Peter Gay summed up the long Victorian era as “Schnitzler’s Century.” Freud found his own “double” in Arthur Schnitzler and envied his contemporary’s psychological insight. Kubrick spent his last, best energies on Eyes Wide Shut, an adaptation of a Schnitzler novella. In this new translation, too, there is something captivating about the elegant, prolific, libidinal, and largely forgotten Viennese author, a genius of the ordinary self in conflict.
Schnitzler shared with Chekhov the profession of physician and a double genius for the play and the short story. His long stories unite Thomas Mann and Henry James, managing to be stately and gothic and hysterical at once. Night Games makes a brilliant introduction to his fiction. In the title novella, a young lieutenant ruins himself accidentally while trying to win back the gambling losses of a comrade. “Dream Story,” the other long work included (and the basis of Kubrick’s obsession) is a masterpiece. A man and wife’s temptations, and an underworld of night business that thrusts out respectable intruders, adds up to the greatest of realist allegories of home comforts and the push toward perversity.
The shorter stories here, glittering with city lights, in villas and cafés, take energy from the social atavisms that plunge the genteel into prostitution and lead from trivialities to mortal duels. “Blind Geronimo and His Brother,” about a pair of beggars, is beautiful, tender, and affrighting. Stories lead from the shock of a death to the unraveling of a love affair or betrayal, as in “The Widower” and “The Dead Are Silent.”
One detects the familiar stylistic movements of turn-of-the-century literature made personal and unique. Schnitzler displays a chastened naturalism that allows human feeling to win out despite the blows of fate. His version of the stream of consciousness evades Joyce’s later preoccupation with the senses and the long tradition of private obsession that culminates in Faulkner—all in an amazing preference for his characters’ stance toward others. Pride and kindness are his topics. His altruism is alternately selfless and self-seeking. An admirable translation by Margret Schaefer preserves the tonalities of the era in brisk language. None of these stories is widely available in U.S. editions. It makes a fine selection of a crucial body of work, well worth rediscovering: humane, satirical, and magnificent.
Also in This Week’s Books Section:
Joy Press on Palladio by Jonathan Dee
Emily Jenkins on Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé