Arthur Schnitzler - Bertha Garlan

Arthur Schnitzler - Bertha Garlan
Rating - 7.1

Bertha Garlan is twenty-six and widowed. She has a small child, Fritz; when not caring for him, she teaches piano to the children of her town. Her life is happy, or more accurately it is pleasant; There isn't much opportunity beyond what she has, though a yearning for something grander exists within her heart.

For what? She doesn't know. Her friend, Frau Rupius is traveling to Vienna; she invites Bertha along with her. We learn that Bertha is to be used as an excuse, a cover for Frau Rupius' infidelity. Bertha is at first shocked, but then her thoughts wander to Emil, the man she loved as a boy. Her first love, she repelled him after he suggested a consummation of their love. But now, with her husband in the grave, perhaps she could offer her affection. After all, if Frau Rupius is capable of having a lover in Vienna, then so too can Bertha Garlan.

The idea takes hold in her mind. She idealises the time she spent with Emil and, without properly considering the consequences, writes him a letter. He is by now a famous musician, a violinist of some repute - Bertha hopes that he remembers her. He does and his reply, which comes quickly, suggests a meeting.

Bertha is now faced with a problem. Should she meet with Emil? Her heart yearns for it, but her innocent mind is unaware of what might occur. It is almost as though she has no knowledge of what men and women do, for all that she has a child. But her mind is made up when she considers herself: 'A shudder seemed to seize her as she recalled that she was nothing but the widow of an insignificant man, that she lived in a provincial town, that she earned her living by means of music lessons, and that she saw old age slowly approaching.' She must seize this moment, to prove to herself and to the world that she is not a prune on its way to becoming shriveled and old.

Her passions are that of a novice in the arts of love. She is too energetic, too determined to give all of herself to Emil. Before they have met, she thinks grand thoughts of love: 'She was only going to Vienna to be his, and after that, if needs must be, to die.' Bertha spends the day wandering around Vienna, by turns anxious and excited as to the course of the evening with Emil. What lies in store for her? Innocent as she is, her thoughts approach, but ultimately shy away from what it is that she wants. She is able to desire, but unable to properly elucidate these thoughts for herself. At times, she considers breaking off the engagement, her thoughts rocketing up and plummeting down. 'Would it not, perhaps, even be better if he did not come, she wondered. She was so bewildered at that moment ... and supposing she was to say anything silly or awkward.... So much depended on the next few minutes--perhaps her whole future....'

After they meet, Bertha is very excited about what has happened. She reads much - too much - into their conversation. 'She would completely envelop him in it ... no more would he yearn for any other woman.... She would move to Vienna, be with him each day, be with him for ever.' She considers their love to be complete, assured, a new turning point in both their lives. Indeed, Bertha even goes so far as to hold herself above the men and women in the street, as though she now knows more than they about the adult realm of love.

All this is, of course, painful to read. We know that Emil is unfaithful, married, uninterested, or something of the kind. His manner is, at all times, distant - when they do finally spend a long time together, she becomes drunk and misinterprets his words. As a famous violinist it is to be presumed - and Bertha, to her credit, presumes it as well - that he would have known many women. It is Bertha's misfortune not to realise that this makes her the latest in a line of women, not the premiere female, as she would like.

The realisation hurts. When innocence is taken advantage of, it is of course the victim who suffers the most. They perceive their prior ignorance not as naivety but stupidity, as though the world was one great joke at their expense. Bertha is no different. 'for the first time in her life, she was so stirred, even to the very depths of her soul, that she understood those who in their despair have hurled themselves out of a window to meet their death....'

Bertha's innocence - or perhaps ignorance now, as she has ample evidence to discredit her fantasies - remains throughout the novel. By the end, she has not learned a thing and has in fact become a horrible egoist. She sees in everything a reflection of her own thoughts, considers all events and actions a mirror by which to study the passions that rage through her heart and mind. She becomes foolish and sad, a simple creature for which it is difficult to remain sympathetic. Even in the death of a major character, Bertha is able only to learn how it might play upon her love for Emil.

Can we believe this delusion? We can, because Bertha takes it to the extreme. No matter how Emil lets her down, how bluntly he states that all he wants from her are pleasures of the physical kind, she bounds back from an initial minor depression to ridiculous levels of enthusiasm. It is as though Bertha does not want Emil to be her lover so much as for a lover to be hers. She is in love with the fantasy of it all; the reality leaves her cold or simply leaves her.

Perhaps we have all had such thoughts, though I dare say that for most they remain the artifacts of teenage years. Indeed, that is how Bertha comes most to portray herself - her passions are that of the over-exuberant teenager, not the aware considerations of the adult. We are able to criticise her because she is twenty-six with the heart of a sixteen year old, not necessarily because her heart is wrong.

There are interesting echoes of Flaubert throughout the text. The most striking of which comes from the following line, 'You have only a husband, but I have a lover!--a lover!--a lover!"...'. In this we are of course reminded of the famous scene where Madame Bovary struts before her mirror, exulting in her status as a woman with a lover. This similarity to Flaubert is a weakness and a strength. Flaubert is by far the greater writer, but the themes of love and lust and the innocence of a woman are ones that can never properly become exhausted, and with the addition of novels such as these, perhaps we are able to understand all the better the inner workings of our minds and hearts.


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Austrian Authors