Little Novels, by Arthur Schnitzler

After the last late post for Spanish Literature Month, here’s an early one for German Literature Month (if you like).

I’d never read any Schnitzler before. For a long time I had him confused in my mind with Stefan Zweig: that is to say, I considered him a fairly dull bourgeois writer I wouldn’t be interested in (a bit also like Thomas Mann). I think on the whole, without doing any other research than reading these stories, that he does probably come from that world. I was spurred on to read him when I came across his name mentioned in Éduoard Dujardin’s simultaneously self-deprecating and obsessively self-regarding essay, Interior Monologue, as someone who used the stream-of-consciousness technique prior to Joyce. In fact, he seems to be the only writer (aside of course from Dujardin himself) whom Dujardin is (albeit churlishly enough – “(o)ne cannot deny, in any case, that it is very near to it”) inclined to admit as a forerunner of Joyce; and who, much to Dujardin’s chagrin, didn’t, unlike Joyce, derive the idea from Dujardin himself, but just came up with it of his own accord because it seemed an obvious thing to do. This is of course his book Leutnant Gustl, which I didn’t read.

I read instead a collection of novellas/stories, Little Novels (published 1929), which seems to be a selection from throughout his career, in which there is very little trace of the stream-of-consciousness technique, with perhaps the exception of the story Blind Geronimo and his Brother, which is in time quite close to Leutnant Gustl. Here is Carlo, Geronimo’s brother, deciding whether to commit a robbery:

Carlo got up, as if something were driving him thither, and laid his forehead against the cold window-pane. Why had he got up? … To think it over? … To make the attempt? … What! … It was impossible and besides it was a crime. A crime? … What do twenty francs mean to such people who travel a thousand miles for their pleasure? They would not so much as miss it. He went to the door and opened it gently.

But really, it’s like Schnitzler doesn’t consider stream-of-consciousness to be a new way of conveying inennerable aspects of the modern world, but merely a technique one might or might not use in telling a story – and which, for the most part, at least here, he doesn’t. For quite fundamentally all the pieces in this book are stories, of the very traditional story-teller variety – which is probably why Schnitzler is largely overlooked these days – in this country at least; – just try to find any of his works in a bookshop – saving A Dream Story of course, which was used as the basis of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and which at the time of its release was given away free by a Sunday newspaper so that copies of it continue to flood secondhand markets (and which of course I’ve never read, despite being the one person who actually liked the film); – but no one wants stories these days, not with good ideas and plots and twists; they want dull stories about everyday lives with no surprises in which someone learns something not very interesting about something or about themselves.

The writer in fact whom Schnitzler reminded me of the most is Isak Dinesen, which is high praise in Obooki’s world: stories with their own intrinsic interest and insight into human affairs, aside from a good plot. I assume this collection is chronological, though I only have a few dates to go by and the fact that the stories get better, and more insightful, as the collection goes along. In particular, I’d pick up the first story, The Fate of the Baron (about jealousy), and then everything from Andreas Thameyer’s Last Letter (also about jealousy) to the final story, The Death of a Bachelor (again, about jealousy), which I think, along with Dead Gabriel (once again, about jealousy), is the best: the former, because it’s such a good idea; and the latter because it’s an interesting investigation into particular human emotions; – in fact, I’d have to admit, as an observer of humanity Schnitzler seems to have a lot of the same interests as me.

So I’ll be reading some more Schnitzler soon, specifically Fräulein Else, which certainly does look like it’s written using interior monologue, since that’s the other one I have (annoyingly there were two other Schnitzler books I could have bought but which had vanished by the time I returned to the shop, forcing me to buy instead Conrad’s Romance and something dull by William H Gass; – seriously, do people actually think William H Gass is a good writer?).

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4 thoughts on “Little Novels, by Arthur Schnitzler

  1. I guess I missed every one of the stories in Little Novels when I was reading Schnitzler.

    “merely a technique one might or might not use in telling a story” – that’s what I concluded, too.

  2. It wouldnt surprise me: my edition is from 1929, and I see no evidence it was ever published again. There’s one story called The Prophecy which I have anthologised in the Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy, so maybe that is a bit more famous. There’s quite a lot of the vaguely fantastical / supernatural / influence from beyond the grave about these stories.

  3. This is indeed an early contribution?
    He’s not at all like Zweig. Fraeulein Else and Leutnant Gustl have a lot in common if I remember correctly.
    I liked Eyes Wide Shut. The novella is very different but one if his best. And there are the plays, of course. The influence of Freud is very strong in his work. I think he’s not as well known because he’s not a novelist.

  4. No, not like Zweig. I mit read some more Zweig just to check; I think I have a book somewhere.

    You may be right about him being unknown because he’s not a novelist. Certainly one would be foolish in this country trying to become famous just by writing novellas. And German playwrights are very much ignored.

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