Arthur Schnitzler: Late Fame #GermanLitMonth

Arthur Schnitzler is both fortunate and unfortunate in being very closely identified with his home town of Vienna. On the one hand, it means that publishers and readers think they know what he stands for, but on the other hand it has meant that he doesn’t travel quite so well beyond its borders. I grew up with him as part of my upbringing in Vienna, but I was not surprised that his star went into decline abroad (like Stefan Zweig), because he doesn’t actually fit in that well with the clichés people have of Vienna as the city of wine, women and song.

Schnitzler never quite belonged to the stuffy bourgeoisie of the Ringstrassenpalais times (1870-80) although he was born into that world, with his father being a prominent doctor. However, his parents were of Jewish and Hungarian origins, so he probably was made to feel that he didn’t fit in quite 100%.  Nor was he quite the poor Bohemian living a ropey existence in the Depression era of the 1930s, like Joseph Roth. Yet he certainly pierced the gilded Jugendstil facades to show the agony and self-doubt underneath. In pre-WW1 Vienna, it was fashionable to be disenchanted and morose despite the high standard of living.  It was the last dying gasp of the great empire, much like the death throes of the Roman Empire: the time of decadence (Schnitzler was often accused of pornographic obsession), fetishes and neuroses. It was the time when the psychoanalysis of Freud and agonised silhouettes of Schiele coexisted with the luxurious, settled art of Gustav Klimt and the genteel debates of the well-established café culture.

Schnitzler’s analysis goes deeper than fashion: he trained as a doctor himself and that enables him to understand psychology better than many others. He uses a fine scalpel to dissect emotions, as well as being an early innovator of stream of consciousness techniques. His prose is always limpid, clear, elegant, witty, yet with a certain easy colloquial charm and cadence that is typically Austrian – like characters from The Fledermaus. There is certainly something of the humour and lightness of that operetta in this novella Später Ruhm, with a strong dash of satire and piercing of egos.

Eduard Saxenberger is a mild elderly civil servant, quite content with his bachelor lifestyle and regular evenings out at the local pub. Back in his youth he had briefly flirted with poetry and even published a volume of poems, which sank without a trace. Until, that is, he receives a visit from a young poet, who is part of a literary circle who meets daily at one of the famous Viennese cafés. To his astonishment, Saxenberger discovers that these young (and not quite so young) writers venerate him on the basis of that rediscovered volume. He lets himself be seduced by the flattery and idealism of the group of artists and dares to hope for some late fame for himself… but, needless to say, he soon finds out that there is indeed such a thing as too late.

This is a merciless parody of wannabe writers and actors, and many critics believe that Schnitzler made quite sharp references to several of his contemporaries, such as Hugo von Hoffmansthal, Peter Altenberg, the actress Adele Sandrock but also himself. It also rings true of many writing groups you might have encountered, where egos are greater than actual output, where artists like to complain of being misunderstood by their contemporaries even though their art is mediocre.  There are some very funny statements such as, when trying to select which of Saxenberger’s poems might best fit the printed programme: ‘all lyrical poetry is about morning moods or evening moods… or night moods’. A joy to read, but tinged with melancholy – perhaps an awareness on the part of Schnitzler where he might have ended up if he hadn’t given up practising medicine. A warning to myself, as well!

Coffee house in Vienna.

This novella was recently rediscovered in his archives, which had been smuggled out of the country after his death during WW2 (when his published works were burnt by the Nazis).  He wrote it in the early 1890s, towards the beginning of his career, but was unwilling to cut it into 8 parts for serial publication in a magazine, so he put it in a drawer and forgot about it.  It’s amazing that a young writer was able to convey so well the discontent and loss of hope of an elderly writer.

As an aside, when Schnitzler was training to be a surgeon, he studied for a year in 1888 in London. His uncle and aunt lived in Honor Oak, and he himself lived in a boarding house in South Kensington. He was not that impressed with the rather dry English types he met in the boarding house, disliked the weather and complained about the lack of cafés and places to eat outside in London. He also remarked that nobody seemed to just go for a walk through town, everyone was just rushing to and fro – sounds familiar!

I’m linking this up to the wonderful initiative of German literature month. You can find many more reviews on this page.

29 thoughts on “Arthur Schnitzler: Late Fame #GermanLitMonth”

    1. Well worth trying to track down – this is a really interesting of a young man’s merciless satire and an older man’s regrets. Amazing that the author was still quite young when he wrote it.

  1. This sounds like such a fascinating look at a particular time and place Marina Sofia. And it is interesting, isn’t it, how some writing is so much of its place that it doesn’t travel well. I have to confess that I’d not heard of Schnitzler, but it sounds as though he provides a unique perspective on pre-WW I Vienna – really interesting.

    1. I think his insight into human nature will have universal appeal, but the less obvious appeal of his use of language and description of certain way of life will not be so obvious perhaps in translation.

  2. I loved this little book. I found it amazing that he could just leave it unpublished and presumably forgotten.

    I haven’t started my GLM reading yet but I was going to avoid Schnitzler as I’ve read a few of his novellas this year….but you never know, I may change my mind.

    1. Oh yes, he is a master psychologist, Schnitzler. Apparently Freud told him that he just seemed to instantly ‘get’ what he (Freud) had been studying for years and struggled to explain.

  3. I’ve only read a couple of Schnitzler’s stories, but I enjoyed them very much. Interesting to hear that he wrote this towards beginning of his career as a writer. It sounds quite mature and reflective for such an early work.

  4. Perhaps one for next year. I read a few by Schnitzler a while back, but I’ve never really thought about trying more…

    1. Which ones did you read? He’s got some good ones: will always remember seeing Reigen performed. Also keen on Weg ins Freie, Leutnant Gustl, Traumnovelle – and even Casanovas Heimfahrt

  5. I just completed this work. I greatly enjoyed the older poet’s interaction with the group he met. As you said, it is an effective satire of literary pretensions. Schweitzer does a very good job of portraying an older man Looking back on his younger days, thinking of what he might have been. I greatly enjoyed your post.

  6. Such a wonderful post, Marina Sofia. I enjoyed it very much. I’ve listened to this during my “ eye predicament” and loved it. The final twist is priceless. I’ve only joined one writing group online and they are all outstanding but I can imagine there must be groups with mediocre writers p,suing the “ verkanntes Genie”. It’s a witty, elegant short novella. I didn’t like it as much as Traumnovelle, Leutnant Gustl or Der Reigen but it’s wonderful nonetheless.

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