Dream Story, by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by JMQ Davies
Arthur Schnitzler is probably the best overlooked author I know. Dream Story is easily his most famous work partly through getting a release from Penguin Classics and partly through being the source material for Kubrick’s last-completed film Eyes Wide Shut.
Whatever your views on the film (reactions vary wildly) the book is well written, subtle and psychologically astute. This is my fourth Schnitzler and I’d be hard picked to choose a favourite from among them.
Dr Fridolin is an early 20th Century Viennese bourgeois. He’s happily married with a young daughter. The novella opens with the couple telling their little girl a bedtime story – a fable. After she’s gone to sleep Fridolin and his wife Albertine stay up and the conversation becomes intimate as each shares with the other their tales of times they were tempted outside the marriage.
Albertine talks of the shock of her attraction to a young officer she saw for a moment while on holiday with Fridolin. He in turn talks of his attraction to a young woman out bathing whom he briefly locked glances with. It’s an unwise conversation and it leaves Fridolin reeling. Even though their experiences are similar and neither acted on their feelings he sees Albertine as unfaithful.
The conversation is interrupted when Fridolin is called out for an urgent late night visit. A patient is dying and by the time Fridolin arrives it’s already too late. The dead man’s distraught daughter confesses her love for Fridolin and while he rebuffs her it sets him ricocheting through the night.
He meets a young prostitute and goes to her room but they only talk. He’s too conservative a man to do anything even though he’s adrift and feels betrayed. From there he meets an old friend at a café and learns that the man plays piano at secret bacchanals. One is to be held that very evening.
Fridolin convinces his friend to give him the password for entry to this strange ball and then rushes to get a costume. Again things become strange, erotically charged, as the costumier’s daughter proves to be a young woman with possible developmental issues who two other customers are trying to seduce. She flirts with Fridolin evidently welcoming the attention she’s able to provoke despite her father’s disapproval.
The evening is already bizarre and curiously intense but once Fridolin arrives at the ball it gets far more so. His friend had warned him that uninvited guests risked serious harm if they were discovered. Fridolin doesn’t believe him and doesn’t care. He turns up masked, gives the password, and passes within:
… Fridolin entered a dark, dimly lit, high-ceilinged room, draped with black silk hangings. Some sixteen to twenty masked revellers, all dressed in the ecclesiastical apparel of either monks or nuns, were strolling up and down. The softly resonant tones of the harmonium, playing an old Italian sacred tune, seemed to descend as if from on high. In one corner of the room stood a small group of people, three nuns and two monks, who had been looking round at him rather pointedly and then quickly turning away.
Although Schnitzler never goes into explicit details (this was written in 1926 and Fridolin anyway doesn’t get to stay that long) it’s quite plain that the party is an orgy. The women quickly become naked. The men dance with them in a frenzy. It’s a wet fever dream quite beyond anything in Fridolin’s worldview.
Of course he’s spotted and expelled. The guests act as if they plan to kill him, but one woman who sought to warn him of his danger offers herself in his place. He leaves tortured by the thought that she could now be suffering for his folly.
What though is real? The next day he retraces his steps but it all slips from grasp. Nothing seems certain or quite as he thought it was. Was he truly in danger? Did an unknown woman give her life for him? Or did some bored decadents stage a little play to frighten him off? How could he ever know?
If the events of the waking world are nebulous the dreams by contrast seem all too real. He returns to Albertine who tells him of a dream in which she slept with that officer she’d once seen. In the dream Fridolin remained faithful to her and was crucified by a mob while she said nothing to save him. Fridolin becomes lost in his own jealousy and his resentment at Albertine’s perceived betrayal. The parallels with Proust are I suspect quite intentional.
Fridolin has lost himself to passions he can neither understand nor control. He careens from sex to death with the two seeming inextricably linked. At his lowest point he finds himself in a morgue looking for bodies that could be the woman from the previous night. He saw her naked and alive; he sees a corpse that could be hers naked and dead; we are most distinctly in Freudian territory.
Fortunately for Fridolin, Albertine knows that all dreams however erotic or terrifying have this in common: we wake from them. She tells Fridolin:
‘… neither the reality of a single night nor even of a person’s entire life can be equated with the full truth about his innermost being.’
In a sense nothing has happened. Fridolin became lost but swam back to Albertine’s shore, or perhaps better to say that she swims out to him and brings him home. There is more to her than he ever dreamed and more to himself than he ever wanted to know. There are some doors which once opened may lead us places we never dreamt existed within us. Whether one should open those doors and whether Fridolin and Albertine should have is left for the reader to decide.
There’s more to be said and I suspect there are elements which are hard for a contemporary reader to pick up on. For example: Fridolin’s friend is recognisably Jewish (mostly by his accent) and was once subjected to anti-Semitic insult from another Jew. The incident is mentioned only in passing but seems significant. Is Fridolin Jewish? Could that be another reason his gatecrashing was so unwelcome? Honestly I don’t think these are questions I’m well equipped to explore. For a relatively brief novella Dream Story packs a lot in – far more than I could unpack in one blog post.
This is a tautly written book rich with uncertainty and meaning. It’s currently available in Penguin’s Pocket Classics range in a really nicely printed and bound edition so it’s the perfect time to pick it up. If you’re a regular reader of this blog this is very likely one for you.
I’d been aware of this book for ages, but it was this excellent review by Litlove that prompted me to finally read it.