One wakes up on a soft silk pillow each morning after long hours

spent in nightmare, the other wakes up on soiled bed linen in a rented bed after a night of sweetness. They each know things through the experience of the other, but this awareness is a curse. They are each pursued by knowledge of the other. Eventually, the two personalities representing the opposite poles of the same person move closer together and Elemér is dragged down, following more closely the movements of his loathsome twin. He keeps his nightmares secret because his fear is that this other night-time self is as much him as the person he is thought to be. He wants to escape from his family, feeling himself tainted and responsible for the darkness he is sure dwells within. Finally, he knows, they must come face to face — ‘It was only then that I realised that the enemy we carry in ourselves is unconquerable. Man can be master over everything except his own thoughts…’

On the run from his family in Italy, he roams purposelessly, giving himself over to his baser passions. Her name is Sylvia, and she is Romanian. And she is the ‘same’ woman as, at night, when the clerk goes to his little café, the little redhead, desired but unattainable by his angular, unattractive self.

Meanwhile Elemér and Sylvia travel around Europe gambling, sleeping very little. The clerk spends his nights in drooling contemplation of the redhead. Inevitably the two persona encounter and ‘join’ in a nal, chaotic crisis.

There is clearly a strong Freudian element here (the ego/superego/ id concept) but it’s an artistic and imaginative response to these ideas: the book is inspired by Freud rather than being a mechanical illustration of his theories. Apart from his variation on a Freudian theme, Babits shows us the ‘innocence’ of the thief and murderer — The Nightmare explores how the human personality depends as much on external circumstances as on inner qualities.

The nightmare self is not despicable but pitiable; the other simply hasn’t had the chances in life, nor ever will, even if he is made of the same stuff that ourishes and nds expression in the Elemér of daytime, the Elemér of good fortune. In the end Babits wants to explain they are the same person, living at the same time, one in the dark, the other in the light… AC


In this passage consciousness switches from Elemér to his double:

(During that day Elemér walked up and down in a state of nervous excitement, he did not speak to anyone, but was tormented by mortal fear; he believed and dreaded more and more — he was unable to believe anything else — that he would die with the clerk, that the good could not live without the bad, the beautiful without the ugly.) Oh, what a day that was again in the ofce! I dared not look anyone in the eye. In the evening I roamed the City Park, took out my new revolver and looked at it, twisted it about, and almost pointed it at myself. But — I know what held me back. Elemér held me back, as strongly as if he had grabbed my arm. Oh, I began to hate him, and to hate the other, happier existence, which dogged my footsteps and was always interfering with my life. 122-3