11 September 2013
Is this any more than a bourgeois fantasy? Could it be a satirical take on the Viennese middle classes’ preoccupation with dreams between the wars, which allowed people to believe that the dullest of lives could be ravishingly rich on the inside? Why has it lasted nearly 90 years?
I’m asking these questions, and particularly the last, because so far it seems pretty thin stuff. A married couple have been to a masked ball – masks and disguises pervade the piece – and each has felt a sexual frisson brought on by the attentions of a masked stranger. Later, the woman confesses a sexual fantasy from her early life to her husband, and his own confession is a sort of riposte. Their marriage seems genuinely happy, but these small revelations seem to cause a tiny crack, or the unravelling of a seam. They both seem on the verge of admitting to something deeper when, despite the lateness of the hour, he is called away.
He’s Fridolin, a doctor, and we follow him for the next three chapters of troubling encounters. First is the patient and his daughter. His patient is already dead from a heart attack, but it’s the woman who wrong-foots him. She tells him what he’s always suspected: she loves him, despite being engaged to someone else. There’s no hint that this is a dream, beyond the book’s title and the male fantasy they appear to be playing out… but he’s becoming the hero of his own story.
Next. He doesn’t go straight home, despite the unfinished business there, but visits a prostitute. Nothing happens beyond his feeling sorry for her: her life is squalid, and as he leaves he decides to send her something next day after she refuses to be paid. So he’s still the hero.
Next comes a long chapter, Fridolin’s big adventure. The pianist at the late-opening coffee-house he visits recognises him and tells him about a secret masked ball, far too dangerous for Fridolin to gate-crash. But something about his strange conversation earlier has unsettled him, and he insists on following the closed carriage that will arrive to take the pianist, who will be blindfolded. Things are getting stranger now. Even the interlude in the fancy-dress shop is dream-like, as hanging costumes seem like corpses on gallows and a highly desirable girl – the fantasy that Fridolin had confessed to concerned a 15-year-old – is somehow threatened by two judges at a card-table. (The judges aren’t really judges, of course, as soon becomes clear.) The shop-owner tells him the girl is his mad daughter, but later he calls her ‘depraved’. Fridolin the hero insists that no harm must come to her… and leaves with a monk’s costume. There’s something about the girl’s perfume….
The secret out-of-own ball is nothing to do with Fridolin, but he fairly soon comes to be the centre of attention. Despite having been told the password – ‘Denmark’, to his surprise, it having been the location of his holiday fantasy – he is spotted, and is only saved by a friendly woman who has tried to get him to leave. There’s something ritualistic, even cabalistic about the ball. The women, having discarded their nuns’ habits, are now all naked except for their masks and pair off with the men who are still dressed as monks. Fridolin, according to the narration, isn’t taking it at all seriously, sees himself as the butt of a practical joke. But the woman assures him he’s in danger, mentions the death of a bride-to-be recently that had become a cause celebre… and as the assembled company gang up on him and insist he must unmask himself she says that she will ‘redeem’ him. He has to leave, and is taken from the house in a closed, hearse-like carriage.
Up to now I’ve decided that this is a satire on bourgeois individualism in general and the self-glorifying fantasies, centred on sex, of men in particular. Time to see where it goes next.
Chapters 5-7 – to the end
How disappointing. It doesn’t go anywhere much. Or it goes in a circle, or it goes into the world of a dream – a real dream, told to Fridolin by his wife Albertine – and then comes back again. By the end, they are a happily married bourgeois couple who have peered into some sort of abyss, and have been fortunate enough to be able to step back. The end.
In Chapter 5, Fridolin gets home to his sleeping wife, and I wonder if it’s the dream she narrates that has given this novella its notoriety. It’s full of promiscuous sex, or whatever ‘falling into his arms’ and ’embraces’ between naked people are in the original German. A running motif in the story is that of the bride-to-be – Albertine’s original confession was about a time just before they were about to be married, and the dead woman we heard about in Chapter 4 was supposedly poisoned by the secret society on the eve of her wedding – and the dream begins as a kind of fantasy honeymoon in mountains. But Fridolin, naked, has to return to the city visible miles below, to find them clothes to replace their own which have disappeared. Tell me if I’m boring you.
A young man arrives, apparently the one from her confession, and… and other stuff, leading into her falling into his arms. Soon they are surrounded by other couples embracing, and she isn’t sure whether she is only in her young man’s arms or those of others. Reader, she doesn’t even care. ‘It would be… hard to conceive of anything in conscious life that could equal the freedom, the abandon, the sheer bliss I experienced in that dream.’ And if Fridolin is finding this shocking, he hasn’t heard anything yet. She is aware of him in the city, having been imprisoned and having to face a princess – based on Albertine’s image of the girl he fantasised over in his own confession – and he faces crucifixion on the same mountain rather than be unfaithful to his new wife.
What? What? For Fridolin this reveals his wife’s true nature. Later he thinks of her willingly allowing him to be crucified as if it really happened, and he imagines their marriage to be over. The line between her dream and the reality of his own experience during the same night becomes blurred, as though her dreamed behaviour is worse than his close encounters with real infidelities. He spends the whole of the next day, and the next chapter, trying and failing to come to terms with the mysteries of the night before. The daughter of the dead patient throws herself at his feet, but he assiduously ignores her advances. The needy prostitute has been taken to hospital, so he can’t give her anything. His piano-playing friend has disappeared, escorted from his hotel by two mysterious men. And the woman of the night before? He can’t be sure when he goes to look at a body in the morgue, because of the mask she had worn, but he thinks the woman who died earlier must be her. She seemed to have poisoned herself when two men came to get her….
In other words, he never goes beyond imagined infidelities. But he still thinks his marriage is over, that there will always be an imaginary sword – another running motif – separating him and his wife in bed. But no. In the final chapter, only two pages long, Schnitzler has them coming to an understanding. When Fridolin arrives he decides to tell her of his strange night – until he begins to wonder whether it was real at all. But, wait, isn’t that strange face on the pillow actually…? Yes, it’s the mask he wore, so it must have happened. (Yawn.) And, throughout the rest of the night, he tells her everything. But now what to do?
She’s all right with it, is ‘grateful to Fate that we’ve emerged from these adventures.’ On the final page, she explains that she realises that ‘neither the reality of a single night nor of a whole life’ tells the truth about a person. So that’s all right. But his response is more ambiguous: ‘no dream… is altogether a dream.’ Does he still harbour the belief that her dream revealed something disturbing about her? Or that his own ‘dreams’ of sensuous affairs reveal something equally disturbing about him? Do we care?
Well, do we? Care? Some novels are so entrenched in their own time and place that it’s hard to think yourself into the mind-set either of the man who wrote it or the society he lived in. Both his main characters, and especially Fridolin, are treated with a kind of affectionate mockery, as though Schnitzler wants us to have some fellow-feeling both for their tribulations and their absurdities. Do we learn any universal truths about the sexual fantasies that long-established couples secretly have, the dreams and the masks that go with them? In 1920s Vienna, sensible couples will understand that these are simply part of human nature and cannot, in Albertine’s words, ‘be equated with the full truth about his innermost being.’ She leaves her husband’s mask on his pillow, as though to let him know that the time for masks is over – so long as those tricky little truths don’t lead to the kind of resentment we read all about in Chapter 1.
Have we learnt any universal truths about reality and fantasy? How about the true nature of male and female sexuality as opposed to the (literally) buttoned-up version of ourselves we have to present to the world? Is Schnitzler presenting any more than post-Freudian truisms?