Dream Story

Years ago I saw the film Eyes Wide Shut directed by Stanley Kubrick. It was a dreadful film, publicised on the fact that Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise were playing husband and wife whilst actually being married. Quite what insight anyone thought might be available into their real life identities, I’m not sure. Film is all about the visual surface; it struggles to imply further, invisible dimensions. And that’s probably why it was a poor adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella, Dream Story, for the dominant feature of the book is the way it plays with the idea of the parable at all sorts of cunning levels. A parable is a story that says one thing, while meaning something altogether different. It is literature’s cleverest and most baffling device. And dreams are a perfect example of this – for the ‘manifest content’ of the dream, its plot, has very little to do with the ‘latent content’ of the dream, or what it’s about. The dream work is all about disguise, subterfuge, misdirection, the recognition that what you see is not what you get, and that human beings are icebergs – only the smallest uppermost portion is visible, whilst unguessed-at structures lie deep beneath.

It’s a moment of unguarded revelation that kicks off Schnitzler’s novella. Fridolin is a reasonably well-to-do doctor in Vienna, and one night, he and his wife, Albertine, exchange intimate confidences. She confesses a strong physical attraction to a Danish military officer she glimpsed in the hotel on holiday, he confesses to a similar attraction for a young woman in a bathing suit who seemed first to welcome his gaze but ultimately sent him away. Whilst neither of these adventures had any kind of real outcome, Fridolin’s narcissism is deeply wounded, his jealousy retrospectively provoked. Depite the proximity of marriage, husband and wife still have their separate lives, in which all manner of erotic temptation might occur.

These feelings seem to set off a chain of encounters over the course of the night that follows for Fridolin. Called out to a dying patient, he is surprised when the daughter of the deceased makes passionate advances to him. On the street, he bumps into an attractive young prostitute, but fear of disease and insecurity prevent him taking any action. In a coffee house he meets an old acquaintance, Nachtigall, who tells him he will be playing piano at a private orgy that night. His curiosity aroused, Fridolin prises the password out of Nachtigall and determines to follow him. He goes to find a costume to wear, and is surprised again when the daughter of the costumier flirts with him. The pent-up erotic energy of the evening reaches a culmination at the masked party. There he meets a woman with whom, unlike the others, he feels genuine desire. But recognising him as an intruder, she warns him away. Fridolin is determined to have her, but he is shortly accosted by other party-goers and told to leave. Fridolin offers to unmask himself and take whatever punishment might be his due, but the woman steps in and offers herself as a sacrifice in his stead. Fridolin is kicked out and driven away, his conscience heavy, his desire unsated.

When he gets home, he wakes Albertine who tells him about a complicated dream she has been having, one in which she has been with the Danish military officer and laughed to see poor Fridolin crucified. As might be expected, Fridolin is none too happy about this. His sense of injury is magnified by his night of might-have-beens, and he feels that his marriage must end.

The next day, Fridolin retraces his steps, and finds that the glamour and magic of the previous night now reveals its sordid underside. He cannot work up any desire for the daughter of his dead patient, the prostitute is in the hospital, the costumier’s daughter is a whore, and at the mansion where the party was, he is handed a note telling him to go away and never return. The culmination of this negative energy, this entropy, is when he reads in the newspaper about a woman who has taken poison and believes it to be his saviour from the orgy. He goes to the morgue, views the dead body, cannot decide whether she is the same woman or not. But the message to the reader is clear; underneath the scintillating energy of the erotic lies the death drive, what lifts Fridolin to a point of maximum vivacity now takes him down to the darkest depths of death.

Once more he returns home in the small hours of the night, to find that the mask he forgot to return with his costume is lying on his pillow beside the sleeping form of Albertine. Fridolin is overcome with emotion, and his sobs wake his wife. He now recounts to her his adventures and she accepts them easily and kindly and this act of grace soothes Fridolin completely. Husband and wife reach a new understanding, although what it is they understand is a mystery. It wouldn’t be a parable if we knew. Wise Albertine, who seems to have kept the upper hand across this narrative tells her husband:

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.’

So we are back to icebergs again, the acknowledgement that the most powerful things that happen to us are often divorced from any kind of explanation, and uncertain as to what effect they have on the soul. There is what happens, and what it means, there are the things we do and who we are, and the one is always made of radically different stuff to the other, the relationship between them enigmatic but potent. Sexuality is the clearest example of this, as it is the place where we are most uniquely ourselves, and both unknowable and inexplicable. It is where the world can open up to us, tender and thrilling, and where it can turn its coldest, most hurtful back. And it is a place of beauty and magic, yet also the realm of the sordid and the deathly.

This was an excellent novella, neat, powerful and with such a contemporary feel. Don’t bother with the film, but read the book instead.

For German Literature Month

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25 thoughts on “Dream Story

  1. I actually rather liked the film and felt that it did have some interesting layers and misdirection. It kept me off-kilter the way Kubrick’s films always tend to. I only learned a few days ago that it was based on a novella, and your review has made me very interested to read the original.

    • Teresa, I’d love to know what you make of the novella, and how you feel it relates to the film. I probably had too many hopes for the film when I saw it – nothing is worse than a high level of expectation in the approach to art! It would be interesting to see it again having read the original now, I think.

  2. Schnitzler is an amazing author and I’m only beginning to see how amazing he realy is. And his writing hasn’t aged one day. I like this novella a geat deal BUT
    Kubrick is one of the greatest film makers ever and I would say Eyes Wide Shut is just another example of his amazing talent. The fact that the media focussed on Kidman/Cruise’s being married just showed how the media works. Like in all of his major films, Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket he shows how the individual is crushed by society. He isn’t a film director who strives for adaptation of a book, he is inspired by it and turns it into something completely independent. Someone else might have turned this into a period piece but that’s not Kubrick. He doesn’t do Merchant-Ivory productions.

    • Caroline, always good to read an impassioned defense of any artist, and I realise that this is the only film by Kubrick I’ve ever seen. It may make more sense to someone who knows what Kubrick wants to do when he makes a film and understands his visual language, as it were. Plus, I am generally not really a film person, as awfully damning as that may be! I pretty much always get more out of books. But if the occasion arises, I’ll watch another Kubrick film with more attention to detail!

      • Your reaction was quite interesting because I understood Kubrick better all of a sudden. Sometimes we wfeel something about a director or writer but couldn’t put it into words. Now I can. :)
        It would be very hard to find a Kubrick which would appeal to you, I’d say he isn’t your type of director at all. He’s much more interested in pictures and the symbolism behind and very strong images which can haunt you. Dialogue and character development are not his main concern that’s why his adaptation of Schnitzler’s novella, such an intensely psychological work, didn’t appeal to you. But that is precisely why I like Kubrick, because he uses his medium to the fullest and what we have is not a pure adaptation of a book.

  3. I had two mishaps commenting this morning both comments got “eaten” so I pressed very quickly without thanking you for the participation. Plus I And carried away by your opening lines.

  4. I thought you related parable to our dreams and to our lives, a parable in which we are both protoganist and reader, beautifully. Over time, as if with eyes adjusting to a darkened room, it does seem that we can peer further into those depths, but perhaps that’s just another mis-direction. Anyway, thanks for another fascinating review, wonderfully told.

    • Lokesh, bless you as always for your kindness and encouragement. I think that ultimately, the peering is always worthwhile, and the misdirection intriguing. There is always something to be gained.

  5. As good as Schnitzler’s short fiction is, this novella was easily the highlight. He broke out of his own fictional system – the dream aspect, taking both the wife’s actual dream and the “lived” dream seriously – this was something original.

    • Tom, love the way you bring together the actual dream and the ‘lived’ dream – that’s a very good thought there. You’ve read more Schnitzler than I have, so glad to know you think this one is the highlight. I’ll willingly take your word for that.

  6. I want to read this, thanks for the thoughtful review.

    As a French, I’m a bit distracted by the names. I’m sorry but when I read Albertine, I think Proust and when you write about her husband being eaten by jealousy, I think Proust again.
    And a Fridolin in French is another word for Boche, so it’s not exactly positive.

    • Emma, oh goodness! I wonder how many books are ruined in translation by unfortunate names? I admit I thought of Albertine, too, but that allusion to Proust wasn’t a problem to me – it added to the atmosphere of jealousy and insecurity in this particular story. The evocation of the Boche would be a lot more unfortunate, however!

  7. I never knew Eyes Wide Shut is the film adaptation of Dream Story. As much as I admire Stanley Kubrick’s other works, I’ve avoided seeing this one… don’t know why. Your succinct analysis of the shortfall of the film is most insightful.

    Have you seen Death in Venice the film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s short story/novella? I saw the film but haven’t read the literary source yet. Would like to see what you think of that adaptation.

    And I must tell you this, last night I watched on TV your favourite Woody Allen movie (I remember you mentioned once) Bullets Over Broadway. What a hilarious film, just proves what a genius Allen is. I’m sure you know he’s nominated for an Oscar for directing and writing it, and that Dianne Wiest won the Oscar for her role. Sorry not really commenting on Dream Story, but thanks just the same for your insights and analysis!

    • Arti, I am SO glad you enjoyed Bullets Over Broadway! I love that film so much, I’m delighted that it pleased you! I haven’t seen Death in Venice though – is there a particular adaptation you were thinking of, by which I think I’m asking if there’s more than one? I will have to look it up. Interesting, though to know you are also a fan of Stanley Kubrick. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a film of his thinking: this is a Kubrick film. Even Eyes Wide Shut I watched without holding this idea in my head. I should watch something else by him (though probably not Full Metal Jacket!).

      • I think his 2001: A Space Odyssey is brilliant and The Clockwork Orange is good, albeit uncomfortable to watch. So I can’t say I’m a ‘fan’ of his works, but, maybe just appreciate. Death in Venice I only watched the film and found it stylish but kind of ‘absurd’. That’s why I ordered the book but haven’t read it yet.

  8. Too late! I saw the film long ago and can’t say that I found it all that interesting. The novella, however, does sound interesting and much much better than the movie.

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  12. I entirely agree with you about Dream Story! Luckily I never saw the film that Kubrick made of it…
    Schnitzler is such an important Austrian author – as good at plays as at novellas. His sensitiveness is amazing. You should read his novellas about female protagonists: ‘Fräulein Else’, ‘Berta Garlan’, ‘Beate and her son’. You wouldn’t believe that it was a man who wrote them.

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