Friday, October 13, 2017

Arthur Schnitzler, "Dream Story"

 – e-book

Read from October 5th to 11th 2017

My rating:

In 1933, Joseph Goebbels orchestrated a Fahrenheit 451 avant la lettre, by putting on fire, in some major cities of Germany, all those books that Hitler had identified as "Jewish filth", for they were written by nonentities such as Einstein, Marx, Kafka, Freud, Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler. The last one is the least known among them and it is a pity, because his work was fresh and daring both in ideas and style for his time (the beginning of the 20th century).

Indeed, on one hand he did not hesitate to approach controversial themes like sexuality, nudity, or anti-Semitism and because of a play that would become one of his most famous, Reigen (better known under its French name, La ronde), he was labelled as a pornographer; on the other hand, he introduced the psychological analysis and the stream of consciousness to the German reader (he corresponded with Freud, exchanging information about the subconscious and the significance of dreams).

One of his most accomplished works remains Dream Story, a novella published in 1926, and written mostly in free indirect style. Its main theme, the dreamlike quality of life, seems inspired by Romanticism, but he develops it with Modernist means (such as introspection and subjectivity) adding also a Surrealistic touch by cleverly blurring the border between illusion and reality. Therefore, although the question whether we dream our lives or we truly lives them is by no means new, haunting both thinkers and artists from the beginning of time, it is however beautifully reinterpreted by the author, who mixes psychological and artistic knowledge to imagine a world just in between the two notions:

He was in a narrow street in which only a few doubtful-looking women were strolling about in a pitiful attempt to bag their game. It's phantomlike, he thought. And in retrospect the students, too, with their blue caps, suddenly seemed unreal. The same was true of Marianne, her fiancé, her uncle and aunt, all of whom he pictured standing hand in hand around the deathbed of the old Councilor. Albertina, too, whom he could see in his mind's eye soundly sleeping, her arms folded under her head—even his child lying in the narrow white brass bed, rolled up in a heap, and the red-cheeked governess with the mole on her left temple—all of them seemed to belong to another world. Although this idea made him shudder a bit, it also reassured him, for it seemed to free him from all responsibility, and to loosen all the bonds of human relationship.

Fridolin, the narrative “he”, is a young doctor who, in two days, rebuilds the world around him to look how he would like it to look, thus offering him all the excitement it otherwise lacks. In this world, he wanders the streets all night long, paying a last visit to a deceased patient whose daughter is in love with him, resisting the temptation offered by a young prostitute and ending in a house he entered by deception, where masked men and women perform strange sexual rituals and from where he escapes only because a woman he does not know but is attracted to, sacrifices herself for him. Meanwhile, his wife Albertina has a vivid dream also with sexual connotations, in which she leaves him for another man and assists impassive to the execution of her husband who preferred to die than to cheat on her, donquixotism that amuses her so much that she wakes up laughing just when Fridolin comes to bed.

There are several themes and motifs in this tiny book that could offer some reading keys: the cathartic role of the storytelling which could explain the cruel confessions (husband and wife both like to talk about their fantasies and dreams not only to relive them but also because they know they are hurtful for the other); the omnipresence of death (either explicit – news about suicides, death of patients, or implicit – the “mourning-coach” that shows the hero the way to the mysterious house), the reckless wandering (on the street, in dreams), the eternal feminine the hero searches in every alluring female (the patient daughter, the young prostitute, the naked girl on the seashore in Denmark, the masked nun in the house and of course Albertina) and the most powerful of all, the world as a stage (there is a discussion about a masquerade ball in the first pages of the novella, Fridolin disguises himself as a monk to enter the house, Albertina leaves a mask on his pillow). The description of the fancy dress store is masterfully synaesthesic, discreetly blending colours, odours, movements until the costumes become alive:

There was an odor of silk, velvet, perfume, dust and withered flowers, and a glitter of silver and red out of the indistinct darkness. A number of little electric bulbs suddenly shone between the open cabinets of a long, narrow passage, the end of which was enveloped in darkness. There were all kinds of costumes hanging to the right and to the left. On one side knights, squires, peasants, hunters, scholars, Orientals and clowns; on the other, ladies-at-court, baronesses, peasant women, lady's maids, queens of the night. The corresponding head-dresses were on a shelf above the costumes. Fridolin felt as though he were walking through a gallery of hanged people who were on the point of asking each other to dance.

Therefore, not only the line between dream and reality is blurred, but also between fiction and reality, and ultimately between life and death. No wonder the most fascinating thing to interpret is the behaviour of the couple, in which the critics saw a satire of the bourgeois family, whose hypocrisy reveals the contrast between appearance and essence: the novella opens and ends with a postcard-like image of the happy family: the voice of the little daughter reading a story in the beginning and the same voice laughing loudly behind closed doors at the end. This image of innocence is in sharp contrast with the events/ dreams of the adults in between, that betray the boredom of the parents with their life that make them take refuge in sexual fantasies which do not include the other, on the contrary, from which each one try to eliminate the other, either by cheating or by letting die.

Thus Fridolin and Albertina become a parody of the eternal couple, of the androgyne, because they only seem to unify the other antinomies: day/ night, dream/ reality, truth/ lie. In fact, the last dialogue suggests that the future will draw the couple even further apart, and they will be unable (and reluctant) to fight against it:

"What shall we do now, Albertina?"

She smiled, and after a minute, replied: "I think we ought to be grateful that we have come unharmed out of all our adventures, whether they were real or only a dream."
He was on the point of saying, "Forever," but before he could speak, she laid her finger on his lips and whispered, as if to herself: "Never inquire into the future."

In 1999, Dream Story was made into a film which I have not seen, but which has, in my opinion, a very inspired title: Eyes Wide Shut. I think I will look for it. 

P.S. At one time, one of the characters of the story, with a musical name, Nachtigall (I could speak about the sonority and significance of names but as do not know German I cannot truly say whether this one has a connection with the nightingale), declares: “I've seen a great deal in my time. It's unbelievable what one sees in such small towns, especially in Roumania…" being Romanian myself I wondered how my country would have looked then, and what could have been seen at the beginning of the 20th century, in Romania’s towns. Unfortunately, the question is not answered, but I hope not vampires. 😀

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