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.

39 thoughts on “Arthur Schnitzler: Short Fiction – Lieutenant Gustl (1900) and Fräulein Else (1924)

  1. These sound wonderful and tragic. I need to track them down. I never saw the movie Eyes Wide shut. I enjoy novels with interior monologue. Seems like it would be tricky to write.

  2. Why is everyone reading Schnitzler? I am reading him, too. I think it will be a week or two before I write anything.

    The curious thing is that although Freud influenced Schnitzler, Schnitzler also influenced Freud – they avidly read each other’s work and corresponded frequently. I am reading somewhat earlier stories, and the proto-Freud aspects are clear and startling.

    Stu – the time Schnitzler was writing was modern!

    • Not sure why everyone reads him, there aren’t even new editions out. Maybe because he is simply good at a lot. Yes, I’ve read a comment by Freud somewhere where he states Schnitzler influenced him as well.
      That last comment made me laugh because while responding to Stu I was thinking that we have moved back in time.
      I’m not too keen on some of Freud’s theories but usually writers interested in him and his theories like to look deeper and at some uncomfortable topics as well.

  3. Both sound good–my library has Lieutnant Gustl in German but not English, but I have my own copy of Fraulein Else, so perhaps that’s what I’ll read for next week. My library also has La Ronde on DVD so perhaps I’ll see if I can watch it this weekend as well. Lots of good things to immerse myself in this weekend it seems!

    • Fräulein Else is very good, darker than Lieutnant Gustl. I liked it a lot. I hadn’t read it before. Stu also just reviewed another Schnitzler, Dying, it sounded equally good.
      Schnitzler is a great choice, you will see. I haven’t seen La Ronde but I’m in the mood to re-watch Eyes Wide Shut.

  4. Nice reviews, Caroline! Both the stories look quite interesting, especially ‘Fräulein Else’. It makes me remember a Spanish movie called ‘Broken Embraces’. I didn’t know that ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ was based on a Schnitzler story – that is really interesting! I liked ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ very much. I hope to read the story version some day. I read an Arthur Schnitzler story last year called ‘The Dead Are Silent’ and liked it very much – I remember there being something magical in that story. I would love to read this collection. Thanks for writing about it.

    • I’m not sure I have read the one you mention. There is something magical in the Dram Story or Novella (I have seen both titles). I bet you would like it. It’s quite different from the movie but its interesting to compare.
      I can really recommend both stories I’ve read.

    • I agree, it’s one of the best novellas I have read as well. I still think the movie is very different but that’s because it’s visually so stunning, you almost forget about the story as such, or I did.

  5. Thanks for reminding me that I love reading plays. Have never seen Eyes Wide Shut (way too much hype over here) but will probably watch it now. Maybe I’ll read the stories first.
    If you like reading plays you will love La Ronde. It’s really good.

    • Read the Dream Story first, it’s really worth it. I don’t know if you will like Eys Wide Shut I know quite a few people who hated it. I thought it was amazing too but the story is way better.

  6. I had never heard of Schnitzler but these sound great.

    I like the way you that you pointed out the connection with the theories of Freud. I find that identifying and exploring such influences between thinkers is a big part of the fun of reading.

    • Schnitzler is one of the best Austrian writers and you would be astonished about how fresh his work is.
      It’s not always so easy to find out the influences but when it is possible it heighthens the pleasure of reading.
      As Tom wrote, it’s even more interesting as Freud was influenced by Schnitzler too.
      I can also recommen La Ronde.

  7. I was surprised when I read ‘Traumnovelle’ at how sex-less it actually was – I was mentally preparing for orgies on every page! In fact, the sex is a lot more psychological than actual, and a lot of it revolves around the wife’s dreams.

    Glad you liked ‘Fräulein Else’ – as you say, ‘Leutnant Gustl’ is a precursor to the later work, more humorous but not quite as sophisticated. I had a Hamburger Lesehefte edition which joined the two together. A great idea – if only the print wasn’t so tiny 😦

    • It’s implicit, exactly like in la Ronde but we get the picture. That’s where the movie version obvioulsy takes a lot of liberties.
      Yes, I thought FRäulein Else was great but I couldn’t say which one I preferred. The have a lot of similarities.
      I only have one of these Lesehefte, the print is quite tiny.

      • Always the penny pincher, I thought the Lesehefte were great at first. However, I’ve gone off them and regret having bought the ones I did. The print is often tiny, and the language is cleaned up for modern school kids 😦 I like semi-incomprehensible archaic German – and I especially like the ß!

        • I hate it when they do that but it seems school kids today have a hard time, even with books from the 70s. I ordered a children’s book recently and saw an amazon review of a 12 year old writing he couldn’t understand mayn of the words and his mother (!) was of no help either. Preussler’s Krabat certainly is one of the best written children’s books but stil…

  8. I like how you share two books at the same time. Both sound so tragic. From your summary, I feel sorry toward Else the most…maybe because of the gender and how easy to connect to her.

    Love to read these, mayb one day.

  9. I have Dream Story sitting on my shelf from years back. Hmmm, this might be exactly the book for me this German lit week. Thank you for the review and the inspiration!

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  11. I have a number of Schnitzler on my shelf including the 2 mentioned here but I decided to read the Zweig as part of my agreement (with myself) to read more New York Review Classics. I’ll get around to them eventually.

    • The thing is that Zweig is far more popular in translation while the interest in Schnitzler never really waned. Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot about Zweig but the tone in German is sometimes mawkish.
      I’m sure you will like Dream Story a lot.

  12. I read Fräulein Else a long time ago, I remember I liked it. Perhaps I’d understand it better now that I’m older.
    I’ll look for Lieutenant Gustl. You’re not good for my book buying ban…

  13. Hi Caroline, these stories sound quite fascinating and beautifully described by yourself. I’ve never heard of this writer, amazing what you learns when you join a reading event like this one! Thanks. Sarah

    • Thanks, Sarah. It’s what I like best about these events, discovering new books and writers and bloggers as well. Schnitzler is an amazing writer. If you have never read him, i would suggest to stat with Dream Story. That’s such a wonderful book.

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