The air is like champagne

Fraülein Else, by Arthur Schnitzler

Fraülein Else is a 1924 novella by Austro-Hungarian author Arthur Schnitzler, now perhaps most famous for writing the work that would eventually become Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut.

But let’s not hold that against him (actually, I think highly of Eyes Wide Shut, but popular opinion has I think moved against me on that one), Fraülein Else is a complex psychological novella written almost entirely in the form of the stream of consciousness of a young woman of respectable family staying with her aunt at a fashionable spa. In just over a hundred pages (and small pages at that) it manages to be as gripping as many thrillers, while having much to say about sexuality, the brutal realities underpinning polite society and loss of innocence (or worse, realisation that innocence was only ever a comfortable illusion).

I read the excellent F.H. Lyon translation of Fraülein Else, published by Pushkin Press. For those unfamiliar with them, Pushkin Press is a publisher of literary fiction with particular strengths in European literature (especially, from what I have seen, mitteleuropean literature). My wife, Emma, has read a number of works published by Pushkin Press and the general quality of their choices is very high. The books are published on a smaller than usual format, clearly printed on high quality paper, and although paperback with slightly stiffish card covers. Physically, they are very attractive, easy to hold and a pleasure to read. Even if ebooks do become the norm, there will I think always be a place for books as well produced as the Pushkin range.

Going back to Fraülein Else, the essence of the story is a simple one. Else is a young woman of good but not aristocratic Viennese family, her father is a lawyer and a successful one, she is on holiday with her aunt and attractive cousin at a spa when she receives a telegram from her mother, informing her that her father faces ruin and that only 30,000 gulden can save him. Her father has already approached all those who have lent him money in the past, all that is left therefore is for Else to approach family acquaintance Herr von Dorsday who is also on holiday at the spa and ask him for the money.

We soon learn that Else’s family is not as good as it appears, her father has embezzled trust funds and this is not his first brush with possible ruin, he has needed saving before. Else has holes in her stockings that she hopes will not be noticed and, although it is clear until now she has avoided thinking too much on the subject, the telegram leaves her unable to avoid the truth that her family is not so respectable after all.

Else approaches Herr von Dorsday. In return for the money he requires that she pay an improper price. For the course of an evening Else thinks on whether or not to pay that price, and on what her alternatives may be.

And that, in its most simplistic essence, is the book. It is the stream of consciousness of a young woman, forced by family exigency to consider matters she would prefer not to and exposed to the truth that even in polite society the good manners on show merely conceal the reality that everything still has its price. Else’s innocence is lost merely by the fact of the request from her mother to approach Herr von Dorsday, his request simply cements her understanding of the crude nature of the world she inhabits, a world that until then had seemed much prettier.

The drama of the novel comes from Else’s consideration of what to do, for much of it I was genuinely uncertain how events would play out and there is a real tension as one watches her thoughts flow to acquiescence, to rebellion, to escapist fantasy, to acquiescence again and so on. More powerful though is the character of Else herself, beautifully realised (as it must be, for the novel to work at all). Schnitzel shows Else’s initial innocence, its later resurgence as she dreams of ways out of her dilemma, he shows too her new understanding of her world – which seems always to have been present but heretofore unacknowledged, her despair and her savage hope. Schnitzel paints a subtle and wholly persuasive psychological portrait which made me empathise with Else and be fascinated by her situation.

Because it’s essentially an unbroken stream of consciousness (though far easier to read than that suggests), it’s difficult to pull out particularly representative quotes. I’ve tried, with the following two passages, to give some sense though of Else’s internal monologue and the style of the work. In this first excerpt she has received the telegram and is considering how to approach Herr von Dorsday:

I must turn on the light. It’s getting chilly. Shut the window. Blind down? No need. There’s no one standing on the mountain over there with a telescope. Worse luck … ‘I’ve just had a letter, Herr von Dorsday’ … Perhaps it’ll be better to do it after dinner. One is in a lighter mood then. Dorsday will be too … I might drink a glass of wine first. But I should certainly enjoy my dinner more if I finished the whole business first. Pudding à la merveille, fromage et fruits divers. But what if Herr von Dorsday should say no? Or if he’s downright impudent? Oh no; no one has ever been impudent to me. Well, Lieutenant Brandel was, but he didn’t mean any harm. I’ve got a bit thinner again. It suits me … The twilight stares in. It stares in like a ghost – like a hundred ghosts. Ghosts are rising out of my meadow. How far off is Vienna? How long have I been away? How alone I am! I haven’t a girl friend, nor a man friend. Where are they all? Whom shall I marry? Who would marry a swindler’s daughter? …

In this second excerpt, Else is returning to the hotel after thinking matters over for some time:

He’s waiting. Herr von Dorsday is waiting. No, I won’t see him. I can’t see him any more. I won’t see anyone any more. I won’t go back to the hotel, I won’t go home. I won’t go to Vienna, I won’t go to anybody, to anyone at all, not to Father, not to Mother, not to Rudi, not to Fred, not to Bertha, not to Aunt Irene! She’s the best of them, she’d understand everything. But I’ve nothing more to do with her or with anybody else. If I were a magician, I’d be in quite another part of the world. On some splendid ship in the Mediterranean, but not alone. With Paul, perhaps. Yes, I can imagine that quite easily. Or I’d live in a villa by the sea and we’d lie on the marble steps that run down into the water, and he’d hold me tight in his arms and bite my lips, as Alfred did at the piano two years ago, the impudent wretch. No, I’d lie alone on the marble steps by the sea and wait. And at last a man would come, or several men, and I’d choose one, and the others whom I’d rejected would throw themselves into the sea in despair. Or they’d have to be patient and wait til next day. Oh, what a delicious life it would be!

Part of what impresses me here, is how easily Schnitzel captures Else’s immaturity, her flights of childish fancy, but intercuts them with her dawning realisation of her actual situation. Schnitzel is also excellent in a number of passages in bringing out Else’s own burgeoning sexuality, suppressed by societal dictat but by virtue of this situation brought (only part unwillingly) to the forefront of her mind.

Other characters in the work are seen largely through Else’s eyes, the few times Else speaks to someone during the evening it is presented in italics and rarely are the words of the conversation on their own very revealing. Despite this, Schnitzler manages to capture Else’s aunt’s concern for propriety, Herr von Dorsday’s self-interest,self-regard and essential hypocricy, the tension between Cissy Mohr – possible lover to Else’s cousin Paul – and Else herself. We see only through Else’s eyes, and she does not appear a particularly unreliable narrator, but because suddenly she sees much so too do we and the work is full of small psychological truths.

An irony with Fraülein Else, compared to other works I have written about here, is in one sense I have relatively little to say about it. It is well written, shows great insight and is both an enjoyable and rewarding read. Pushkin Press have, once again, brought to English readers a novelist whose works might otherwise go ignored, and certainly without them I wouldn’t have read this particular work. The plot however is so simple, the essential dilemma faced by Else so easily grasped, the truth of her society so depressingly familiar, that it is hard to write at length about it. I am left then saying that this is a fine piece of Austro-Hungarian literature of a sort too little now recognised, and that I am extremely grateful to Pushkin Press for publishing this translation and giving me access to it.

Fraülein Else (also available directly from the publisher here). I note that John Self over at Asylum has written up a different Arthur Schnitzel here, which may also be of interest.

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12 Comments

Filed under African-American Literature, Austro-Hungarian Literature, Central European Literature, Modernist Fiction, Novellas, Personal canon, Schnitzler, Arthur

12 responses to “The air is like champagne

  1. Guy A. Savage

    When you mentioned you were reading this novel, I went looking for a copy and the stream-of-consciousness put me off, so thanks for including those passages. Now I see that it’s not obnoxious at all (I loathe SOC when it is at its worst).

  2. I can struggle with SOC myself, it can be very tiring.

    Schnitzel keeps it tight in terms of structure, we’re talking just over 100 pages in small format which isn’t that much, but more I think he gets the voice right – too often SOC is actually deeply artificial, I think here it persuades.

    What I forgot to say, but meant to, was I read this in three chunks. I’d recommend trying to put aside a couple of hours and just reading it in one sitting, I think it would benefit from that.

  3. It took me years but I finally found a copy of Schnitzler’s Dream Story a few years ago. I don’t mind some stream of consciousness but I still don’t see any reason to write that way. It just makes it difficult for people to read your work and understand it.

  4. I think here it’s useful because it takes us directly into Else’s dilemma, and also because it takes us within her character and lets us experience her mix of innocence and sudden worldiness, so while it’s generally not a technique I’m fond of this is for me at least an exception to that. I would say that I do think this is an accessible work, it’s not a difficult read at all.

    I had a comment over at your blog on Finnegan’s Wake, which got eaten by the internet, essentially saying that I agreed with your take on that particular book, but I wouldn’t put this in that sort of difficult category. Schnitzler for me pulls this one off.

    Besides, as I always say with works of this brevity, if you try it and hate it at least it’s over quickly…

  5. I’ve never heard of this one but it looks worth reading.

    I have a couple of Pushkin Press books including Zweig’s Fantastic Night – very nice productions. You have encouraged me to re-visit their website and see what’s there.

    (Just done so and see they have an “annual subscription” covering a year’s new books for £99. Interesting eh?)

  6. Annual subscriptions, that is interesting, though I’d be nervous of it feeling an obligation as they stacked up rather than a pleasure. Still, I’ll look into it, fascinating idea. Guy Savage has an annual subscription to Hardcase Crime, which works on a similar basis. It’s an interesting way for a publisher to build on its reputation and secure itself a more reliable income stream.

    Anyway, I’ll check that out, thanks for the tip.

  7. Guy A. Savage

    The Hard Case Crime subscription is only $5.99 a month and that includes the postage. I checked the Pushkin Press (I was interested) but the overseas subscription rate puts in out of my range. Still, I will look at their site and pick up some hints.

    I bought three NYRB classics today which I am very excited about.

  8. Marvellous review and I have to agree that there’s SOC and Schnitzler’s brand of SOC. I’m a long-term fan of Schnitzler and can’t praise the Pushkin Press highly enough.
    h
    I reviewed FE and another Pushkin Schnitzler here.

  9. Interesting review there Lizzy, I’ve considered Dying, bit of a shame to learn I may have read the stronger of the two first but your review still greatly encouraged me to pick it up.

    I’ll be taking a further look around at some of your other Pushkin’s, I think I saw a mention of Couperus…

  10. Pingback: Dying « Pechorin’s Journal

  11. Pingback: Six of the best « Pechorin’s Journal

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