- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003

FREUD’S ALPHABET

By Jonathan Tel

Counterpoint, $24, 177 pages

REVIEWED BY JACK MATTHEWS

Jonathan Tel has written a curious, short (45,000-word) novel that now and then reads more like a guidebook or a ragged accumulation of impressionistic essays than a work of fiction; but fiction it is, molded upon an account of the last days of Sigmund Freud, dying of cancer in London where he had fled from Vienna in 1939 to escape persecution as a Jew. He is not alone; Ernest Jones, his disciple and future biographer (referred to as “Ernst”) has dedicated himself to easing the great man’s suffering during these final days.

Early in the book we are told: “This man believes in silence.” The man is, of course, Freud himself, referred to throughout simply as “the Doktor”; and in this theme of silence, Mr. Tel has designed a most interesting structure, in that the psychoanalyst must remain attentively silent before the patient, just as the reader must remain attentively silent before that other text of the novel.

And what does this silence confront? Very much a post-modern account that allows us to weave in and out of a composite “psycho-analytic mind set,” so that we occasionally find ourselves so preoccupied with the life of various Londoners going about their daily routines that we almost forget what the novel is about. But we should not be deceived; these seemingly deviant moments are simply part of the human comedy as it might appear to the Doktor (and Ernst).

Implicit in such a strategy are all sorts of privileges for the novelist, including indulgences in wild improbabilities and just-plain-silliness.

Take this gorgeous absurdity, for example, ostensibly explaining London’s “death wish”: “For the desire for oblivion underlies this city. Consider: what do dreams do? They recur. And what does recurrence signify? The need to go back: back to childhood: to birth: to the time before birth: the time when one does not exist.” Not even the most rabid anti-Freudian could devise a more telling sequence of vapidities.

And later we are told: “The Doktor was right. Every single thing he wrote … was the truth and the whole truth.” Then, on the next page, is written: “Although the Doktor was correct about everything, it is not exactly clear what he intended.” If what he intended isn’t clear, how can we conclude he was correct?

But the joke, after all, is on any reader who takes things at face value (granted that one of the book’s serious problems is that the ironic distance is not always conveyed, so we’re not always quite sure how literally a statement is intended); because this is a book about the Doktor, and nobody was more serious about joking than Freud.

Just as he was “a connoisseur of silences,” so he was always delicately poised upon the brink of the outrage expressed in humor. “For he well knows that humor is a form of aggression, directed against the other, and, masochistically, the self.” (Some people would find that statement humorous.) At one time, the Doktor even fantasizes about an entire city made of quips—whatever that might mean.

Not all of the jokes are sophisticated and epistemological; some are simply whimsical, employing the humor of reversal, making gentle but ironic fun of Freudianism itself — as when it is written that “to dream of sex signifies the unconscious desire to fly.”

But even before the narrative begins, we are given a clue about all this in a quotation from the Babylonian Talmud, stating that when Rabbi Bena-ah consulted the 24 dream interpreters in Jerusalem, he found that none agreed with any of the others, but all were correct. So it turns out that the joke is on us. Always.

The title also tells us a great deal, for the alphabet is a grid dropped upon experience to make it intelligible, and in this novel, that lack of intelligibility (Kant’s Ding an Sich) is allowed to show through so that we can see it in its natural state. The artifice of the alphabet is, after all, the essence of civilization: “It divides up; it sets out; it offers us marvelous juxtapositions. That there is no ultimate pattern, yet what we have suffices, is the moral it teaches us.”

These are some of the reasons this novel was written by Jonathan Tel rather than Anthony Trollope. Indeed, it is a quite different kind of fictional world we are entering when we begin reading “Freud’s Alphabet” — a fact we are reminded of again and again. There is much to irritate the innocent reader in these pages, with all of their little narrative games; and yet, this is a book that remains interesting in spite of its confusions — confusions of intent as well as some that may, alas, belong to the simple accumulation of numskulleries that all of us are busy gathering.

Jack Matthews is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio.


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