I found A Cattleman’s Books by chance while wandering through a city I didn’t know.
One window was boarded up, and the other impossibly dusty. A few books had been dumped in the window, apparently by someone who had forgotten to shelve them. If you wanted a coverless copy of The Oxford Book of English Poetry, out-of-print science fiction by David Lindsay, or a wacky 1950s Big Book of Games, which emphasizes games that require passing an apple from under your chin to another’s, this was the place for you.
In the damp, unheated store, the aged cattleman sat watching TV. He did not take care of the books. He owned “24 head of cattle” on a farm, and opened the store to have someplace to go in the city.
There was no order to the books.
I asked if I could arrange the books in alphabetical order in exchange for free books.
There were some finds, a few rare books, mostly books I just wanted to read.
He introduced me to the wonderful world of used book sales, book fairs, and estate sales that used bookstore owners mine.
Over the years, at wonderful sales, I have acquired almost new copies of Mrs. Oliphant and Fanny Burney, books by Ruth Suckow, Booker Prize-winning paperbacks, old farm cookbooks, and an SF series by Roger Zelzany.
It often takes years for me to get around to reading the sales books, which I park in boxes.
And so I have just finished a breathtaking collection of stories by Arthur Schnitzler, Vienna 1900: Games with Love and Death, which was published as a companion volume to a Masterpiece Theater series in 1974. The four stories, “Mother and Son,” “The Man of Honour,” “A Confirmed Bachelor,” and “Spring Sonata,” are available free at Project Gutenberg under different titles.
Schnitzler (1862-1930), an Austrian Jewish physician, was the most famous Modernist writer in Fin de Siecle Vienna, a sophisticated member of a circle of artists and writers who knew the writings of Freud. Schnitzler graduated from the University of Vienna School of Medicine, which Freud also attended, and was familiar with the work of the psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing. He also wrote a thesis on hypnosis and used it in his practice.
Schnitzler’s brilliant plays, stories, and novellas often recall the vivid, bold realism of Tolstoy and Flaubert. Spring Sonata, published elsewhere as Bertha Garlan, is a pitch-perfect novella about a woman’s sexual blooming. Bertha, the heroine, is a repressed widow, a beautiful woman whose husband died after only three years of a loveless marriage. She often visits the cemetery, though she did not love her husband, perhaps because there is so little to do. And because the town is so small, lecherous men of her acquaintance hover around her, thinking her available, sometimes even flirting in the cemetery. Her brother-in-law and nephew flirt with her.
Bertha has dignity. She rejects the sexual overtures. Her son is the center of her life. She teaches piano to supplement her small income. Hers is a world of women and children.
But when she learns that Emil Lindbach, her first love, a famous violinist, has recently returned to Vienna, her hometown, she feels restless. She decides to go to Vienna with sophisticated Frau Rupius, the wife of a paralyzed man, who has beautiful clothes made for her in Vienna.
Schnitzler likes to write about art within art. Herr Rupius shows his collection of engravings to Bertha, with no sexual connotations, because each is fixated on someone different. But the engravings, one of which turns up in a museum, make an impact on her.
Her fantasies of Emil are rich. She yearns to fall in love again, and to persuade him to play music only for her. As a piano student in Vienna, she, too, was once artistic and unconventional. In Vienna, she walks around the city fantasizing about love.
And when she finally meets Emil, we see in a thousand ways that her fantasies are more sensual and intrepid than his. Bertha likes walking in the rain; he prefers a carriage. He does not dare take her to his own apartment–he says because of the press–and they make love in rented rooms. Bertha represses her knowledge of what this means.
The art in the room is an important metaphor. There is nothing that could possibly be the choice of sophisticated Emil. There are portraits of the Emperor and Empress, framed photographs, and a painting of a naked woman.
“What is that?” she asked.
“It is not a work of art,” said Emil.
He struck a match and held it up, so as to throw the light on the picture. Bertha saw that it was merely a wretched daub, but at the same time she felt that the painted woman, with the bold laughing eyes, was looking down at her, and she was glad when the match went out.
She does not want to see who she is for Emil. The art tells us.
When the fantasy ends, it could be the end for her. I won’t give it away, but let me say that Schnitzler’s take on women is different from Tolstoy’s or Flaubert’s.
A great novella.