Monday 29 August 2011

Mostly in the Mind

Time to move on now, and it's a fair gallop down through the mountains, across the border and into Vienna, the beautiful Austrian capital.  It's time to meet another famous G-Lit writer - and a couple of his wonderful creations...

First, we're off to a concert, where we are privileged enough to be allowed to see into the mind of a late-19th-century Austrian soldier, Leutnant Gustl (Lieutenant Gustl).  In Arthur Schnitzler's thirty-page story, the reader is caught within the stream of consciousness of the pompous, misogynistic, anti-Semitic young lieutenant as he leaves the concert hall and takes a night ramble through the empty streets of Vienna.  Having been insulted by a civilian, he feels himself compelled to erase the blot on his honour by putting a bullet through his brain, a decision which is turned over and over in his mind during the lengthy night.

The story is a wonderful example of stream-of-consciousness, one of the first of its kind in German literature and a pointer to the works of later writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.  More than this though, Leutnant Gustl is an excellent satirical piece, poking fun at the old-fashioned, snooty world of the Imperial army, bursting the bubble of those who looked down on civilians and their mundane, non-military existence.  The story apparently caused quite a stir in the imperial capital (remember: at the time - 1900 - The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was one of the major world powers), and Schnitzler was reprimanded for daring to cast aspersions upon the honour of the army.  Whether an exaggerated satire or an insightful exposé, it's certainly a very interesting tale.

Schnitzler was to return to this technique of internal monologue twenty-four years later when writing the second of the novellas in this book, Fräulein Else (Miss Else).  Else is a nineteen-year-old Austrian woman without any particular occupation, drifting from hotel to hotel in the company of some wealthy relatives.  When she receives a telegram from her mother, requiring her to ask a family friend for some money (without which her father may go to prison), she feels oppressed and betrayed.  Yet this is nothing compared to her feelings on making the request.  Herr Dorsday, a middle-aged gentleman, agrees to the request - but only on one, extremely demeaning condition...

The crux of the story then, as with our old friend Gustl, is the maelstrom of thoughts whirling around the young woman's mind as she decides whether or not to comply with Dorsday's condition, one minute deciding to throw caution to the wind, the next considering whether to beg for release, unable to commit to any one thought for more than a few seconds.  Fräulein Else, however, is twice as long as the earlier tale, and at least twice as complex.  Where the reader is encouraged to mock the puffed-up officer and is rarely that concerned over his eventual fate, Else is a much more sympathetic figure, and we can appreciate her dilemma - and her feelings towards the people who have put her in this awful position.

Another difference between this story and the first one is that there is much more interaction between Else and the outside world.  The majority of Gustl's tale takes place in his head with only two short conversations with outsiders; however, in Else's case, not only do we eavesdrop on several important conversations (and, at the same time, read the thoughts which often contradict her words), at the end of the story we are also able to hear people talking about her.  These conversations then give a slightly different slant to the tale, forcing us to revise our opinions about Else and, perhaps, throwing an element of doubt into play.

When you mention Vienna, the name which comes to mind is that of a certain psychoanalyst, and while Schnitzler was not a follower of Freud, it is clear that these two stories, especially the style adopted, owe something to the idea of psychoanalysis.  Fräulein Else, especially, is a treasure trove for anyone looking to pore over the workings of a troubled mind, with ominous dreams, barely suppressed parental issues and swings between sexual embarrassment and a desire to show her body off to the world.  It's clear that her family and society in general, who have made Else what she is, have a lot to answer for...

Two stories, totalling around eighty pages, but the thinness of the book belies the intensity of the writing.  A comparison with Woolf is apt, especially where Fräulein Else is concerned, and I'm already a big fan of Schitzler's writing.  I think I'll be making a return trip to Vienna very soon :)