If The Asylum and Dovegreyreader can be seduced by the dinky handful of perfection that is a Pushkin Press title, then so can I. And that’s all I’m going to say on the subject although I could enthuse at l …. e….n….g….t….h about the format, if not about the price. A tad expensive (RRP £7.50 for a slim volume of 120 pages) but the contents are (newly commissioned?) translations of quality foreign fiction.
Anyway I don’t begrudge a penny I spent on these two titles – Schnitzler being an author I answered on in my C20th literature finals – along with Thomas Mann and Heinrich Boll - (Shish- if only my short-term memory was this good!) I do wonder though, if I were now studying for my German degree, would I read anything in German? There’s such a plethora of available translation. Regardless, I welcome it – it creates a wider audience for some fabulous material.
So that’s another round of applause for Pushkin Press and it won’t be the last on this blog because I have a pile of titles by Stefan Zweig and Louis Couperus lined up for next year.
Back to Schnitzler, a trained doctor, a dramatist and poet. His drama, and I speak from memory here, betrays a obvious fascination with human sexuality. He was a contemporary of Freud who once wrote “I have gained the impression that you have learned through intuition — though actually as a result of sensitive introspection — everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons“. His plays – particularly Reigen were the subject of much controversy in his lifetime. Contemporary reworkings of his material still are. (cf The Blue Room, Eyes Wide Shut).
However, his novellas are much subtler.
Dying (1895) was written when Schnitzler was 33. In it Felix is diagnosed with a terminal illness and his fiancee, Marie, romantically vows to die with him. Life without him won’t be worth living. Schnitzler documents the 12 months following diagnosis with an unflinching eye. As a doctor, he would know the details. And so we witness – from both patient and carer - generosity, peevishness, denial, frustration, melancholy, anger – name any of the gamut of emotions and experiences felt in the course of a terminal illness and they will be here. The tale isn’t maudling because Schnitzler’s talent as a dramatist ensures that the action is never static. He even injects suspense. We know Felix will die but what of Marie? Nothing is cut and dried until the very last page.
One tiny criticism – there is a tendency to melodrama in places – a fault controlled by the time of Fraulein Else (1924). Schnitzler is now 62 and writing the stream of consciousness of a 19 year old girl. Is she real?
She is to me. We meet her at a fashionable spa where she is staying with her aunt, her cousin Paul and his friend, Cissy. Else is spirited if somewhat vacuous - concerned with the impression she makes – her entrances and her exits. She receives a letter from her mother requesting her to save her father from debtor’s prison by asking a distant family friend for a loan. What follows is the unravelling of Else’s history and her mind, as the real world clashes with the romanticism in her head.
Fin-de-siecle Austrian mores and preoccupations, these may be. Yet the modern reader may well be reminded in places of “Indecent Proposal”. Human psychology doesn’t change, after all.
The translators have acquitted themselves well. Anthea Bell’s translation of “Dying” is very smooth. F H Lyon’s translation of Fraulein Else is also, though I did find myself wondering why he has chosen not to translate terms like “gnädige Frau”, “meine Herrschaften”, etc. I read straight past these but a non-German speaker is going to be thrown, if not downright irritated by such. It seems lazy – the terms are easily translatable – but then the English doesn’t have the ambience or the formality of the original. Like the title really: Miss doesn’t have quite the same ring as Fraulein.