Lieutenant Gustl, by Arthur Schnitzler

Arthur Schnitzler remains fairly ignored in English. If I went into a big bookshop, I think I can safely say I’d find none of his works there. He’s represented only by his works that were adapted into films: the novella A Dream Story, which was adapted into Eyes Wide Shut (and copies given away free with The Sunday Times, and which for years could be found multiply in secondhand shops), and the play La Ronde, which was adapted into La Ronde.

Lieutenant Gustl is famous for being an early stream-of-consciousness work. This is admitted, truly begrudgingly, even in Edouard Dujuardin’s essay, Interior Monologue, in which he otherwise tries to prove that all stream-of-consciousness works prior to Ulysses, aside from his own, weren’t stream-of-consciousness works at all.

Here is what Dujardin has to say:

Arthur Schnitzler, who is about my age, published in 1901 his Leutnant Gustl, which is supposed to be written according to this technique. There would be grounds for investigating whether, because it happens to be written in the first person, the book really consists of the profoundly essential character of interior monologue. One cannot deny, in any case, that it is near to it, and it is interesting to note that it was written in the very same year as Joyce was reading Les Lauriers sont coupes for the first time. Did Arthur Schnitzler know the book?

It turns that Schnitzler claimed he didn’t, but that soon after he’d published Leutnant Gustl, Georg Brandes (you may remember him from inventing modernism 50 years before it was invented) pointed it out to him.

Maybe we would wonder now why Dujardin would preclude a book written in the first person from being stream-of-consciousness (what about, for instance, Molly Bloom’s monologue, which he certainly doesn’t object to). Surely stream-of-consciousness is by its nature in the first person. But a quick look at his own book shows that it shifts between third and first person. – Maybe though, this is a further good indication that Schnitzler hadn’t read his book. (I seem to recall I’ve read other works of Schnitztler which switch between third and first person: see elsewhere on blog).

Nobody though, as with Ulysses, seemed to find the possibilities of Schniztler’s book revolution in terms of prose art. Its only consequence was that Schniztler was stripped of his military rank. (The Austrian army really hated any sort of experimentation in form).

Lieutenant Gustl then is about Lieutenant Gustl, who is sitting bored at a concert one day and thinking about a duel he is scheduled to fight the next day; when the concert ends, he goes to collect his coat and while pushing into the queue, feels himself insulted by a baker, but fails to act properly in the face of this insult (i.e. run him through with his sword); and because of this failure, spends the rest of the story wandering about the streets of Vienna thinking he should commit suicide.

You certainly can’t deny Lieutenant Gustl is stream-of-consciousness. It has all its hall-marks: little blocks of words with periphrasis in between, disjunctive associations etc.

Why though did Schnitzler think it would be a good idea to write his narrative in so revolutionary manner? – To be honest, I don’t imagine he gave it that much conscious thought, beyond the fact that it seemed good to him. The purpose of the story is to show the difference between a man’s facade and his actuality; and this is not just his physical facade, but his mental facade as well. Gustl portrays himself, even in his thoughts, as a) completely complacent about the duel he is about to fight the next day, whereas in fact it is distracting him from life (he can’t concentrate on the concert; he acts in ways he’s almost not conscious of, and is constantly on edge); and b) he portrays and conceives of himself as honorable, when in fact he is, as the baker notes, a pompous “fathead”.

Also, Schnitzler (like Dujardin) was a playwright, so I don’t doubt he had a natural inclination to dramatise things. (There isn’t such a difference, in Obooki’s view, between dialogue and interior monologue – it’s just a question of how you choose artistically to portray them).

Of course, while Schnitzler has chosen a similar form to Joyce (and the passage in the morning, after wandering about all night, certainly reminded me of Ulysses), he didn’t have the same artistic intention. Schnitzler is what I’d say is a writer of “story” stories, mostly about jealous / desertion. He reminds me of Isak Dinesen (though not necessarily this work). When you read Lieutenant Gustl, you read on because you want to find out whether the lieutenant does after all kill himself; whereas when you read on in Ulysses, you read on to get to the end.

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