A review of Dying by Arthur Schnitzler

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane
By Arthur Schnitzler
Translated by Anthea Bell
Cover illustration by Lovis Corinth
Pushkin Press
2006, ISBN: 9781901285741

A young couple, Marie and Felix, meet in a park in Vienna of a spring evening in May 1890. They walk to a garden restaurant and, once there, Felix tells Marie that he has less than a year to live, he is dying.  She is uncertain, disbelieving, yet resolves to stick by him to the end.

Their final year together, that’s what Schnitzler’s novella, originally published in 1895, charts: we see the fluctuations in their relationship, each lover’s changing state of mind.  Felix feels on occasion an insidious hope: maybe he’ll turn out to be one of the lucky ones, and survive against all the odds.  Marie loves Felix yet also wants to live; she is drawn towards the light.  Laughter, gaiety, happiness (in short, the world) awaits her.  To Felix, these natural inclinations, and even her vitality and health, gradually come to be seen as a betrayal of trust.  He wants to keep Marie, hold her to an avowal of undying love, her stated desire to share his fate.  He wants to take her with him.

At the end it becomes a bit of a horror-fest, the Gothic atmosphere laid on a bit thick, but it’s a beautiful work of fiction for all that.  An involving, restrained psychological study peppered with startling insights, as for instance when Felix says:

That’s the secret of being alive, and I’ve discovered it: it’s the sense you have of owning everything.  34

Or this unblinking peek at Marie’s thinking:

She no longer shrank from the idea [of Felix’s death], and those treacherous words that made hypocritical pity out of the most dreadful wish of all came to her mind.  “If only he were at peace!”  113

Schnitzler’s prose in Anthea Bell’s luminous translation can best be described as spare and poetic.  Every detail seems not only important but necessary.  There is a precision of scene and expression.  Not a single word is wasted.

Death is absence, Epicurus tells us, but dying, the final loosening of the ties that bind us to this world and the people in it: well, that’s serious stuff, a grand, pitiful arena of human experience.  Schnitzler nailed it.  No buts.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com