By Arthur Schnitzler. Translated from the German by Richard L. Simon.
49 pages
Los Angelus: Sun and Moon Press, 1993.
ISBN: 1-55713-176-7

Comments of Bob Corbett
Jan. 2001

This brilliant tiny novel of only 49 pages well-deserves its place in Austrian letters as one of the important pieces of early Modernism. The book is an interior monologue of Lt. Gustl, a mid-20s office-in-training in the Austrio-Hungarian Empire's army. Gustl has gone to the concert to see the sister of a friend. He's bored and out of sorts and when leaving the concert he is rude to a baker in the cloakroom. The baker frequents the same coffee house as Gustl and doesn't accept Gustl's rudeness. They have words and then the baker reaches out and takes hold of the hilt of Gustl's sword. He quietly whisper's to Gustl that he is a "fathead," a most apt description, and that if he says another word the baker will take out the sword and break it in half, thus shaming Gustl. Gustl has no idea what to do and backs off.

This begins his agony. There is no out for his shame and he must commit suicide. He has three main worries: someone may have overheard, even though the baker was very quiet. Even Gustl doesn't really believe that. His second worry is that the baker will tell the story, though he has said he won't. Perhaps what troubles him most is that he himself cannot live with this shame of allowing himself to be so insulted.

Gustl wanders Vienna, sleeping a bit in the Prater, contemplating just how he will kill himself, rejecting every argument against so doing. The entire farce is complicated by the fact that Gustl is already supposed to fight a duel at dawn the following morning. The only really curious piece of the novel is that this duel, and all the honor associated with it simply drops out of the story. This inconsistency bothered me and disrupted an otherwise flawless piece.

During the night of internal dialogue with himself Gustl presents a catalogue of his class and sort and lets us in on Schnitzler's criticisms of the flagging empire. Gustl is indeed the fathead he's been called by the baker. Additionally he suffers from this absurd sense of honor for which he will kill himself over such a trifling incident. He shows so much of the petty side of his style life: the womanizing, anti-Semitism, rampant militarism, class biases, sense of privilege and on and on.

I guess I couldn't help wonder, however, how many of Schnitzler's contemporary Viennese of 1905 would have been quite sympathetic to Gustl and almost have seen him as a tragic figure! Certainly not the audience Schnitzler was writing for, but the question does fascinate me.

James Joyce is said to have said that this novel's stream of consciousness and interior dialogue was extremely influential in his writing Ulysses.

For links to more about the period of turn of the century Vienna see: the course I taught on this subject in Vienna in 2001   or to go directly to more info about the people and places visit my links to files and external sources on the this period.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett