“Fridolin opened his eyes as wide as he could, put his hand to his cheek and brow, and felt his pulse. Scarcely above normal. Everything was fine. He was scarcely awake.”
“Dream Story” is a novella about the consequences of allowing a partial amount of honesty into lives that are otherwise founded on dishonesty. It is described as “exploring the dark tangled roots of human sexuality”. And it indeed does so, though its interpreters don’t take the book a step further into realizing the basic message of the book: we can’t do without equivocation. It is woven into the basic fabric of our lives. When the main character gives of his assigned role as a bourgeois doctor, he nearly loses his life. This was the pessimistic gist of the life work of Schnitzler’s contemporary, Freud,that we have to achieve an uncomfortable equilibrium between our longing and the strictures of social life, in “Civilization and its Discontents”.
The translation of “Dream Story” by J.M.Q. Davies lives up to the solid standard set by the pale green Penguin editions that are so much the mainstay of an intellectual diet in the English speaking world now. The only unfortunate aspect of the translation was the decision to keep what are, presumably, the names of the characters in the original German. “Fridolin”, the principle character, sounds like a brand of potato chip. And his wife, with the even worse moniker “Albertine”, suffers from the affect English readers get when they see the feminine form of a name they are only used to seeing the masculine version of. This makes her seem like a cookie, or a butch aunt. None of which is, again presumably, intended by the story. Keeping the names of the setting in Vienna makes sense, but why not finish the radical move of translation and just call them “Jack” and “Sarah” and save the reader a resonance not contained in the original. In any case, the story still works once the funny names are gotten over.
The inciting incident begins immediately in the story when a husband and wife decide to be perfectly honest with each other about their sexual proclivities. There is something cinematic in the flashback quality of their recollections. It can be seen why this novella lent itself well to the sensibilities of Ophul & Kubrick. For Albertine the scene of betrayal happens on a trip the couple took to Scandinavia, where, true to the cliché, she had found it impossible to resist being emotionally overcome by the allure of a man in uniform. While for Fridolin, the emotional infidelity of his confession involved an episode with a barely nubile girl walking by the sea. Again these erotic details are all very beautifully chosen by Schnitzler. Also accurate is the immediate corrosive effect they have on the marriage of Albertine and Fridolin. They can no longer countenance one another. Not so much perhaps for having the cravings which at some level they must have recognized, but for admitting to those longings and thereby damaging the veneer of fantasy so necessary to making their marriage endurable. The aftermath of this catastrophe forms the main action of the story.
Driven out of his marital nest, now disrupted severely, Fridolin returns to the home of a dying patient. The man at last passes away and the first of series of erotic encounters befalls Fridolin. These border on the absurd for their frequency and that yet that violation of realism doesn’t disrupt the story. The pace moves fast enough and remains dreamlike enough for the suspension of disbelief to be kept up. So the granddaughter, the girl in mourning had thrown herself at Fridolin, shamelessly confessing love for him. This advance he rebuffs. Travelling back out into the streets for an encounter with a prostitute, he similarly refuses her. He takes little pride in these tests to his marital fidelity. He remains restless and wanders around the city, into a café for a fateful encounter that takes the story into a truly interesting underworld.
Something about this episode reminds the reader of a grimmer version of the theater “For Madmen Only” in Steppenwolf. The difference is that the entire episode doesn’t end with any mysticism of the self, a Jungian ideological promise of a superman to be had after the travails of self-realization.
“Curious how, seduced by words, again and again one labels and condemns people, destinies and streets through sheer idle force of habit.”
The world that Fridolin and Albertine inhabit isn’t the real world. It is more like the dream world of Kafka of the magical realistic world of Marquez. And when Fridolin delves too deeply into a part of it that is better left alone, when he starts to overturn too many rocks not meant for him, a series of threats become pronounced.
At a café Fidolin meets an old pal from school. There is a nice aside that gives the background of this misfit, one who has very ironically found his way into a domestic existence after years as a philanderer, bacchant, and Ne’er-do-well by the standards of Viennese conservatism. In any case, this friend lets Fridolin in on a secret: there is a party to be held that night for which his friend will be furnishing the piano accompaniment. All that Fridolin needs to enter this midnight realm of adventure and revelation is the password “Denmark” and a costume. (n.b. This is the country where his wife’s infidelity took place.) The episode in which Fridolin goes to secure a costume in the middle of the night, along with the digression concerning his friend’s past, are two brilliant strokes that show Schnitzler’s mastery of weaving in variations on his main thematic concern, ones that offer elements that both contrast and fit with the story. They don’t need to be there but they do so extremely well, thereby adding to the aesthetic achievement of the whole. Anyone who has tried writing knows how hard the relevant digression can be: digress enough to be interesting without spinning off into triviality and the episodic.
The main of interest of the story takes place when Fridolin enters the forbidden world of his desires. Appropriately enough he is dressed in a mask and the cowl of a monk. It is a kind of monk that he has been, in addition to a kind of monk that he must continue to be. What he finds there is everything he could ever hope for. Within the house that he has entered as an interloper he finds a sort of orgy going on, though Schnitzler’s description of it is much tamer than the one that Tom Cruise’s character encounters in “Eyes Wide Shut.” Everyone is in masks. The affair seems not only sexually arousing but tasteful enough for Fridolin to set aside his class snobbery. Here is this upperclass, clandestine affair he can indulge in a way he could not with a lower class prostitute. Of course, he is found out when he cannot give the correct second password.
Now an extremely important dynamic plays out between the master of the orgiastic ceremonies and the doctor. Fridolin, whose thoughts the narration makes us privy to, constantly thinks he can appeal to the revelers as a gentleman. Using some sort of code of honor he can demand to be admitted to the group or at least be allowed to peacefully leave. Of course, this is impossible since what Fridolin has entered is the world of the unconscious where none of the normal rules apply. In a sense, this is what he wanted to be free from the confines of. And yet as soon as it becomes too terrify for him, he flails out for safety nets like “honor” and “satisfaction” and other expectations that come with being a man of his rank in Viennese society. These are all refused. What does redeem Fridolin, however, is an act that is in itself as equally irrational as the proceedings and the punishment that is going to be meted out on his transgression. This allows the narration to enter into an important denoument.
“Am I sure? Only as sure as I am that the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime, can ever be the whole truth.”
An enigmatic woman comes forward in the den of iniquity into which Fridolin has not so inadvertently found his way. There is something of the gnostic myth in the way that even in this dark place redemption is to be found by the care of a woman. The “Helen” of this story goes unnamed. Urging Fridolin to leave, she finally offers herself to be punished in his place just at the point when he is about to be unmasked. To be unmasked in this place means doom. Then, once her word is given, a word which the master says is “always final in this place” she is led away to endure a fate left to our imagination. This is a good choice on the part of Schnitzler, a ploy that the Greek dramatists understood well. Violence left to the imagination is more brutal than anything conjured up in Texan chainsaw massacres or committed by the evil dead.
“Dream Story” at this point has achieved the height of its dramatic interest. And for this reason “Eyes Wide Shut”, wanting to preserve the intensity of climactic moment at the party, of Fridolin’s near unmasking and redemption from damnation, ends not to long after. And yet both movie and novel include the important dream sequence of Albertine, a sequence that Schnitzler incorporates into the books much longer tying up. The dream sequence of Albertine is in a sense an inversion of what happened to Fridolin at the party. Instead of being redeemed by a noble woman, in the dream Fridolin stalwartly refuses redemption in the name of fidelity to his wife. After going through a fairy tale, or Arabian Nights type of sequence in which the couple is brought together in Romantic scenario – the two are suddenly left naked. In the face of honesty or reality their marriage crumbles and Albertine dreams take the form of her unconscious desires made palpable in a way which turns the chivalric ideals of Fridolin into a joke. Even as he is at last crucified in the dream, for her sake, she cannot suppress her laughter. The ideals of her husband are absurd to her once she has been slept up into her unconscious desires. This dream sequence is quite excellently written and true to the logic of real dreams. In “The Interpretation of Dreams” Freud wrote that a writer once wrote a dream that was almost a perfect version of an authentic one, even though it was entirely a fabrication of fiction. Freud could easily have been talking about this dream of Albertine. In any case, the real life Fridolin is devastated by the dream, perhaps disturbed by its parallels with his real life experience at the party.
Fridolin goes against warnings to the contrary and tries to investigate who the mysterious woman at the party was. Of course he visits the house where it took place only to be given yet another warning, written this time, that staying this course of enquiry would be devastating. It turns out “they” know his name even. Moreover, Fridolin learns that his friend, the betrayer of the password, has been abducted by persons unknown. And he also does track down a recently deceased woman, a beautiful wealthy aristocrat, who he imagines might have been the woman who saved him. Using his connections as a doctor to the coroner’s office, there is a strange nearly necrophiliac scene at the morgue. As Fridolin looks at the corpse there is something reminiscent of Gottfried Benn’s poem about the flower found in the body of the young girl. Really now, the novel has come full circle and dealt with every element aspect of life: marriage, social class, death, sex and now this final state of cold annihilation. In spite of these grave themes, the book does end as a comedy in the classical sense. Against all odds, Fridolin and Albertine do manage to become reconciled. This happens when he decides to be perfectly honest with her once again. A better result is achieved this time, perhaps because of the dark road they’ve travelled down to reach this point. The sight of their daughter represents the hope for a more truthful life.