Arthur Schnitzler, Master Tales


Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1994


Anything goes – this motto has never been more topical than today. Our western world knows an incredible diversity of lifestyles: hippie or hipster, with or without children, homo-, hetero- or metrosexual. You may sit in your office wearing your training gear, your profession may be ever so exotic – the others probably do not care. Hardly any time seems to be further away than c. 1900 Vienna.


On the one hand, Vienna was THE cultural metropolis of the time; on the other hand, the solidly middle-class women stormed the waiting room of a certain Dr. Freud, driven by their suppressed emotions and their unsympathetic husbands. After years of study, Freud had developed psychoanalysis as a method. It was not without jealousy, however, that he had to acknowledge that a writing fellow doctor captured the sufferings of the Viennese, especially the women, through his “conclusions drawn from sensitive introspection” more aptly than he, Freud, did. This colleague was Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931).


If you’re not a James Bond guy, but no psychopath either, you might recognize yourself in one of Schnitzler’s protagonists. His stories, especially the ones selected for this volume published by Manesse, revolve around “ordinary” people, average characters, people like the ones who might have sought advice in Schnitzler’s ENT office. On the face of it, their everyday suffering usually seems to be within normal limits, but the one affected struggles and wrestles with them. And when we look at the problems with which these heroes of everyday life are trying to cope, we are amazed to discover that these very topics can still be found today, in conversations, magazines, newspaper columns, web blogs... It is all about the role of gender in society, adultery and affairs that make happy families break apart, about the fulfilment of wishes that we do not want to admit to ourselves, about the tension between strokes of fate and the free will as the two poles we find ourselves caught between, too. Schnitzler himself suffered from such problems: a failed marriage, a thus traumatized, dearly beloved daughter who committed suicide, the general lack of interest in his artistic work because he had refused to engage in bellicism in 1914. And so the author gained experience, also with women he repeatedly fell in love with – and perhaps understood better than anyone else in Vienna.


Schnitzler criticized Freud’s binary system of the ego and the superego as an “escape from the chaotic truth ... into the fallacious consolation of an arbitrarily ordered world”. With Schnitzler nothing is ordered, everything is buzzing in the heads of his protagonists, who set their train of thoughts in detailed inner monologues out to the reader. For the first time in German-language literature, the author reveals the “semi-conscious” of his characters, this plane between Freud’s extremes. We learn about their inner doubts, their inner strife and insecurities, all the little life-lies. And Schnitzler often presents a solution that is likewise found between the extremes. In his famous “Traumnovelle” (“Dream Story”), she shamefacedly dreams about acting out sexually whereas he, in a special moment, actually acts out an affair. In the end, the couple feels that they have to learn from these experiences so that their relationship does not crumble; they accept their needs in their normal everyday life the best they can. A brief reference guide to a happy life even in the 21st century, one might think.


Björn Schöpe

Translated by Annika Backe

Signet Sunflower Foundation