Arthur Schnitzler: Short Fiction – Lieutenant Gustl (1900) and Fräulein Else (1924)

Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler was one of those whose books were burned in Nazi Germany. Hitler considered him to be a typical example of what he called ‘Jewish filth’. What infuriated the Führer and created a lot of controversy among other readers of the time was, among other things, how outspoken Schnitzler wrote about sexuality, notably in his most famous play Round Danca aka La Ronde (Der Reigen). La Ronde is easily one of the best plays to convert people who don’t read plays,  as it’s such a stunning piece. It’s a play about promiscuous and venal love in which we always see one of the two characters from the preceding scene in the next one too.

Schnitzler was highly influenced by Freud, a fact that is most apparent in Dream Story aka Dream Novella (Traumnovelle) on which Stanley Kubrick’s last movie The Eyes Wide Shut. While I liked the movie a great deal, I was pleased to find out the novella is even better.

I have read both The Dream Novella and La Ronde some years ago and wanted something else and finally decided to re-read Lieutnant Gustl and (after Tony’s suggestion) added Fräulein Else. Both are available in the collection Short Fiction.

They are both written entirely as interior monologues, a technique which was very new at the time and also influenced by Freud’s theories. At 35 pages, Lieutenant Gustl is the shorter of the two, Fräulein Else is twice that size.

Both monologues show young people in distress. Both are victims of their society. The effect of listening to their hidden fears and desires, their hopes and wishes, their silliness and despair, is spellbinding.

Lieutenant Gustl takes place in Vienna during one night. Gustl is a young officer and has a history of duels to show for. When we are introduced to him during a Oratorioum which bores him to death, we also learn that this is the evening before another duel with a doctor will take place. Gustl is all about honour and reputation. All that is on his mind are girls and the hope people will respect him. When on the way out of the theater, a master baker insults him, he feels there is only one way to save face – he has to kill himself. As the man is below him, he couldn’t ask for satisfaction in a duel. He spends the whole night debating, looking at pros and cons of his decision, imagining the reaction of the people he knows when they will find out about his death, remembers similar cases like his. At the same time he displays how much he loves life.

Fräulein Else’s story is similar but far more tragic. Else is a young girl from a rich family whose father, a gambler, again and again maneuvers the family into impossible situations. While she stays in Italy at a hotel with her aunt, her cousin and a few other people she knows, her father has lost a lot of money, some of which belongs to his charges. Because he has lost such a lot of money before, he owes most of his family and acquaintances already a fortune and there is nobody left he could ask this time. Else’s mother decides to write to her and begs her daughter to save her father. There is a rich man, Dorsday, staying at the hotel with her, someone who fancies her and the mother thinks if Else asks him, he will lend her the money. This puts Else in a very delicate situation. Not only is she deeply ashamed, she also senses that asking a man like Dorsday for money will lead to complications and most certainly he will want something in exchange. The story is quite upsetting as we get the feeling the parents know very well that this request is as if they were asking her daughter to prostitute herself. Else, like Gustl, contemplates suicide, sees herself dead, imagines escape routes and hopes for help.

What finally becomes of Else and of Lieutnant Gustl is for you to find out. I would really encourage you to read these stories, if you haven’t done so already. I liked them a great deal and think Schnitzler may be one of my favourite authors. What impressed me a lot as well was how fresh the stories and the language are. The society has changed but the things that are at stake are still the same: love, death, money. And the style is precise and emotional without ever being sappy or sentimental.