Grief, Dying, & Arthur Schnitzler’s “Desire and Delusion”

I have a new line on my face.  It is vertical, on my forehead.

I am still mourning my cat, Helen.  Torrents of tears. In her last moments, my husband said, “Kat, she’s still looking for you.”  I quickly moved my face to  the side where she had moved her darling face.

Helen with iPad

We picked up Helen’s ashes this week. The box is so tiny, wrapped in bubble wrap. And yet it’s still a connection to her.  It’s what’s left, and we’ll bury her in the spring.

Crying is what we women are told not to do. We stifle our emotions because  wrinkles will spoil our looks.  After a certain age, we don’t care.

I do feel sad.  And this week I have experimented with not smiling in public. Why should I smile at clerks, cashiers, dog-walkers (though the dogs are adorable), mammography technicians, or rude Millennials and iGens hogging the sidewalk as they text while walking? The only time I see people smiling in public these days is when they’re trying to “hook up” with someone (and isn’t that a distasteful phrase? Like a phone!)

And guess what I learned?  Smile or don’t smile, it doesn’t matter.

People barely look up from their phones anyway.


I am a fan of the neglected Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1930), a Modernist playwright and fiction writer who was a member of a circle of artists and writers in fin-de-siècle Vienna.  He was a doctor who graduated from the University of  Vienna School of Medicine, and his special areas of interest were psychology and psychiatry.

His fiction is strangely modern, and his quiet style an effective  underpinning of psychological realism and a contrast to the violence.  I recommend Vienna 1900:  Games of Life and Death, a Penguin collection of four short stories published in the 1970s.

Recently I discovered Margaret Schaefer’s modern translations, which are published by Ivan R. Dee, and are more accessible.  I love long-form fiction, so I was eager to read Desire and Delusion:  Three Novellas.  These superb novellas,  Flight into Darkness, Dying, and Fräulein Else,  are linked by the theme of death and delusion.

In the Dostoevskian novella, Flight into Darkness, the antihero, Robert, a commissioner, struggles with paranoia at the end of the  six-month trip which a doctor prescribed as a cure for a nervous breakdown. The story begins at a hotel after Robert breaks up with his girlfriend Alberta, who fell in love and left him for  an American tourist.  He second-guesses himself :  was he right to let her go?  Was that crazy?  Should he have fought for her?  Would it have made a difference?  But he feels quite calm as he  says goodbye to his acquaintances at the hotel.  On the train, however, he loses “his pleasant feeling of anticipation.”

Schnitzler’s interior monologue captures his horrifying psychological imbalance.

What he found…was no longer delight but rather a strange anxiety, as though he were being carried toward a crisis involving a significant, serious decision….  Would he now, after the many restful and easy moments of the last few months, be overcome once more by that incomprehensible something that could hardly be captured in thought–let alone words–and that seemed ominously to threaten something worse.

As Robert descends into madness, he  wonders if his ex-girlfriend Alberta really left him for another man, or if he killed her in the woods. He is  relieved to get a letter saying she has gotten married in Chicago. Thank God!  He was delusional!   But then he begins to fixate on his brother Otto, who years ago agreed to kill Robert if he ever went out of his mind.  He thinks Robert is planning to kill him.

This does not end well!

In the second novella, Dying, Felix and Marie are lovers who have been happy until Felix consults a doctor who says he has only a year to live.  Felix’s best friend Alfred, also a doctor, says his colleague was only trying to scare Felix so he would take better care of himself.  But Felix fixates on death, and allows it to dictate his emotions–and perhaps the future.  And Marie is terrified when he tries to get her to agree to a suicide pact.  Fortunately, the sanity of Marie and Alfred balances Felix’s madness.  In Flight into Darkness, the horror was unremitting.

In  Fräulein Else, Schnitzler employs elegant  stream-of-consciousness as he explores the thoughts and associations of a sensitive young woman at a hotel with her aunt.   In the preface, the  translator Margaret Schaefer compares Else to a teenage Mrs. Dalloway.  Through Else’s reflections,  we comprehend her horror and rage when her mother telegrams her with a request that she borrow  a huge sum of money to keep her embezzler father out of jail.  She is told to approach a lecherous old man who has been leering at her.   He says he will lend the money if she has sex with him..  But Else decides on a proto-feminist act, which is not recognized as such by the conventional guests.

Masterful, realistic, and beautifully-written psychological fiction.

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