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Late Fame, by Arthur Schnitzler: a story awoken from a long sleep

Published a century after it was written, the fate of Schnitzler’s novel echoes that of its hero, writes Eileen Battersby

One evening, near the close of a lovely winter’s day, Herr Eduard Saxberger, an elderly civil servant, returns home after work. On leaving his office, however, he had as usual strolled about, enjoying the fresh air. No wonder he is feeling tired. But instead of settling down to take his ease, he is met by his housekeeper, who informs him of the visitor, a stranger, who has been waiting in the sittingroom for his return.

Herr Saxberger is intrigued, as he rarely has guests. The visitor introduces himself as an author, and says he has come to pay homage to the writer of Wanderings. The old man is astonished: “You’ve read my Wanderings? People still read my Wanderings?” He shakes his head in disbelief. The young man assures Herr Saxberger that if people in general might not read his poems, “we [he and his friends] read them, we admire them and, I think, in time, people, too, will again come to read and admire them”. Mention of “we” sets the old man’s mind spinning, as not only had he no idea that anyone was still aware of his work, but, he admits: “Even I haven’t thought of them, it’s been so long since I thought of them. For years, I’ve been so far from any of these things, so far.”

The young visitor takes some care when conceding that he and his friends have noted Herr Saxberger’s long silence: “ You haven’t committed anything to print for a long time, something that surprised and saddened us. And it was, after all, just chance that led us – though here I can probably say me – to discover your exquisite book, so to speak, anew.”

The discovery was made in a second-hand bookshop and reference is made, as expected, to a “slim volume”.

A lifetime ago

For Herr Saxberger, it all seems a lifetime ago. As he listens, he also muses privately about his former life. “Artists, artists – how that word sounded! All at once there rose up in him muddled images of distant days and forgotten people. Names occurred to him, and what had become of them –- and then he saw himself as you see yourself in a dream, as a young man, saw himself youthful, laughing, talking, as one of the best and proudest in a circle of young people who had stayed apart from those following the beaten track . . . and he said aloud . . . ‘That is long ago, that is so long ago’.”

He suddenly recalls that he once even wrote a play, which he had sent around to various theatres. “Then, well, I let it go. That’s more than 30 years ago . . .”

It all seems a surprise, not only for Herr Saxberger but also for the reader. Discovered in an archive in 1914 and only published in German for the first time late last year, and now in Alexander Starritt’s low-key English translation, Late Fame is unlike anything else by the Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler who was born in 1862 and died in 1931, two years before the Nazis burned his work, denouncing it as “Jewish filth.’

Trained as a doctor, Schnitzler was friends with Freud and also with Stefan Zweig. It was Freud with whom he conducted a correspondence, which began in 1906. Freud recognised in Schnitzler an understanding of unconscious sexual motivations. Schnitzler took risks and explored the disintegrating milieu around him. For many readers he remains best known for Dream Story, a novella published in 1926. It was to be the source for Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), in which the hopelessly miscast Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, husband and wife in real life at the time, played a doomed couple, and Schnitzler’s novella became lost amid the cinematic debris.

In his finest full-length play, Professor Bernhardi (1912; translated 1936), a Jewish doctor refuses to allow a priest access to a girl who is dying following an abortion. The doctor goes to prison, only to be released when a prince requires his services. Later, the priest contacts Bernhardi to tell him he had actually agreed with his actions but had not been able to say so publicly.

Philandering is a recurring theme throughout Schnitzler’s work, and he boldly confronts the sadistic and masochistic aspects of romantic love at its most sexual. His strength as a writer is his depiction of the tension between decadence and guilty morality, as well as his psychological sophistication and understanding of extreme states. His 19-year-old daughter committed suicide and his marriage collapsed. He died of cancer at 69.

Surprise

All of this explains why Late Fame does surprise. It is ironic and restrained; Saxberger never quite acquires our sympathy, because Schnitzler does not seek it. Instead, he offers a study of an elderly man’s response to an unexpected moment to shine. He is welcomed by a group of young writers who are themselves sustained by a hope of eventual glory, which may be forthcoming although they have yet to produce any work. Their frail egos are already sensitive and a degree of competitiveness dominates the conversation when they all meet.

Saxberger is quickly drawn into this, and when he is invited to participate in a group reading, sets about composing new work. He soon realises that he cannot write and that even the river walks along the Danube, which once inspired him, are now changed, as is he. Among the bickering young aspirants is an older woman, an actor, who hovers on the fringes of the group: “Her features were not unappealing and from a distance they even exhibited a kind of nobility which, however, disappeared up close. Then you saw the slightly crude shape of her mouth and the strangely ravaged lines of the face itself . . .”

She is annoyingly effusive, but at least, unlike the others, she does read the work. It is she who exclaims to Saxberger: “A civil servant – a man like you.”

In the hands of the Dutch-born, if wholly Viennese, satirist Thomas Bernhard, Late Fame would have been a merciless and hysterical romp comparable to Woodcutters (1984). No subject excited Bernhard’s relentless derision quite as cohesively as did the posturing arts community in Vienna. Schnitzler is detached, and while Late Fame is not particularly funny, the narrative is astute on the bravado, politics and longing which compel literary dreamers at the mercy of their tentative aspirations.

There is an interlude of pathos as Saxberger realises that he cannot now even attempt to write a poem. Elsewhere, at the restaurant which is almost a second home, he listens as the local delicatessen owner, known for his wit, spouts some doggerel. “It was harmless rhyming”, but when Saxberger decides it is time to reveal that he, too, is a poet, his friends laugh, and persist in doing so even after he insists that he once published a book. The delicatessen owner assumes he is joking and teases him: “Then you were wickeder in your youth than most ... why are you telling us this? If you’d never written any poems, that would be much stranger!”

Initially completed in 1895 for publication in Die Zeit, a literary magazine, Schnitzler, aware of exceeding the required length, shortened it, but still feared it was too long. The editor wanted further cuts, but nothing happened. Schnitzler’s son Heinrich compared the story to having “the long slumber of a Sleeping Beauty”. It has certainly come back to life.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent