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?


  1. When I saw Eyes Wide Shut years ago I started searching for Schnitzler’s book to no avail. Then I forgot all about it. Now I can probably find it somewhere online. I can’t say I am ready to read that or this one right now but at least they will be there when I want them. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Schnitzler was a fave of mine at uni and I have since refused to part with his collected works. Of course, 30 years ago there were no translations but I see that Pushkin Press now has a number of his works in the catalogue. From memory, I’d recommend “Fraeulein Else” – female stream of consciousness written by a man – can it work? I thought so at the time – I wonder whether I will still do so.

  3. Yes Fraeulein Else tickled my fancy too, Lizzy – and I think you’ve mentioned Louis Couperus before, who has some stuff available through the Pushkin Press stable. I’m also keen to investigate him.

  4. I’ve seen the Couperus titles, too! I shall resist – at least until I’ve reread “The Hidden Force”. Published by Quartet Books.

  5. Jon. can you give me your e-mail? i will make a end-of-year special post, where i will ask some bloggers, journalists and writers to write a bit about the best book they read (or re-read) in this 2007. and i’d appreciate if you’d collaborate. so tell me what’s your e-mail, so in the right time i’ll contact you, ok?

  6. Hi Daniel, it’s johnselfsasylum at (replace the at with @ – I wrote it that way to try to avoid spam). I’d be happy to collaborate on this!

  7. well, Jon, I would send you an e-mail in december 1st, but you may already write and send to my cararock at a text of one, two or three paragraphs about the best book you’ve read in this year 😉

    please mention (besides your own occupation – journalist? critic?, in wich press? what’s your city?): book complete name, author’s name and editor, ok?

    i’ll be waiting your collaboration. and, of course, as soon as i post the stuff, i will give here the link, so that you may pass it to your readers if you wish.

  8. First of all, this blog rocks my world, John. You have a wonderful, lilting prose style that impresses me. Also, these are so far books I know and love. My Ph.D. and M.A. were in Comparative Literature. Thanks for this blog … it’s a gift.

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