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.