Books: A Week in Books

Dr Strange Love goes to Hollywood again

Boyd Tonkin
Saturday 26 September 2015 09:02

Born in Vienna a few years after Sigmund Freud, he also studied medicine and fought early battles with the grumbling anti-Semitism of the Habsburg Empire. Freud put his fine gift for psychological narrative into case-histories; this doctor-writer frankly labelled his work as fiction or drama. Yet their shared concern with extreme states of mind ran in such close parallel that this matching pair of Viennese celebs avoided a meeting right up until the 1920s. Freud said it would be like meeting his doppelganger. No one else, after all, had depicted with such finesse the way that fantasy and reality converge in haunted human souls as we wander through life with our eyes wide shut.

Plodding movie buffs have said that Stanley Kubrick chose a weird title for the version of Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle that he seems to have wrapped up a few days before his sudden death. I thought it brilliantly apt; the kind of stroke that signalled Kubrick's acute sensitivity to literary sources that stretched from Nabokov to Thackeray to Stephen King. Quite how his camera will trace that porous boundary between longing and living in Schnitzler remains to be seen. Suffice to say that heavy-breathing interest in Cruise and Kidman's escapades may prove to be a trifle literal- minded.

At any rate, Schnitzler's name now seems in almost better shape in Freud's. Check, for example, the eerie regularity of the scandals prompted by his erotic daisy-chain, Reigen. He wrote the play in 1900, to the outrage of all right-thinking burghers. As the Max Ophuls classic La Ronde, the 1950 film gave a silken come-on to the first hints of postwar permissiveness. Then, in the century's dying months, David Hare's The Blue Room had critics gushing over "theatrical Viagra". Dr Schnitzler does keep his finger on our pulse.

Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics will issue an edition of the Dream Story in the summer to greet Eyes Wide Shut. But readers need not wait until then for a fresh fix from its ageless author. Angel Books has released Schnitzler's Selected Short Fiction in a strong new translation by J M Q Davies (pounds 8.95). The translation matters a lot, as Schnitzler's fiction pioneered the use of inner monologues in voices that closely match the speaker's mind and role. In the tragic stream-of-consciousness Fraulein Else, Joyce seems to shake hands with Freud as a doomed society girl succumbs to male sexual hypocrisies. For that sad jobsworth Lieutenant Gustl, on the other hand, pompous bigotry mingles with a comic pathos that turns him into an Austro-Hungarian ancestor of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads.

So Schnitzler's swirling waltz of love, death and delusion looks set fair to play through its second fin-de-siecle. One silly, self-dramatising type is even described as having "rolled his eyes and comically assumed the melodramatic tone of a Lewinsky" - Josef, that is, a famous ham on the Vienna stage. Now there's a clue for avid genealogists.

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