Friday, October 21, 2011

Arthur Schnitzler whistling

Arthur Schnitzler, the Austrian author who wrote sexy plays and stream-of-consciousness short stories long before they were fashionable, died 80 years ago today. He was also a committed diarist, documenting some parts of his life - not least his sexual activity - in meticulous detail. The diaries have only been published in German, in ten volumes; and even English-language biographies, which rely on the diary material, provide few verbatim quotes.

Schnitzler was born in Vienna in 1862, the son of a prominent Hungarian-Jewish doctor. He studied medicine at the city’s university until 1885, thereafter working at the city’s general hospital. He had a strong interest in psychiatry and was a friend of Sigmund Freud; but it was writing that attracted him most.

Schnitzler’s early literary reputation was largely gained through his plays, starting with Anatol in 1893, and then, in 1900, the now-popular Der Reigen (Hands Around, also known as La Ronde). This play - in which ten pairs of characters are shown before and after sex - was not actually performed until 1920, but led to the author being branded as a pornographer.

Encyclopedia Britannica summarises Schnitzler’s literary style: ‘Most at home in creating a single, precisely shaded mood for a one-act play or short story, [he] often evoked the atmosphere of the corrupt self-deception he saw in the last years of the Habsburg empire. He explored human psychology, portraying egotism in love, fear of death, the complexities of the erotic life, and the morbidity of spirit induced by a weary introspection.’ He also criticised the military code of conduct in various works, not least in his most well-known novel, Lieutenant Gustl, published at the turn of the century. This latter is considered one of the first German-language works of fiction to rely on stream-of-consciousness writing.

In 1903, Schnitzler married the actress Olga Gussman, with whom he had two children. His later years were largely spent in a villa overlooking Vienna where he devoted most of his time to writing fiction. His 1926 novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story) was turned into a major film by Stanley Kubrick in 1999 (Eyes Wide Shut). Schnitzler’s married daughter committed suicide in 1930, and he himself died on 21 October 1931. His works were banned by the Nazi party in Germany, and then also in Austria - indeed, they were among those thrown into the flames when Joseph Goebbels organized book burnings. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In addition to his other writing, Schnitzler meticulously kept a diary from the age of 17 until two days before his death. The manuscript, which runs to almost 8,000 pages, is considered among the most significant of German and European diary literature. Long before his death, Schnitzler stipulated that the volumes of the diaries to the year 1899 should not be published for twenty years after his death, and the remainder not for forty years. In fact, it was not until around 1980 that the Austrian Academy of Sciences began a long-term project to publish the diary, in ten volumes (the last appeared in 2000), with the title, Arthur Schnitzler - Tagebuch.

I can find no extracts or verbatim examples from Schnitzler’s diaries in English on the internet. However, an academic article about them, written by Andrew C Wisely (a Schnitzler specialist and associate professor of German at Baylor University) is freely available online at Googlebooks. The article - The Task of Memory: The Diary Project - takes up one chapter in Wisely’s Arthur Schnitzler and Twentieth-Century Criticism, published by Camden House in 2004. Wisely says the diaries are ‘most notable for Schnitzler’s casual descriptions of sexual conquests - he was often in relationships with several women at once, and for a period of some years he kept a record of every orgasm.’

Schnitzler’s Century, by Peter Gay and published by W W Norton & Co in 2001, relies extensively on extracts from Schnitzler’s diaries, however it only quotes verbatim extracts rarely. Here is one, dated 4 July 1887: ‘In the early morning, I passed her room, whistling. The second time she appeared, I, quickly into the room, lock the door and take her.’ Some pages can be viewed on the Amazon website. See also The Guardian for a review by Nicholas Lezard.

Lezard draws attention to an early moment in Schnitzler’s life: ‘The incident with which [Gay] kicks off his history, and which he makes a kind of focal epiphany, is the moment when Schnitzler’s doctor father finds his 16-year-old son’s diary. Arthur, his father discovered, had been indulging in some precocious sexual exploits. Schnitzler senior marches the young man off to his study and forces him to read ‘Moritz Kaposi’s three-volume standard treatise on syphilis and skin diseases complete with explicit and repellent illustrations’. ’

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