Books: An X-rated spa resort

Beatrice and Her Son by Arthur Schnitzler translated by Shaun Whiteside Penguin pounds 5.99

Arthur Schnitzler was born in Vienna in 1862 and died there in 1931. His life, fiction and theatrical works, which include the sexually charged chamber piece, La Ronde, are deeply rooted in that city where his family resided among the prosperous, upper-bourgeoisie (his father was a renowned throat specialist). Schnitzler has recently received a measure of notoriety thanks to his being Stanley Kubrick's favourite bedtime reading and his novella, Dream Story, the inspiration behind Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut.

But young Arthur was intended for a career in medicine, and qualified as a doctor in 1885. Always interested in new ideas, he specialised in psychiatry, experimenting with hypnosis, and some scholars believe he anticipated some of Freud's theories. Perhaps he felt he could explore these theories of psycho-sexual development better in literature, because he eventually abandoned his private practice to devote himself to writing. And everything he wrote is imbued with a repressed sexual energy battling against conventional mores.

Beatrice and Her Son (1913) is such a work, and a masterpiece of erotic suggestion. Frau Heinold is the widow of a flamboyant actor, and, when the novel opens, is holidaying with her 17-year-old son, Hugo, in a spa resort. The opening pages display all the classic symptoms of a steamy, X-rated novella; the summer heat is oppressive, and Beatrice feels ill at ease with her son's increasing maturity. Especially since a glamorous actress (and former colleague of Herr Heinold) with a shady reputation is living nearby. It seems everyone is conspiring to disturb the smooth surfaces of Beatrice's life. When she reflects on her late husband it is with the unwelcome realisation that her happiness in their marriage was not entirely wholesome, "because, in the depths of night when his face had darkened before her, he had always meant someone else to her, someone new - because in his arms she was the lover of King Richard and Cyrano and Hamlet and all the other roles he played".

The arrival of Hugo's old schoolfriend, the handsome Fritz with his bristling moustache, confirms the overwhelming intimations of suppressed longings, and the inevitable dangerous liaison ensues. In Schnitzler's work manifestations of desire are sudden and brutal; Beatrice is transformed from a respectable widow into a femme fatale, and on another level, from a concerned to a seductive mother.

Schnitzler climaxes brilliantly, with a heady scene of primal drama that contains enough psychological ambiguities to keep a clinic full of psychoanalysts busy drawing inferences from this intimate, warped bond between mother and son.

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