An examination of psychological and psychosexual extremities by one of the masters: bleak, accomplished tales—icy, penetrating, and uncomfortably memorable.
Austrian physician, playwright, and novelist Schnitzler (1862–1931), whose equally polished short stories were revived in this publisher’s 2002 sampling Night Games, was one of the earliest writers to employ the stream-of-consciousness technique: in his hands, it’s an instrument of clinical precision. A brilliant early example is “Dying” (1892), which records the final months, then days endured by Felix, a hitherto healthy young man whose doctor (correctly) tells him that he has but a year to live. Schnitzler coolly charts the emotional odyssey undergone by Felix, his devoted lover Marie, and the aforementioned physician (who’s also Felix’s close friend) Alfred. Translator Schaefer’s excellent foreword persuasively links this story’s preoccupation with last things to the “cult of death” rampant in late 19th-century Vienna. “Dying” is a moving work, and an impressive harbinger of such greater achievements as “Flight into Darkness” (1909; published 1931), a harrowing study in paranoia and schizophrenia, whose protagonist Robert virtually wills his way into madness, succumbing to a comprehensive “anxiety” that makes presumed enemies of his fiancée, his brother Otto (a doctor), and even casual acquaintances. Critics have suspected autobiographical relevance in this truly eerie narrative, to which further levels of tension are added by its narrator’s vacillating closeness to, and understanding of, both Otto’s forbearance and the doomed Robert’s accelerating instability. Even better is “Fräulein Else” (1925), an extended monologue (which inspired a famous silent film) whose eponymous speaker is an emotional 19-year-old girl betrayed by her family. Her father’s gambling debts oblige the virginal Else to abase herself before “an old lecher in order to save a good-for-nothing from jail.” This extraordinary portrayal of psychic shock and disintegration is, simply, one of the great modern short novels.
Superlative fiction. It’s good to have Schnitzler back among us.