Monday, November 16, 2015

A High-spirited Girl

Fräulein ElseFräulein Else 
by Arthur Schnitzler

"Why is he looking at me that way, so--pityingly?  God in heaven, what could this be about?  I'll wait until I'm upstairs to open it, otherwise I might faint."   - Arthur Schnitzler, Fraulein Else

Arthur Schnitzler was born in Vienna, Austria, in May 1862. Coming from a prominent family of medical doctors he became a doctor himself and worked first at the Vienna General Hospital and at the General Policlinic where he focused on hypnosis and suggestions. Even while a medical student Schnitzler began his career as a writer and that later on became his main occupation. Starting in 1880 he published poems, prose sketches and aphorisms. In 1888 his play, The Adventure of His Life, appeared in print, three years before it was first performed on stage. His fame, however, is based on psychologically well founded plays like Anatol, Flirtation, and Reigen that shocked the audience of the time with a unique frankness about sexuality. The bourgeois conventions of society in the last decades of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy are a topic in all of Arthur Schnitzler’s work, also in his prose like the novellas None but the Brave, Dream Story, and Fräulein Else. As a writer Arthur Schnitzler was a renegade obsessed with love and death as he said himself. He was one of the great innovators of Austrian literature and during his life encountered much praise as well as open malice for it. Arthur Schnitzler died in Vienna in October 1931.

Fraulein Else is a story of illness told through the form of interior monologue. Written in the heights of the modernist movement, Arthur Schnitzler used a stream of consciousness style to provide an unmediated glimpse into the interior life of a young woman. In his sympathetic portrayal of a young woman's life he provides a portrait that rivals that of Molly in Ulysses or the titular Mrs. Dalloway in Virginia Woolf's famous novel. Through the audible thoughts of a nineteen-year-old girl Schnitzler reveals what she dares not speak aloud and what her bourgeois society does not want to hear.

In the novella Schnitzler portrays a vital, high-spirited, and sensual young woman named Else who spends her days playing tennis and exchanging idle conversation with her Cousin Paul (on whom she has a secret crush) and Cissy, a married socialite who is having an affair with Paul. Else's carefree and self-centered holiday takes an abrupt turn, however, when she receives an urgent letter from her mother with the news that Else's father is about to suffer financial embarrassment. He owes 30,000 guldens, an amount he must raise immediately. Else's mother has discovered that Herr Von Dorsday, an old family friend, is staying at the same hotel as Else. In her letter, Else's mother pleads with her daughter to approach Von Dorsday for a loan.
Humiliated by this turn of events, Else nonetheless flirtatiously broaches the subject of a loan with Von Dorsday, sensing his attraction to her. He agrees on the condition that Else allow him to see her nude. Else, torn between loyalty to her family and the repellent task before her, considers her situation from every angle, her hysteria rising - despite a dose or two of veronal taken as a sedative - as she nears the appointed hour. In her manic state, Else veers between comedy and melodrama, and her decision sets the stage for a final moment of self-awareness that is both inevitable and shocking.

Importantly, Schnitzler was familiar with the theories of Sigmund Freud and used this knowledge to create a brilliant portrait of a classic adolescent female hysteric, likely modeled on those patients that made Freud famous. Even the title of the novel, Fraulein Else, hints at similar titles that one could find in Freud's case histories. Another stylistic technique that I particularly enjoyed was the inclusion of sections from Carnaval by Robert Schumann to intensify the emotions of Else in the climactic scene of the novella. Doing so suggests that Schnitzler had confidence that his readers would be familiar with Schumann's music as the cultural elite of Vienna undoubtedly were. This is a classic of modernism that retains its interest for contemporary readers. The many adaptations on stage and for the cinema are a testament to its continuing popularity.

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