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Posts from the ‘Jonathan Tel’ Category

Tel’s Beijing

Tel Beijing

Who can believe in Beijing?  Only those who’ve never been and those who’ve left…

Not too long ago I wrote about Jonathan Tel’s 2003 novel Freud’s Alphabet, which has embedded photographs at the head of selected chapters.  His new book of short stories The Beijing of Possibilities (Other Press, 2009) also contains embedded photographs, but this time they are more randomly placed in the manner of W.G. Sebald.  Tel’s cities (Freud’s Alphabet is really about London) are wonderful constructs of the imagination.  “While in New York he writes about Beijing, while in Beijing he writes about New York,” reads the blurb about Tel on the cover of Beijing.  His books continue a rich literary tradition going back at least to Baudelaire of presenting cities as juxtapositions of the random and the fortuitous, where it’s almost possible to believe in the impossible.

Tel’s Beijing is a vast, unknowable stage where opposites clash.  In a number of his stories, almost like a scientist working with lab rats, Tel drops honest but naive country people down in the midst of urban chaos to see how they manage.  Other stories pit sophisticated world travelers against Chinese who have never left their neighborhood, the technological present against the fading traditions of grinding hard work, people with scruples against those without.  In Tel’s world the result is not a morality play.  Instead, things are often resolved by blending, twining, or mirroring the protagonists.  People exchange lives, a maid and her employer’s daughter become one, characters disappear into their fate.

She slipped on her robe and got a screwdriver and went out into the corridor and removed the 23 from the apartment door – because those who know where they live, know, and those who are invited will be told, and those who neither know nor are invited really have no business here.

The book itself is set up like the ouroboros, the serpent which turns and swallows its own tail.  It begins with a Foreword about Beijing (“the center of the universe”) by a “Helan Xiao”, followed by Tel’s Preface, in which he mentions befriending the poet Helan Xiao.  In the book’s final story, The Most Beautiful Woman in China, Helan Xiao is a struggling writer who is given the opportunity to write the libretto for an opera called The Most Beautiful Woman in China.  In the end she is cheated out of both credit and fame and decides to write a book of short stories to be published abroad under a foreign pseudonym.  “She pretended a foreign author had made up these stories – a tall, handsome, courteous man – …[who] humbly requested the right to translate her own works into English and to publish it under his name…”  At the very end, The Beijing of Possibilities turns and swallows its own tale.

It strikes me as rather arbitrary that Tel uses one and only one photograph for each of his stories (plus a final photograph facing the Acknowledgements page).  The photographs – which I like as images – nevertheless seem incidental, contributing little to the text or to the sense of Beijing as a largely imaginary place.  If anything, the photographs seem more like source material for ideas and characters within the story.  Highly recommended.

Tel Beijing photo

Tel’s London

Tel Freud

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.

Tel Freud 2

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 Freud 3

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.