For a long time now I’ve felt judged by the stacks of books that have sat on my desk and bedside table, expectant; unread; gathering allergy-inducing dust. A once Matilda-like appetite for literature was quashed, I think, by a decades-worth of university and the directed/instrumentalised kind of reading it requires, as well as by the mushrooming of my interest in cinema—which gradually became the default story-telling medium I turned to for comfort and edification, even as I continued to accrue books (many cast-off or foolishly ‘loaned’ to me by friends), ever optimistic, or maybe just in denial, as to their fate once in my possession.
In the disconcertingly ill-defined period following the completion of my PhD, however—a bright, blank new year stretching out before me—I resolved to make a habit of recreational reading again. Also, my boyfriend broke up with me—an unrelated occurrence, but one that meant I was about to have a lot more time to myself in the evenings than I was used to. So it seemed like a better time than most to get back on the wagon, as it were. Equipped with a suite of recommendations, many conveniently accompanied by the books themselves being pressed into my hands (amongst them Gone Tomorrow by Gary Indiana; The Purloined Clinic by Janet Malcolm; My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh; Exquisite Pain by Sophie Calle—I promise they’ll be returned to their trusting, rightful owners), I chose to read the one that had just been given to me by my newly-minted ex first—because I’m a masochist, and because it was short.
That book, novella rather, was Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle—or Dream Story in the disappointingly prosaic English. Published in 1926, it would come to serve as the basis of Stanley Kubrick’s final film, the psychosexual bourgeois odyssey Eyes Wide Shut (though the auteur would choose to transpose the action from early twentieth century Vienna to late twentieth century New York City; from Fasching, Austria’s wintry carnival season, to Christmas)—so my ex tells me when he registers the non-recognition on my face after I prise open the butchers paper in which he’d wrapped it. We’re sitting in Carlton Gardens saying our official goodbyes (preparing to block each other on social media—because the best way to achieve self-control is to outsource it), when he presents me with the package: a belated birthday gift he’d purchased months back, before the break-up; now, in its aftermath, saddled with an additional, very different set of connotations.
I pick up the elegant hardback, which is bound in mint green cloth dulled by age. Opening it to a random page, I’m greeted by a justified block of German—a language I do not know. ‘It’s not for reading,’ my ex offers. (I think about this statement a lot; my instinctual discomfort with the idea of a purely decorative book—for me, evocative of the glossy magazine images of Goop Paltrow’s obnoxiously curated book collection—at odds with the fact of a personal library that has for years functioned primarily as such.) He tells me that this copy of Traumnovelle is a first edition, and therefore something of a rarity: as an Austrian Jew concerned with plumbing the murky, unfiltered depths of human psychology (not unlike his contemporary Freud), Schnitzler’s work was prime fodder for the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s.
‘S. Fischer Verlag / Berlin / 1926’ affirms the titlepage, opposite an angular, impressionistic etching of a masked man in repose—a representation of the novella’s unheroic protagonist in the costume he dons to crash a masquerade ball that turns out to be peopled exclusively by members of a sinister and debauched aristocratic sect. At least that’s what I assume as I gaze into the blank eyes of the illustration, based on what happens in the movie.
The butchers paper package also contains another book: a crisp paperback of the English translation by J. M. Q. Davies. Spread across the cover is a sea of serene faces and bare breasts swathed in a mass of vibrant orange patchwork, taken from a Gustav Klimt painting. I deduce that this choice of image is a gesture towards Schnitzler’s place in the decadent, artistically fertile milieu of fin-de-siècle Vienna, as well as to the extramarital sexual exploits—real and dreamt—that grip both the protagonist and his wife throughout the 36 or so hours over which the story unfolds. This copy is for reading; this is the one I read.
Schnitzler’s prose—by way of Davies—is direct; almost brusque, and I find myself marvelling at how effortless it feels despite the density of the narrative, which follows the good doctor Fridolin on his increasingly sleep-deprived, proto-Pynchonian, travails between home and work, work and home, via coffeehouses, hotels, the apartments of a patient and a beguiling young sex worker, a costume shop, the morgue, and, natürlich, the climactic masked ball. A well-heeled peripatetic, he’s in search of a balm for an ego wounded by his wife Albertine’s provocative confession of an infatuation with another man, finding in each new locale either mystery or temptation, or both. I struggle to square the two hour and thirty-nine minute runtime of Eyes Wide Shut, which, as I read Dream Story, is revealed to be a largely faithful adaptation; certainly more faithful in spirit than Fridolin and Albertine are to each other, with the book’s page count, which clocks in at just shy of 100.
Sans judgment but not a sharp sense of irony, Schnitzler (who pursued medicine before the written word) dissects the institution of monogamy, revealing a heady mix of tenderness, lust, jealousy, and spite jostling for cover beneath the umbrella term that is love. Apparently, the film was criticised for dealing in an overly old-fashioned conception of hetero coupledom. I think maybe it’s less old-fashioned than simply unfashionable, however; the crude powerplay between Tom Cruise’s Bill Harford and Nicole Kidman’s Alice, like that of their literary counterparts, is easy to position as unenlightened within the context of a culture that generally wants to be way less possessive and more progressive, more chill, when it comes to relationships. But personally, I find the book’s matter-of-fact take on the wild oscillations of the mind and heart resonant and strangely comforting, as someone who, like Fridolin, is wont to suspect a loved one who says that an awful or embarrassing version of me appeared in a dream they had. (Because, as Fridolin notes, ‘No dream […] is altogether a dream.’)
I don’t know if my ex read the book before giving it to me; sitting there in the park, suffused with the sorrow that attends goodbyes, it didn’t occur to me to ask. In fact, I only remember having ever spoken to him about the film once, some time ago, and only cursorily—he told me that he hadn’t seen it, and I told him that I thought he’d like it. It was one of the innumerable films we had offhandedly agreed to watch together, but never actually did. Last September he messaged me to say that he was watching it, but for whatever reason his message—’holy shit its so good!’—was as far as the conversation ever went. The gift of Traumnovelle / Dream Story, which would have served as an invitation to finally debrief on the subject, to achieve the release of digging into a shared enthusiasm, became instead a physical reminder of conversations with him that would be left unfinished, or un-had.
I read the paperback in bed over the course of a few nights, and each night before sleeping I lazily lay it to rest atop the pillow beside my own—unconsciously mirroring the placement of Fridolin’s masquerade mask in the book’s final pages, the early-morning discovery of which moves him at once to confess the entirety of his misadventures to his wife, asleep beside the tainted object.
Keva York is a New York-born, Melbourne-based writer and film critic, whose work has been published by The Lifted Brow, The Monthly, and the ABC. She’s very happy to have recently completed her doctorate on the directorial work of Crispin Glover.