"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 17, 2012

"Dream Story" (1926) by Arthur Schnitzler (The Art of the Novella 7)

Arthur Schnitzler is unfortunately not such a familiar name today, but his Dream Story (Traumnovelle, 1925/26) could well ring a bell with many readers: Stanley Kubrick based his film Eyes Wide Shut on this novella. Film fans may also know other stories and plays by Schnitzler. Most famously, Ophuls filmed his "notorious" play Reigen as La Ronde in 1950.

Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) was an Austrian playwright and novelist with Jewish roots. He was a practicing medical doctor (although he later dedicated all his time to writing), deeply interested in psychology, but also a bon-vivant of the latter days of the Austrian Empire, and in his day a very famous playwright. Schnitzler's  themes are the eternal ones of love and death. Although he was not a follower of Freud, he knew Freud well and in his work we see a great interest in dream psychology. That is of course also the case, as the title announces, in one of Schnitzler's masterworks, Dream Story.

A married couple, a bourgeois Viennese doctor, Fridolin, and his wife Albertine, discover that they are both subject to repressed longings. They disclose experiences to each other which almost led to sexual encounters with another partner. The wife also tells about a strange erotic dream she had. Upset by the fear to loose control of the faithfulness of his wife, Fridolin develops an angry mood that also has an erotic component.

On one and the same night Fridolin three times flirts with dangerous sexual adventures. The daughter of a patient who has just died hysterically confesses she is in love with him (next to the body of her dead father!), but he refuses her advances. [He probably also misunderstands her, interpreting his own need into her words - all she wants is probably a comforting, fatherly hug.] A young prostitute lures him to her room, but afraid of sexual disease, he only talks to her. Then, in a cafe, he happens to meet an old acquaintance, who earns his bread as third-rate pianist at various parties. The pianist has been invited to play at a private orgy, where all participants have to wear masks (not so strange, anyway, as it is Carnival time). Fridolin is eager to participate in this mysterious adventure and quickly obtains a costume and mask and the pianist tells him the password.

At the nude ballroom dance party, he meets a beautiful woman who wears a mask but nothing else - and he realizes he is willing to cheat on his wife with this wonderful woman. He notices her ravishingly long black hair. But before anything can happen between them, some men disclose him as a gatecrasher. About to be punished, the masked woman he was interested in, offers to take his penalty upon herself. Then Fridolin is allowed to escape.

The next day Fridolin searches for the house where the orgy took place, but he finds no trace of the beautiful woman. However, in the hospital he asks a colleague to show him the latest dead. There he sees the body of a woman with beautiful hair who has died of poisoning - but Fridolin is not entirely sure this is the woman he saw at the party as he never laid eyes on her face.

Finally, Fridolin confesses his adventure (or was it a dream?) to Albertine. Instead of endangering the marriage, the confession works as a catharsis. They both start to understand each other from a new basis.

Dream Story is situated between conscious and unconscious, between dream, fantasy and reality. Although Schnitzler writes in an objective style, he also exposes the motivation and psychological development of Fridolin and Albertine, and at the same time he manages to impart a mysterious, sometimes even surrealistic atmosphere to his Dream Story.

Essay (German) about Dream Story.
Schnitzler's works are not anymore in copyright and can be read freely on the web: Dream Story (in German); page linking to other works by Schnitzler (all in German); Gutenberg also has some English translations (unfortunately, not of Dream Story). In book form, three volumes with novellas have been published by Rowman & Littlefield (Dream Story is included in Night Games) as well as by Pushkin Press. In addition, Dream Story has been published by Green Integer Books. Amazon pages with Schnitzler works.