"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 16, 2014

"The Road into the Open" by Arthur Schnitzler (1908)

The Road into the Open (Der Weg ins Freie) is one of only two novels Arthur Schnitzler wrote besides his many novellas, short stories and plays (see my posts about his short stories and about his novella Dream Story). The novel tells the story of the love relation between an aristocrat, Baron Georg von Wergenthin, and a lower middle class girl named Anna Rosner. Georg is a dilettante composer, Anna plans to become a singer and they first meet professionally.

The handsome Georg is rather experienced in love affairs - he has had relations with many women and Anna will not be the last one. Throughout the novel, which is told from Georg's perspective, he thinks in fact often with regret about these former girlfriends (he seems rather obsessed with the memory of one of them, Grace). The relation with Anna comes to a head after Georg has made her pregnant. They travel to Italy to hide her condition and later hire a house outside Vienna so that Anna can quietly have her baby.

But Georg, who has a rather flighty character, is unwilling to commit himself and although he says he will not leave her in the lurch, he does not want to marry her either. In the end, after she has had a miscarriage, she sets him free to go his own way, to which "the road into the open" of the title alludes ("ins Freie"has the connotation of "Freiheit," freedom; and it refers literally to the many walks and cycling tours Georg and his friends undertake in free nature just outside Vienna). As always, Schnitzler is strong in his probing of the contradictory psychology of love.

The same flightiness appears in Georg's work as a composer: he is unable to finish any piece of music longer than a song, but instead is always dreaming about writing a certain opera for which the libretto has not even been written yet. Lacking the drive to get down to work, Georg spends most of his time socializing with friends and acquaintances, who are all from artistic circles. 

This gives Schnitzler the chance - besides the main focus on the story of George and Anna - to paint a wonderful portrait of fin-de-siecle Vienna, then the capital of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire: the cafés, cultural salons, and musical concerts frequented by the Viennese elite. That many members of that elite were Jewish, allows Schnitzler to write about the position of these urban Jews - about the various positions they took, running the gamut from Zionism (following the ideas developed around this time by another Viennese, Hertz) to full assimilation, as well as about the rising specter of antisemitism. Schnitzler even dedicates so much space to this sub-theme, that some critics have considered that as the main subject of the novel, but I believe they are wrong - it would be very much out of character for Schnitzler to write about a social theme, where all his work is of a psychological nature and about unconscious desires.

As in his short stories, Schnitzler uses stream of consciousness techniques to delve into the unconsciousness of Georg. We see for example that Georg had repressed feelings of guilt about the suicide of a friend (that friend and Georg were traveling with Georg's previous girlfriend Grace in Italy when the suicide happened and as a result Grace left Georg), as well as the death of his father which has just happened when the novel opens. There is a strong suggestion Georg has these guilty feelings because he knows in his deepest heart that he in fact has betrayed his friend and his father - and he will do the same with Anna, leaving her in the lurch in a most ignoble way, while all the time trying to justify this act in his own mind. Georg has an unquenchable thirst for freedom for himself, but at the same time perpetuates wrong conventional attitudes towards women and lower classes (read: Anna), because that is convenient for him. He feels no empathy or compassion for others and in the end goes his own egoistic way, unable to balance his radical quest for freedom with even a modicum of responsibility. Everything in his life forms part of that same pattern. It is the great merit of Schnitzler that he brings this out by inner monologues which show how Georg lies to himself and how he suppresses his feelings of guilt. Without any authorial moralizing, the negative judgement about Georg by Schnitzler is clear.

The Road into the Open has been translated by Roger Byers and published by University of California Press. An older translation by Horace Samual (called The Road to the Open) is available at Gutenberg. The German original is available at the German-language Gutenberg site and at Zeno