When Simon of StuckinaBook and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings launched their 1924 Club it struck me as a wonderful idea: instead of reading across a country or a language, here the challenge was to select from a particular year. Originally I thought I might read John Buchan’s The Three Hostages. As it’s the centenary of The Thirty-Nine Steps, the Richard Hannay sequel seemed an appropriate choice, but I was dissuaded by the fact it generally regarded as one of his weaker novels. Instead I turned to a part of the world which has provided a number of my favourite writers of that period, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the writer, Arthur Schnitzler, whose novella Fraulein Else was published that year. (The English translation by F. H. Lyon is from 1925).
Else is young woman, staying with her aunt – “the poor relation invited by the rich aunt” – with the intention, perhaps, that she marry her cousin Paul. The novel is written as stream of consciousness, occasionally interrupted by sections of dialogue, so we have only Else’s perspective, all other characters being viewed through her shifting lens. This seems appropriate to a novella which is about a young, unformed character, prone to self-reflection (or you might say, self-obsession) and high emotion. From her interior monologue we can tell she is both preoccupied and inexperienced with the opposite sex:
“An Italian might be dangerous to me. It’s a pity the dark man with the Roman head left so soon. Paul said he looked like a rascal. Suppose he is? I’ve nothing against rascals…You know, Paul’s shy… The day before yesterday in the woods, when we were so far ahead, he might have been a bit more enterprising… No one has ever been really enterprising with me.”
As the story opens, we learn she is expecting an express letter from her mother; her greatest fear is that she is being instructed to return home. In fact, it is to ask her to borrow money on her father’s behalf – “the sum in question is a comparatively trivial one, thirty thousand” – from a Herr von Dorsday who is staying at the same hotel (and who we met briefly prior to Else reading the letter). The money is needed almost immediately to avert (in her mother’s words) “a catastrophe”:
“She doesn’t seriously mean that father would commit…”
Borrowing is clearly a way of life for her father, and there must be some suspicion that, having exhausted other avenues, he (or her mother, or both) are using their daughter’s youth and beauty to get the money they need. Even Else suspects as much: “I must look bewitching when I talk to Dorsday.” And later when she is speaking to him: “Why do I look at him so coquettishly?” Dorsday agrees to lend Else’s father the money but under one condition:
“I ask of you nothing more than to be allowed to stand for a quarter of an hour in reverent contemplation of your beauty.”
By this, of course, he means he wishes to see her naked, inviting her to come to his hotel room later that night:
“I don’t answer. I stand here without moving. He looks deeply into my eyes. My face is impenetrable. He knows nothing. He doesn’t know whether I’ll come or not. I don’t know either.”
From this point on, Else agonises over what she should do. The dilemma, whether to sell her body for money or not, is exasperated by her own moral uncertainty (at one point she says she will have a hundred lovers; at another she speaks of a married friend who expresses dislike for her husband as having sold herself). She will eventually find herself naked under a long coat, still undecided as to whether to show herself to Dorsday. This seems appropriate for a story in which her character is presented nakedly to the reader by stream of consciousness while remaining unseen by those around her.
Fraulein Else is a fascinating work of its time, particularly in its modernist style, but it also presents a timeless moral dilemma regarding whether we should use sex for financial (or other) gain. Its intensity is perfect for its length, and its stream of consciousness ideal for Else’s internal struggle, which lies at the heart of its story.