Sunday, February 04, 2007

Arthur Schnitzler: Fraulein Else

In the introduction to a collection of novellas by the turn of century Austrian writer and dramatist Arthur Schnitzler, the well know critic theatre and film critic John Simon says:

"For me, Schnitzler belongs in the vicinity of Proust, Joyce, and Chekhov. Like Proust, he can analyze psyches down to their subtlest, most secret tremors and convey this in complex, refined, and chiseled language. Like Joyce, and well before him, he put the stream of consciousness to supremely character-revealing use while also evoking the atmosphere and essence of a big city. And like Chekhov--both in drama and narrative--he brought to pulsating immediacy any number of dashingly histrionic or shadowily marginal lives, bestowing on most of his characters a fine compassion never veering into sentimentality, patronization, or special pleading."

It is a slight exaggeration, but only slight. I have read only two of his short works, Fraulein Else and before this Lieutenant Gustl, they are both small masterpieces (they are both just fifty-sixty pages long). Schnitzler may not have the linguistic virtuosity of the writers that Simon mentions but he makes up for that in how effectively he maps the inner life a character, with all its complexities and contradictions, into a language that always feels immediate and honest. Also, at least these two novellas that I have read, contain some really alarming descriptions of suicide fantasies.

The novella starts one day in the late afternoon when Else, who is vacationing with her wealthy aunt at a spa, is called away from a tennis match she is playing with her cousin. An express letter from her mother has just arrived and the news is dire -- her father is in serious financial trouble. As she reads of his impending bankruptcy because of embezzlement and misappropriation of his trustees' funds, along with her mother's prediction that an arrest is imminent, Else's daydreams of unfulfilled sexual desires and expectations for the future begin to unravel and throws her inner life completely off kilter. What's more, she has to ask for money from an old man who she has just ridiculed at the beginning of the story. He is a very wealthy art dealer but he will give the money only on one condition -- that she exposes herself naked to him for half an hour in his room. He gives her some time to think and that is enough to precipitate her mental breakdown and suicide attempt but not before creating a scandalous scene.

The story in itself is fascinating and gripping but what makes it truly remarkable is his narrative style. The whole thing is told in an unrelenting stream of consciousness. It is as if Schnitzler had some direct access to her mind and everything we hear or read feels completely unmediated. It is quite uncanny and even frightening, specially the way Schnitzler creates her suicide fantasies. In this it is similar to Schnitzler's other mini-masterpiece Lieutenant Gustl. Vienna was once the suicide capital of the world. It had one of the highest incidence of suicide rates in the world. Reading these stories makes one understand how dominant thoughts of suicide must have been in the minds of these people. In the end the story strikes one as a powerful feminist statement too. Else knows that she only has her body with which she has to go out in the world. Her "education", which includes piano lessons and other such things are of no use to her. That she is essentially a prostitute even if she doesn't do what the old man wants her to do. The fact that men lust after her flatters her vanity but she also resents it deeply and since she can not express anything to anybody and internalizes everything, it leads to her collapse. This is truly a powerful and disturbing classic!


jyothsnay said...

Never read him before.sounds interesting!
Talking about involvement and the author urging the reader to participate in the game,let me bring in one of my dear masters..
Albert Camus expects an introspective reaction from his readers and allows them to create a consciousness for his protagonist. It’s like offering a big playground to the readers n prod them to explore the game and come up with many a possibility. Whether or not to empathise with the lead character is left as an option to the reader, who in turn gets motivated to draw his own journey of consciousness for the character. He sets up a situation and leave the reader with a bag of mixed emotions ala bag of tools so that the reader can construct his structure of consciousness..that's what I like Mr Camus..he does not dominate me, the reader, like Mr Sartre...what do u say Alok?

Alok said...

Not much aware of Sartre, except for some quotes or short essays here and there but I like Camus too... I have read only The Stranger and The Plague.

More than Camus, this novella is more like Mrs Dalloway or like Molly Bloom's monologue at the end of joyce's Ulysses (both books i have read only in parts with great difficulty). It is very inventive in form, style and language and very provocative in what it wants to convey. As compared to the other two, it is also easier to read, also darker, and at places, funnier.