Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Road to the Open: my art is mediocre and so is my character

I just finished the first chapter of Arthur Schnitzler’s The Road to the Open and I’m enjoying the immersion into the world of early 1900s Vienna. "Enjoy" might not be the right word, though, since the world he describes can be a brutal place, especially for Jews. Anti-Semitism permeates society, as one character adroitly decries “those people who gorge themselves sick at Jewish houses and then start slanging the Jews as soon as they get on the door-steps. They ought to be able to wait till they got to the café.” (All quotes are from the Horace Samuel translation.) Another character resigns his political seat for the abuse he receives for inquiring into questionable official actions (“Be quiet, Jew!” “Hold your jaw, Jew!”). The breaking point for him, though, was when those shouting insults expected him to be friends away from the floor of parliament. He doesn’t take the insults personally, realizing the society’s “indignation is as little genuine as our enthusiasm. The only things genuine with us are our malice and our hate of talent.”

The main character, George von Wergenthin-Recco, displays melancholy and ennui, partially because his father died a few months earlier. But it’s clear that those characteristics are part of his normal state. The first chapter takes place in one afternoon and evening as George wanders, unfocused, around the city. “A feeling of the dreamlike and purposeless character of existence came over him,” a state that seems to characterize him in more than just the one setting. At one point he comes to the conclusion that “his life was slipping away from him on the whole in far too quiet and monotonous a fashion.” George enjoys a reputation as a composer although he admits he hasn’t worked on anything in six months.

At the end of the chapter George is shocked that he “had enjoyed the whole day with such full gusto, without any painful memories of the beloved man who now lay beneath the ground.” Much of his day involved reflections on earlier times, both with friends and family, and it would be difficult to say that they brought him any pleasure, either. So far, George just *is*, an object for others to do with as they please. One acquaintance George runs into accurately sums up the people seen around him so far: “My so-called art in particular is more or less mediocre, and a good deal too could be said against my character.” We’ll see where these mediocrities and Vienna’s poisonous atmosphere lead George…

No comments: