinely, he enters the house where she lies on the bed - and sees a mocking smile on her dead lips. (English translation in Night Games) (Translated in Viennese Idylls at Archive)

Die Toten schweigen (The Dead are Silent, 1897). A married woman has an affair with a young man. On one of their secret meetings they go for a night ride to the outskirts of Vienna. But the driver is drunk and causes an accident. The young man dies. Will the woman be able to get home before her husband? Will the dead keep silent about her adultery? (English translation at Gutenberg) (English translation in Night Games) (Translated in Viennese Idylls at Archive)

Die Frau des Weisen (The Wife of the Sage, 1897). The wife of a wise man fell in love with a student lodging with her and her husband. She never realized her husband knew about this love. The wise man saw it and endured it silently and magnanimously. When the lover finally realizes this, he is impressed by so much self-control and goodness. He does not want to cheat any longer and flees from his beloved. (Translated in Viennese Idylls at Archive)

Die Nächste (The Next One, 1899). A young widower comes across a young woman who looks like his dead wife. She even carries the same name. But things take a fatal turn when he tries to mold the somewhat vulgar woman exactly in the image of his wife.

Leutnant Gustl (Lieutenant Gustl, 1900). First continuous stream-of-consciousness narrative, antedating Joyce and Woolf. A pompous young officer is put in his place by a baker who takes his sword in a strong grip that almost breaks it. Honor demands that the officer commits suicide - a duel is not possible with the lower orders of society (until 1911, officers in the Habsburg Monarchy were obliged by their code to fight duels). He wavers and is afraid, but also worries the baker will boast about the incident and spread his "shame." Then he hears the news that the baker has died that same night from a stroke and he decides suicide is not necessary anymore as nobody knows about his shame. Satire of the duplicity of the honor code of the army (and Habsburg monarchy) that led to Schnitzler being deprived of his own officer status. (English translation in Bachelors)

Frau Berta Garlan (Mrs Berta Garlan, 1900). The whole story is told in free indirect speech from the perspective of Frau Berta Garlan, a young widow living with relatives in a small town near Vienna. Berta has given up music at her parents' request and also her love for a young violinist, and instead made a prudent marriage. Bored in the small town after her husband's death and feeling unfulfilled, she arranges to meet her former lover again, who is now a famous solo violinist. She spends the night with him, but after that, he refuses to see her again. She has been too naive... (English at Gutenberg)

Der blinde Geronimo und sein Bruder ( Blind Geronimo and his Brother, 1900). Geronimo and his brother Carlo are beggars: Geronimo plays the guitar and sings, while Carlo collects the offerings. When they were children, an accident caused by Carlo resulted in his brother's blindness and since then Carlo has cared for Geronimo. But when Geronimo starts distrusting him about money matters and a girl, things fall apart. (English translation in Night Games) (Translated in Viennese Idylls at Archive)

Andreas Thameyers letzter Brief (Andreas Thameyer's Last Letter, 1902). Before committing suicide, Andreas Thameyer writes a letter to explain his deed. He has lost his social status as his wife has born a negroid baby, leading to rumors that she has been unfaithful to him. In the letter, Thameyer tries to prove that there are more instances in history of strange births after pregnant women received a shock on seeing a fierce animal... (Translated in Viennese Idylls at Archive)

Die griechische Tänzerin (The Greek Dancer, 1902). The narrator, an elderly man, has been in love with the much younger Mathilde, but to his regret she has married a sculptor, Samodeski. Now she has died of a stroke and his prejudice makes him think that she has in fact loved him and not the artist who was only after her money, he thinks... A very ambiguous tale with an unreliable narrator, who is cheating himself.

Das Schicksal des Freiherrn von Leisenbohg (Baron von Leisenbogh's Destiny, 1903). The baron is deeply in love with Clara Hell, a singer. For ten years he follows her throughout Europe, without coming close to his goal, as she takes one lover after another. Will he finally be rewarded for his devotion? (English translation in Night Games)

Die Fremde (The Stranger, 1903). Government official Albert von Webeling has married the beautiful but mentally unstable Katharina. Also after the marriage, she remains a stranger to him. Still, he can't help loving her so much that he knows he cannot live any longer when she ever leaves him.

Die Weissagung (The Prophecy, 1904). An interesting case of predestination: the prophecy of the death of Baron von Schottenegg comes true, even though the Baron tries to evade it in a most ingenious way.

Das neue Lied (The new Song, 1905). Karl fails the proof of his love for the singer Marie, with whom he has spent one happy summer: he stops visiting her when an illness has made her blind. The outcome is tragic.

Der Tod des Junggesellen (Death of a Bachelor, 1907). A bachelor has died and left written confessions for his three married friends. Each friend has to examine his relation to his wife. (English translation in Night Games).

Der tote Gabriel (Dead Gabriel, 1908). Gabriel has committed suicide because he has been discarded by his lover, the famous actress Wilhelmine (a character based on Adele Sandrock). Gabriel's girlfriend Irene meets their common friend Ferdinand at a ball, but she doesn't know that Ferdinand was the new lover of the actress and thus the cause of Gabriel's death. She wants to meet Wilhelmine and Ferdinand offers to take her to the actress, without realizing what this will bring about.

Das Tagebuch der Redegonda (The Diary of Redegonda, 1909). At night, on a bench in the park, a mysterious person sits down next to the narrator, and tells about his love for the married Redegonda, how the husband found out about the affair via her diary, and how they fought a duel where the man now telling the story was killed.

Der Mörder (The Murderer, 1910). Cleverly told story about a Viennese lawyer who is in love with two women. He drives the one to her death in order to be free for the other and thinks he can get away with murder, but a surprise is waiting for him. (English translation in Bachelors)

Die Hirtenflöte (The Shepherd's Flute, 1911). Fairy tale about an elderly man who marries a young maiden, only to set her free into the world with the order not to return until after she has been unfaithful to him. In this way, she should get to know her unconscious wishes, but she also realizes he doesn't love her.

Doktor Gräsler, Badearzt (Doctor Graesler, 1917). An elderly and unmarried doctor is too weak and hesitant to decide to marry the young Sabine, although she can help him set up his own sanatorium. When she is too pressing, the egoistical doctor flees. He meets another young woman, but infects her with scarlet fever and she dies. Now he has to face Sabine again...  (English translation in Bachelors)

Casanova's Heimfahrt (Casanova's Homecoming, 1917). Tale about the famous lover, who is now 53 years old, attempting desperately to engineer his final, bittersweet conquest. He needs some trickery to make this possible and when his young partner sees him in the morning, she calls him "an old man."(English translation in Bachelors) (English at Gutenberg)

Fräulein Else (Fräulein Else, 1924). Like Leutnant Gustl a full-fledged example of stream-of-consciousness, the inner life of the 19-year-old Else. The inner monologue is entirely convincing and manages to be charming, amusing and shocking at the same time. Else has been asked by her financially broken father to help him borrow money from an art dealer but is facing a dilemma when the dealer demands that she shows herself naked to him. (English translation in Desire and Delusion)

Die Frau des Richters (The Wife of the Judge, 1925). Eighteenth century (Enlightenment) tale in which Schnitzler grapples with the taboo on female sexuality and attacks the double standard. Agnes leaves her weak and cowardly husband and finds happiness - both mentally and physically - as concubine of her king.

Spiel im Morgengrauen (Night Games, 1926/27). To help a friend, Lieutenant Willi Kasda joins a card game, but the end is disastrous for him. The description of the all-night game alone is an unforgettable piece of literature. (English translation in Night Games)

Der Sekundant (The Second). A man who is a "professional" second in  duels, cannot find words to bring the message of the death of a friend to his wife and ends up making love to her. (English translation in Night Games)

Flucht in die Finsternis (Flight into Darkness, 1931). Robert thinks his overworked brother Otto is insane and decides to kill him. In reality, Robert himself suffers from persecution mania. (English translation in Desire and Delusion)

Studies on Schnitzler:








My overall evaluation for Schnitzler's short stories and novellas: 9 points out of 10.
Schnitzler at Zeno (in German); Austrian Literature Online (in German); at German Gutenberg; and at Gutenberg (partly German, partly English translations).