The Road to the Open
By Arthur Schnitzler
Translated by Horace Samuel
With a Foreword by William M. Johnston
Northwestern University Press, 1992
The keynote of Schnitzler’s great novel of turn of the century Vienna is anxiety, an anxiety centred on the future.
Its main character is George von Wergenthin, an aristocrat, musician and composer, and we follow his life for a period of about a year. The crucial question is whether he will amount to an artist of substance or remain forever a dilettante; and it is uncertain to the last. Somehow, he is unable to bring artistic projects to a satisfactory completion and his private life is a mess: he has a child with a woman that he doesn’t intend to marry. Most of George’s friends and acquaintances – writers and artists, students and political activists – are Jewish and the so called ‘Jewish question’ is a central issue here, as in no other city. (at this time the mayor of Vienna is Karl Lueger, an anti-Semite much admired by Hitler.) It is another source of anxiety, to add to the rest. At one tense gathering George listens to two of his Jewish friends, Leo and Heinrich, discussing their lives and has a premonition of the difficulties that lie ahead:
He saw for the first time the designation Jew, which he himself had often used flippantly, jestingly and contemptuously, in a quite new and at the same time melancholy light. There dawned within him some idea of this people’s mysterious destiny, which always expressed itself in every one who sprang from the race, not less in those who tried to escape from that origin of theirs, as though it were a disgrace, a pain or a fairy tale that did not concern them at all, than in those who obstinately pointed back to it as though to a piece of destiny, an honour or an historical fact based on an immovable foundation.
His Jewish friends have different fates. For some (including Leo) Zionism, emigration to Palestine, is the only answer; while another (Oskar) converts to Catholicism (as did the Wittgenstein family, incidentally). Then there is another path that many took, socialism or communism, with its promise (not entirely fulfilled, as we know) to melt all ethnic and national identities in the furnace of history. As for Heinrich, probably George’s closest friend, he doesn’t journey along any of these paths, and nor does he choose assimilation or integration into the life of Vienna. Rather he plumbs in the end for a kind of abnegation, a clear-headed lonely existence, proud and dark:
He needed acquaintances to go walks and excursions with, and to discuss all the manifold problems of life and art in cold shrewd fashion – he needed women for a fleeting embrace; but he needed no friend and no mistress. In that way his life would pass with greater dignity and serenity. He revelled in these resolutions, and felt a growing consciousness of toughness and superiority. The darkness of the forest lost its terror, and he walked through the gently rustling night as though through a kindred element.
There is much to enjoy and appreciate in The Road to the Open, perhaps Schnitzler’s most accomplished work of fiction. You have the innovative use of interior monologue and the way the perspective constantly shifts from character to character (it is not only George’s story), creating a rich, multi-layered, social world that is both personal and political. These people let us into their lives, share their thoughts on love and suicide, science and music, identity and guilt (and for George at the end there is a need or obligation to feel guilt). That Schnitzler drops a lot of place names – there are references to churches and coffeehouses and landmarks in the city centre, the Riesenrad in the Prater, Sievering and Sophienalpe in the Vienna woods – also made the novel come alive for me, since I know these places. Incidentally, it is hardly a coincidence that a lot of the action is set in the Vienna woods, with the characters walking or bicycling down various Wanderwegs: it chimes with the original German title, which is Der Weg ins Freie.
We all have an Elsewhere (or several), a place we can escape to, and for many that is ‘Vienna 1900’: The art of Klimt and Schiele, the architecture of Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, the fiction of Zweig and, yes, Schnitzler. The Secession, Jugendstil, the Wiener Werkstatte and all of that. The Road to the Open is contemporaneous with this glorious period (it was written between 1902 and 1908, and published in the same year that Klimt completed Danae) and shows us something we likely always knew: There is no Elsewhere that can insulate us from life, no time and place where people were free from foreboding or fear for the future. At one point in the novel Heinrich speaks of anxiety as ‘a perfectly legitimate daughter of reason’ – it is a consoling thought, kind of.
The publisher’s description of The Road to the Open is here.