For this is a city where the outside cannot be assumed to correspond to the inside; in fact seldom does. As a rule they are unrelated.
Jonathan Tel’s novel Freud’s Alphabet (NY: Counterpoint, 2003) is a playful and sometimes wondrous ode to the city of London. And, yes, it’s also about Sigmund Freud. Fleeing the Nazis, Freud comes to live at 20 Maresfield Gardens in London, encouraged by his disciple Dr. Ernest Jones. Freud sees patients, struggles with the final stages of cancer, and awaits the inevitable onset of war. But mostly, he observes his new city, keenly looking and listening, trying to understand its rules and patterns. But Tel’s London defies categorization. “In this city, people do not possess a consistent personality.” A city of fogs and mirages, London is overlaid with its rural past, its long history, and its rich literature. But even as London eludes the analytical Freud, it becomes a rich playground where the boundaries between truth and fantasy are pleasantly blurred by the book’s omniscient narrator. At one point, the narrator imagines a “simulacrum of Great Britain, to be tethered permanently in the North Sea” inviting incoming German planes to bomb the faux country rather than the real one. It’s a neat metaphor for Tel’s book, which repeatedly finds the distractions of the narrator’s disorderly mind to be profoundly more interesting than the mind of one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers.
Freud, too, must confront his own doppelgänger. He is invited to Madame Tussaud’s to see himself modelled in wax and wearing some old clothes he had donated. Freud is disappointed. It doesn’t look like him. He would never wear those clothes together. Nobody stops to remark on the coincidence of the Great Doktor assessing himself, they only want to know where to find the axe-murderer. This, he worries, is his legacy. Tel paints a bittersweet portrait of a dying, befuddled Freud who nevertheless is still capable of performing miracles with his patients to the very end.
Freud’s Alphabet is fashioned from twenty-six episodes with alphabetically-ordered titles: Apple, Boy, Cat, Diamond, Elephant…Xenolith, Yacht, Zebra. As the narrator remarks near the end of the book, “toddlers make up stories possessing remarkable coherence and narrative thrust on the basis of an illustrated alphabet book: the kind that begins with apple and ends with zebra.” However, it isn’t your ordinary children’s book in which U stands for Unbedenklichkeitserklärung! [That seems to be a kind of “declaration of safe passage” used for packages going through customs.]
The twenty-six episodes, in turn, are separated by a half dozen interludes, which are usually more Freud-centered than the other chapters. Each of these interludes is preceded by an archival photograph credited to the Freud Museum or the Imperial War Museum. The photographs (like the one of Freud’s famous couch, shown above, or a statue of Freud, below) strike me as both enigmatic and vaguely humorous at the same time.
Tel uses his post-modern devices with a light, sure hand. Nothing is neatly packaged, and often within each revelation is buried the seed of the next complication. Freud’s Alphabet is an allusive, entertaining paradox, reminiscent of writers such as Italo Calvino, Donald Barthelme, and Walter Abish, but finding its own path forward. I’ll be posting in the next week or two on Tel’s newest book of short stories (many with embedded photographs) called The Beijing of Possibilities.