VIENNA 1900: GAMES WITH LOVE AND DEATH

By Arthur Schnizler.
365 pages
Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, no date.
ISBN # 0-14-00-3759-4

Comments of Bob Corbett
Jan. 2001

This book of four short stories was the basis of BBC TV series.

The four stories are:

Mother and Son

Mother and Son is a touching tale of a young widow with a 17 year old son who is worried she is about to lose her son to a woman of loose morals. In the process of this agony and concern, she herself comes to challenge her fundamental notions of sexual propriety and learns more than she wishes about her late husband's unfaithfulness and her own deepest desires.

Schnitzler's touching portray is profound in his understand of human nature and startlingly erotic while not being sexually explicit in any way. A magnificent piece of writing and a text book case of the argument for modernism. Yet, in the end, there is a rather conventional moralistic conclusion reminiscent of pre-modern times.

The story was first published in English in 1926 under the title of "Beatrice."

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The Man of Honour

A young orphaned man of means has a love whom he enjoys, but does not wish to live with long-term. He eventually meets a society woman whom he wishes to marry, but her father insists on a year's wait. The problem for the young man is getting rid of the mistress. Since he has a year to wait, he decides on a year's travels which will serve his purposes. The mistress turns out to be quite ill, and he expects his "burden" will be taken care of by nature. Schnitzler works on this long story of the young man with incredible insight and sensitivity and doesn't seem to leave an emotion or detail unturned.

The ending, not unlike the first story, seems quick, a bit contrived and much more moralistic than I would expect in a major figure of modernism. Nonetheless, the story is a delight to read and the writing is gripping.

The story was first published in English in 1929 under the title "The Murderer," a simply horrible title for a story which holds us in suspense until late in the tale.

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The Confirmed Bachelor

Middle-aged Dr. Graesler's life has been thrown into a bit of uncertainty. After a youth spent as a ship's physician, wandering the world, he had settled into a simple life as a physician who moves between a few locations according to weather, wintering at a health resort of a warm island, and spending the more pleasant months in Austria. He lived with his aging spinster sister. The two had sort of settled into a life of routine without much excitement awaiting old age and death.

As the story opens Dr. Graesler's sister has startlingly committed suicide and he hardly knows what to do. He goes off to his island for the winter a bit at sea with himself. There he meets the beautiful young 25 year-old Sabine. All of a sudden he is in the strange and unaccustomed position of being first deeply attracted and then of actually falling in love. Sabine returns the delights of his company, but does not fall in love with him, though she boldly and bluntly proposes a marriage of convenience in which they will work side-by-side to revive a run down sanitarium on the island. Graesler wants Sabine desperately, but is quite hurt by the rather blunt nature of her proposal and its assurance that he is respected and enjoyed by her, but definitely not loved.

He asks for time to consider and goes back to his home in Austria. There the story takes a very strange twist and one in which I didn't find Schnitzler's treatment very convincing. But, within a day or two he has met and fallen in love and into a torrid affair with another young woman whom he met on a streetcar. Graesler views this as a sort of revenge relationship on Sabine, but plans to end it and return to her. The time and relationship drag on and end in a terrible tragedy.

Graesler returns to the island the next winter to claim Sabine and the life she had offered, but discovers he has waited too long and things have changed forever in her plans. This dramatic change in Sabine and even in the material conditions of the island are also rather difficult to accept. Perhaps Schnitzler makes the world of everyday events mirror the very unpredictability of the social and political upheavals of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire of the time, I don't know. But no matter his intent at the time, the dramatic changes which enter this story are rather difficult to accept at face value.

Despite that minor quibble, Schnitzler once again demonstrates his utter brilliance at being able to inter the inner life of someone devastated and confused by love and to reveal the most concrete and real expression of what it is like. At times I simply despise the fact that Schnitzler lays so bare the very essence of human struggles with love and communication.

This story first appeared in English in 1924 under the title "Dr. Graesler."

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The Spring Sonata

The Spring Sonata left me simply limp. This is a novel-length short story (158 pages) whose main story line is rather simple: A young widow living in rural Austria builds an idealistic portrait in her mind of a suitor she had some ten years earlier. The suitor is now a famous violinist in Vienna. Eventually she contacts him, reestablishes contact, has a rather torrid, if short, affair and becomes completely disillusioned. At the same time there is a minor (and mirroring) theme in the story of another woman in the village who is married to an invalid. She is young, beautiful, sophisticated and mysterious. The husband constantly expects that she will never come back one day from her frequent and unaccounted for visits to Vienna. That side story ends in death and tragedy.

But it's not the story-line which left me so limp that I sat, stunned, for probably half and hour upon finishing the story, just staring off to in space while sitting in a coffee house in Vienna. It is Schnitzler's breath-taking telling of it. We live inside the woman; it is her story from her point of view. We see (and deeply feel) the agonies of love, the loneliness, the hope, the insecurity, the unsureness, the sense of inadequacy, the lack of control over the situation. Schnitzler lays her inner life as naked as I think I've ever seen it done, and it is devastating. He touches such general human experiences that even though the reader has never had anything like the life experience of Bertha Garlan, each of us has had many of the experiences of this inner life if we've lived at all.

Of the four stories in this collection The Spring Sonata was the most fully "modern" from my understanding of it. Bertha was a woman out of the "pre-modern" world, a woman with all the baggage and values of that earlier period. She was not a deep thinker and didn't arrive at her "modernism" by a process of philosophical thought nor by any participation in a movement around her. Rather, she somehow just imbibed the vague, but very real Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. The world around her, the death of her husband, the ordered and boring life in the village, the ruined youth at the conservatoire because of her father's insensitivity to her aspirations all lead to a crumbling of that world. Her dreams, her opting out of the "real world" and into a more ideal one of her own creation lead her to reconstruct herself in a new mode. The outcome isn't any better in any objective sense, nonetheless it was where she had to go and how she had to be.

This story was first published in English in 1914 under the title "Bertha Garlan."

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This set of short stories (or short stories and novella) is a brilliant creation by Arthur Schnitzler. I feel so incredibly lucky that I stumbled upon the book. I can see myself going back and rereading at least the first three stories again and again. I don't think I'm up to any reread of The Spring Sonata; it's just too heavy for me and I doubt I will ever forget it.

For links to more about the period of turn of the century Vienna see: the course I taught on this subject in Vienna in 2001   or to go directly to more info about the people and places visit my links to files and external sources on the this period.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu