November 24, 2007
Arthur Schnitzler: Dying
Where have I heard that name before? Ah yes: Arthur Schnitzler was the author of Traumnovelle (Dream Story), which was adapted into Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, in 1999. I got a free copy of the book with the Guardian, and never bothered reading it. So I think we can safely say I’m approaching Dying without any unnecessary mental clutter such as, say, knowledge or understanding.
And here’s the thing: how do you counter the natural reaction to the idea of reading a 19th century German novella about the inevitability of death, which is something like Do you mind if I don’t? How to counter it is simple: bring it out in an irresistible little edition by Pushkin Press, the people who brought us Stefan Zweig. Their pocket size, elegant cover design and tactile paper make them, for me, literally unputdownable, even before we consider the content.
No worries there anyway. Dying (1895) has that sensibility – European, and of the period, I suppose – of emotional directness which is so refreshing to us stiff-lipped British. Felix has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and has been given a year to live. His lover, Marie, reacts with disarming – hysterical – loyalty: “I want to die with you.”
He smiled. “That’s childish. I’m not so small-minded as you think me. And I have no right at all to take you with me.”
“I can’t live without you.”
“But think how long you lived without me before! I was already doomed when I met you a year ago. I didn’t know it, but even then I had a presentiment.”
“You don’t know now.”
“Yes, I do. That’s why I want you to have your freedom, beginning today.” She clung all the closer. “Take it, take it,” he said. She did not reply, but looked up at him as if she didn’t understand.
She cried out, “I’ve lived with you, I’ll die with you.”
Of course, as Felix moves toward the inevitable, Marie finds herself rather more attached to life than she anticipated. The couple move from place to place for rest cures and convalescence, and when she leaves Felix’s side for an hour or two, she finds “unutterable contentment flow through her.” So she battles her instincts, just as Felix battles despair and, even worse, hope. He is sometimes insouciant, other times Larkinesque (“Being brave / Lets no-one off the grave. / Death is no different whined at than withstood”) in his approach to the matter:
I’ll tell you straight out, people falsify the psychology of dying, because all the great figures of world history of whose deaths we know anything felt duty-bound to put on an act for posterity. … I too feel in duty bound to pretend, whereas in reality I’m prey to a boundless, raging fear of a kind that healthy people can’t imagine. They’re all afraid, and that includes the heroes and the philosophers, only they make the best play-actors.
As such Dying presents us with a frank and bracing meditation on the subject. How often we hear, in the news or anecdotally, of someone “being given” (as though it were a gift) so many months to live, but rarely do we stop to consider the effect this has on them and their loved ones, and how it irrevocably alters those remaining months. Dying makes us wonder, and then gives us at least one answer. At 120 pages, it’s an invigorating palate cleanser between longer books, the introspective story as addictive as it is inevitable. Now where’s that copy of Dream Story?