Leutnant Gustl (Arthur Schnitzler)

Leutnant Gustl is a novella by Arthur Schnitzler.
Finished on: 4.12.2018

Plot:
Leutnant Gustl goes to a concert. At the coat check he meets an acquaintance, the baker Habetswallner. They get into a fight and Gustl is ready to draw his sword, but Habetswallner keeps him from doing it, telling him basically he is an immature little boy and walks away. Gustl can’t take this insult and the military honor codex demands that someone who has been insulted in such a way, has to commit suicide. Gustl decides to do so in the morning, passing through the night in thought.

Leutnant Gustl is the first German-language story written entirely as a stream-of-consciousness inner monologue. This can get a little exhausting, especially since Gustl is an ass (fortunately it’s only a novella), but it’s definitely worth sticking with it.

The book cover showing a pencil drawing of soldier, half lying in a chair.

[SPOILERS]

Gustl spends the entire night going back and forth about how honor demands that he kill himself by being insulted by someone of lesser status, never mind whether Habetswallner will tell anyone or keep his secret. Gustl himself knows and that’s enough. At the end of the novella, just before he goes to get his gun, Gustl hears that Habetswallner had a stroke and died that night. Elated about the news, there is no more thought of suicide – instead he goes back to business as usual, thinking about the duel he has to face that very day and how he will beat up that guy.

And that ending carries a punch. It criticizes both the military codex that makes such senseless demands of its soldiers in the first place, and Gustl’s obvious bigotry: as long as there is a chance that somebody can hear of this insulting encounter, he will do the “honorable thing” because being perceived as dishonored would be the worst. But as soon as any chance of that is gone, well, who the fuck cares – he doesn’t have an inner sense of honor that would make any demands. It’s no surprise that Gustl is named Gustl – in Austrian, an Ungustl (Un-Gustl) is an asshole.

At the beginning of the novella, when Gustl sits in the concert, I did have to laugh a little bit about myself, because I recognized myself in how he struggles to pay attention. I have definitely had that particular concert experience and Schnitzler absolutely captures it in Gustl’s thoughts.

Generally, Gustl is a very three-dimensional character and Schnitzler really uses the inner monologue perfectly. But inner monologues can grow tiresome – and I was pretty happy this was only a novella and not a full-sized novel. Still, absolutely worth it.

Summarizing: Very good.

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