Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story (1926), trans. J. M. Q. Davies
What it’s about: Vienna, the 1920s. Fridolin is a doctor living a comfortable middle-class life with his wife Albertine and their young daughter. The couple attend a masked ball where they are both propositioned by strangers, inspiring them to make love when they return home. The following evening, they discuss their experiences at the ball, seeking to make each other jealous. Albertine confesses that while on holiday in Denmark the previous summer, she had a sexual fantasy about a young Danish soldier and imagined leaving her family. Fridolin admits to a similar attraction to a 15 year-old girl he met on the beach that same summer. He is called away suddenly to attend to a sick patient, who has died by the time he arrives. The patient’s daughter, Marianne, confesses to Fridolin that she loves him. Fridolin leaves and wanders the streets and is nearly attacked by a group of drunk students. He is propositioned by a young prostitute, Mizzi, who invites him to her apartment for sex, but Fridolin stops himself and leaves. He goes to a coffee house where he meets Nachtigall, his former classmate from medical school who is now a musician. Nachtigall tells Fridolin about a secret masked ball he is playing at later that night, where the female guests are naked. Fridolin persuades Nachtigall to let him come to the party, and goes to a costume shop to hire a mask and cloak. The shop proprietor, Herr Gibiser, has a teenaged daughter who appears to be having sex with two men. Nachtigall reveals the password for the party – Denmark – and Fridolin follows him to a townhouse. Fridolin gains admittance and discovers masked guests dressed as priests and nuns dancing together, and men having sex with naked women. A masked woman warns Fridolin to leave. He ignores her, but is exposed as an interloper and forced to take off his mask. The woman reappears, declaring that she will sacrifice herself for him, and he reluctantly leaves. He returns home, hiding the mask and cloak. Albertina wakes up and describes her dream: while having sex with the Danish soldier, she looked on as Fridolin was tortured and crucified. Fridolin is disgusted, taking this as evidence of his wife’s treachery, and resolves to revenge himself on her by pursuing his sexual temptations. The next day, Fridolin learns that Nachtigall has been taken away by two men. He returns his costume, where Herr Gibiser offers him his daughter for sex. He returns to the townhouse, but before he can enter, a servant brings him a letter addressed to him by name, warning him to give up his investigations. He visits Marianne, confident that she will be pleased to see him, but she is cold and unresponsive. Fridolin searches for Mizzi but is unable to find her. He reads in a newspaper that a young woman has been poisoned, and concludes that she was the woman who saved him at the party. He visits the morgue and asks to see the body of the dead woman, but cannot identify it. He returns home to find his wife asleep, and his party mask set on the pillow on his side of the bed. When she wakes, Fridolin weeps, and confesses all of his activities, while she listens quietly. He asks “What shall we do?” She responds calmly that they should be grateful to have emerged safely from their adventures, whether real or dreamed, and not to inquire into the future. They fall asleep, waking to a sunny morning and the laughter of their daughter in the next room.
Why it’s a classic: “I write of sex and death,” Schnitzler once said in an interview. “What else is there?” Schnitzler was a minor celebrity in early 20th-century Vienna, a playwright and novelist whose sexually infused narratives seemed a perfect fit for a languid, sophisticated and decadent former empire teetering between two world wars. His 1903 play Reigen (La Ronde in its French translation), a series of interlocking scenes between pairs of lovers, was ferociously criticised and eventually banned, and Schnitzler was condemned as a Jewish pornographer bent on corrupting polite society. He died in 1931, just before the rise of Hitler, who ordered that his “decadent” work be burned. Schnitzler’s work wasn’t rediscovered until the 1950s and 1960s, with film versions of La Ronde by Max Ophüls and Roger Vadim, and again in the late 1990s, when Nicole Kidman starred in back-to-back productions of two adaptation of his works: David Hare’s play The Blue Room, a contemporary reworking of La Ronde; and Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut, based on Dream Story, and co-starring her then-husband Tom Cruise. It’s now impossible to read Dream Story without picturing Tom and Nicole as the husband and wife – partially due to the voyeuristic spectacle of watching a deeply weird celebrity couple playing at being “normal” versions of themselves, but also because Kubrick’s film gets Schnitzler’s witty, ironic and mordant tone so exactly right.
Schnitzler was a contemporary of Freud, who wrote to Schnitzler “you have learned through intuition – although actually as a result of sensitive introspection – everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons”. Both men shared an interest in the unconscious and dreams, and viewed sexuality as an atavistic, uncontrollable force with the potential to unravel sophisticated society. Dream Novel is, arguably, one of the first psychoanalytic novels – a tale of sexual guilt and fantasy that eats away at the protagonist’s settled notions of himself, an odyssey into an erotic underworld that may or may not be real, and a narrative structure that follows the strange logic of dreams but refuses to reveal its secrets. Fridolin’s adventures are an extended dance between what Freud called Eros and Thanatos – the libido or life force locked in combat with the human attraction to death. The death of Fridolin’s patient prompts “a shudder of revulsion” as he reflects how “in compliance with eternal laws, corruption and decay had already set to work” in the man’s dead body. This fear of death permeates the narrative, hovering over Fridolin’s sexual encounters. “This could also end in death“, Fridolin thinks, when meeting Mizzi, “only not quite so quickly“. When he recoils from Mizzi in bed, her response has the cool cynicism of one who regularly dances with death: “One never knows, sooner or later it’s bound to happen. You’re quite right to be afraid. And if anything were to happen, you would curse me.” Nachtigall’s covered coach that takes him to the party is described “like a hearse” and again, Fridolin’s life seems to be in danger when he comes close to sexually indulging himself. “My way lies forward,” he tells himself, “even were it to my death” – a death that is imagined, or perhaps foreshadowed in Albertine’s violent dream. Later, he is “suddenly and irresistibly drawn” to view the dead woman’s corpse, and is driven by some unseen power to touch her, “intertwining his fingers with the dead woman’s as if to fondle them.” It’s never clear whether Fridolin’s explorations are an attempt to defeat his fears by fucking the pain away (as is possibly the case for Marianne) or subconscious forces luring him towards his own death.
Despite this potentially grim subject-matter, Dream Story is an extraordinarily fun read, deftly and wittily narrated by an omniscient narrator who observes Fridolin from a mocking, ironic distance. Schnitzler’s scrupulously realist language keeps us continually guessing as to whether Fridolin is dreaming or awake (he is frequently described as having moved into a remote and unfamiliar world), and by the end of the novel, we’re no clearer than he is as to exactly what has happened. That said, the narrative distance from Fridolin allows the reader a sadistic kind of pleasure in watching him try and fail to apply his powers of reason to an unsolvable puzzle. Again and again, he tries to cast himself in the role of hero of his own narrative – “I feel that I have found my destiny“, he announces to the masked guests at the party, “and I want to tell you my name, to remove my mask and to take all the consequences on myself” – but again and again, he’s denied any understanding or agency of his situation.
By the novel’s conclusion, Fridolin is an existential wreck: “[H]e again had the sense that all this order, balance and security in his life were really an illusion and a lie”…. “Everything seemed to be slipping from his grasp; everything was becoming increasingly unreal, even his home, his wife, his child, his profession, his very identity“, which is much, much funnier than it normally would be. By placing us just a fraction ahead of Fridolin in terms of self-awareness, we’re treated to the enjoyment of watching his failure, without the need for too much close identification with him. There’s a similarly delicious sense of schadenfreude in watching Fridolin, a would-be alpha male who fantasises about living a double life as a “profligate, seducer and cynic“, trying and repeatedly failing to ensnare the various women who present themselves to him. Though it’s a stretch to describe Dream Novel as a feminist narrative, there’s a world-weary knowledge accorded to Albertine and the other women, and a narrative self-awareness about sexual double standards between men and women that gives the story a vaguely feminist edge.
Bouquet or Brickbat: Bouquet. I’ve been off on something of a romp recently with 19th century fin-de-siecle novellas about sexual decadence among the monied classes (see my recent posts on Venus in Furs and The Picture of Dorian Gray), but Dream Story is the most enjoyable and satisfying from a narrative and literary perspective. Schnitzler’s prose, as translated by J. M. Q. Davies, is lean, precise and dryly funny, and he manages to create a plausible atmosphere of nightmarish dread within a realist narrative. Some of the sexual intrigue is quite dated, and Schnitzler’s descriptions of the masked party are tame by modern standards – something Kubrick “corrected” in his film, which featured a full-blown orgy sequence (which was, ironically, censored when it was screened in American cinema). What’s most memorable, and what gives Dream Story its place as a classic, is Schnitzler’s decidedly modern and cynical view of marriage as an agreed-upon state of mutual denial. Despite all the fears of death and disease and descriptions of violence, there’s nothing more terrifying than Fridolin lying next to his wife in bed: “[H]e avoided touching her. As if there was a sword between us, he thought…. They both lapsed into silence and lay there with eyes open, each sensing the other’s closeness and remoteness.” Albertine’s final dictum, “Never inquire into the future” is a blade of ice in the heart, a cynical but perhaps realistic acknowledgment that it’s dangerous to have too much knowledge of our own desires, and that “the full truth” of our “innermost being” and of those whom we love will always be unreachable.
“Yet this light banter about the trivial adventures of the previous night led to more serious discussions of those hidden, scarcely admitted desires which are apt to raise dark and perilous storms in even the purest, most transparent soul; and they talked about those secret regions for which they hardly felt any longing, yet towards which the irrational winds of fate might one day drive them, if only in their dreams.”
‘Are you quite sure of that?’ he asked.
‘As sure as I am of my sense that 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.’
‘And no dream,’ he sighed quietly, ‘is altogether a dream.’