All I Have To Do Is Dream…

It’s time to leave the ruins of post-war Cologne now, and the German Literature Month Tour Bus is making another long journey south, this time returning to Austria over the next couple of days to peruse two classic pieces of short writing.  Yes, it would have made for a shorter trip if this stop had been scheduled after our last visit to Vienna – we apologise for the inconvenience…

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Back in August, during my own month of German-language reading, I read a couple of novellas by Arthur Schnitzler (Leutnant Gustl & Fräulein Else), psychological tales providing insights into the minds of the protagonists and the wider Austrian society alike.   I had been intending to return to Schnitzler at some point, and the current event seemed like a fitting opportunity to read one of his most famous works, Traumnovelle (Dream Novella) – perhaps best known in English for providing the basis of Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut

The story takes place over two days in late-nineteenth-century Vienna, where we meet Fridolin, a successful doctor, and his younger wife Albertine.  The couple appear at first glance to be a happily-married couple with a beautiful young daughter, but appearances, as we know, can be deceiving.  Beneath the urbane, civilised surface, both Fridolin and Albertine harbour repressed sexual desires, urges which they will attempt to satisfy in very different ways.
While the younger Albertine, sexually naive at the time of her marriage, is starting to lose herself in dreams and fantasies of other lovers, her husband is tempted to do much more.  In a night of unusual occurrences, the opportunity arrives to betray his wife and give in to his desire to experiment sexually.  However, the following day, everything is seen in a very different light…

The premise sounds risqué and highly sexually charged, and this is the impression I had before reading Traumnovelle; the truth, however, is that events are (for the most part), a lot less explicit than I had expected.  In reality, it is the possibility, the promise, of sexual activity which is tantalisingly portrayed; Schnitzler is actually far more concerned with what’s going on inside the heads of our (relatively reserved) friends than in any bedroom antics they may get up to.

Fridolin, despite all his bluster and macho bravado, actually comes across as a little boy on an awfully big adventure.  We are told most of the story through his eyes, and (naturally) the women he meets all appear to see something special in him, whether it’s the daughter of his recently deceased patient, the lady of the night he encounters or the mysterious stranger at a very exclusive party (the kind where clothing is – at least late in the evening – strictly optional…).  However, in the cold, rather wintry, light of day, his allure is not quite as obvious.

In fact, the reader is led to believe that he has no intention of philandering and is merely jealous of his wife’s nocturnal fantasies.  The couple agree at the start of the novella to be honest with each other (to a fault!), so why is Fridolin so upset with Albertine for revealing her little sexual dreams?  Well, I’m afraid I’m not qualified to go deeper into that area (especially while we’re in Vienna!), so I’ll just leave the couple where the book finishes, a little closer than they were before, but perhaps also a little farther apart.

If you want tense, ambiguous writing, with excellent descriptions of the shadowy side of Viennese culture, this is definitely one to try.  It’s a book to devour in a single sitting; just don’t expect to come away with all the answers that quickly.  I’m hoping to return to Traumnovelle for another try soon as, like Schnitzler’s other stories, it may need a second reading for the writer’s intentions to fully sink in…

7 thoughts on “All I Have To Do Is Dream…

  1. I loved this when I read it, like all of Schnitzler, his plays and stories.
    I remember I saw the movie first but the novella is quite different.
    I think a lot of what he describes, also in La Ronde is still topical, despite being rooted firmly in an era and culture he hasn't really aged.

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  2. Gary – Yes, it's all very Freudian 🙂 There is a translation (Penguin, I think), under the name of 'Dream Story', so you should check out your local (or not-so-local) library!

    Caroline – Agreed. I love what I've read of his so far. However, as with so many G-Lit writers, a lot of his output is in plays – why is G-Lit so high on dramas (as opposed to the novel-dominated Victorians)?

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  3. I've had a Schnitzler book on my shelves for ages (The Road Into the Open) and for some reason he has always sort of scared me, rather intimidated me, but maybe this is a better place to start in any case. I've not seen the movie,which sounds a little more obvious than the story.

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  4. I've read three short pieces now, and I've enjoyed them all. This one is probably easier than the other two as they are stream-of-consciousness and a little taxing on the brain (especially in a foreign language!).

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