One of the most distinctive and compelling voices of the early modernist movement is heard again in this elegant collection of nine urbane, perversely comic, deeply disturbing stories.
The Austrian Schnitzler (1862–1931), who is perhaps better known for his equally incisive plays (including The Merry-Go-Round and The Green Cockatoo), was a practicing physician whose austere, clinical studies of sexual obsession and abnormal psychology won the admiration of his countryman Sigmund Freud and compare favorably with the intense, exploratory fiction of Svevo, Musil, Bernanos, and Moravia. Schnitzler’s mastery of the technique of interior monologue is brilliantly demonstrated by such deftly structured contes as “The Dead Are Silent” (a chilling glimpse into the mind and heart of a married woman who survives the carriage accident in which her lover dies) and “The Second” (whose narrator’s ingenuous celebration of the “code” of dueling in fact reveals the barbarity of that practice). Even better is the title novella, about a young army officer whose lofty criticism of a comrade’s gambling addiction ironically foreshadows his own moral collapse. Schnitzler’s complex presentations of the ambiguities of love and hatred, sanity and madness, convention and anarchy include a wittily extended jeu in which a celebrated opera singer blithely manipulates her several admirers and lovers (“Baron von Leisenborg’s Destiny”) and the novella “Dream Story” (bastardized unpardonably in Stanley Kubrick’s brain-dead film Eyes Wide Shut). This latter is an ingenious blend of realism and dream: here, a happily married physician and his faithful wife yield themselves up to erotic adventuring and fantasizing, experiencing a Walpurgisnächt that tests their sexual and psychic limits, and opens their eyes to the realities of their natures together and apart. It’s a great story (reminiscent, in an odd way, of Joyce’s “The Dead’), perhaps Schnitzler’s best.
Translator Schaefer and her publisher have performed an invaluable literary service. One hopes more of Schnitzler’s eerily precise fiction (and perhaps a selection of his plays?) is soon forthcoming.