Interview: Author Salley Vickers explains why Freud got it all wrong about Oedipus

Bestselling novelist and former psychotherapist Salley Vickers reckons Freud got it all wrong about Oedipus. Her gripping new novel explains why
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Salley Vickers is the latest author to take up the invitation from Canongate publishers to update a famous myth for a new audience. Her choice of Oedipus could not be more apt. A former psychotherapist, though Jungian rather than Freudian, she's been fascinated by the story since she first read it at school aged 17.

Where Three Roads Meet takes the form of a dialogue between the dying Freud, sitting in his Hampstead study, and a mysterious guest who has wandered in from the heath, who doesn't seem to be visible to anyone else, and who is eventually revealed to be Tiresias, the blind seer who witnessed the original tragedy. Or is Freud's mind wandering?

Thoughout the dialogue, the sunshine of civilised conversation is undercut by the darkest shadows of the mind. Freud has just narrowly escaped the clutches of the Nazis and the mouth cancer for which he takes morphine is to kill him in a matter of months. Tiresias, the ancient spirit who talks to the birds on the heath, and who seems to appear when his auditor most needs distraction from pain, nevertheless evokes all the horror of an ancient crime, and of those dark, irrational forces known as the gods. It's a thoroughly creepy story.

All shadows, however, are banished now. We're sitting in her cosy top-floor flat, crammed with books, filled with photographs and paintings and with an expansive view over the rooftops of west London.

"Oedipus is a central myth for psychoanalysts," she says over coffee. "When I came to train, obviously we talked about it and I thought, Freud's not read it correctly! Oedipus is an adult man when he falls in love with Jocasta, he's not a child. Secondly, Freud didn't take any account of the actions of the parents, Laios and Jocasta. They set out to murder their child. That seems to be a very interesting feature of this myth. So I think it was inevitable that in doing this book I would try and explain it to Freud. I've been dying to do that for years."

Laios, the pugnacious king of Thebes, is warned by the oracle at Delphi that his son will kill him, so he persuades his wife to expose their baby, his ankles cruelly pierced with pins. The crippled child (Oedi-pous means " swollen feet" in Greek) is saved by a passing herdsman and adopted by the royal family of Corinth. Everything goes well until the strapping young man meets an obnoxious older man at the place where the Delphi, Corinth and Thebes roads converge, and kills him in a fit of rage.

Vickers' view of Freud has changed over the book's genesis. "I think he had great personal qualities. He had amazing courage," she notes gravely, especially when facing the cancer that was to kill him in 1939. "He had this idea he could stay and outface the Nazis. He never knew that his sisters who he'd left behind all died in concentration camps."

What she was trying to do in the book, she explains, "was to pitch two different views of reality against each other and show how both are valid and can in fact illuminate each other, so it's genuine Socratic dialogue". There's an irony running through Freud's work, she points out: "He's a tremendous exponent of the rational, yet he's the chief portrait-painter of the irrational. Another thing is that he's a chief dismantler of the religious perspective. Much better than Dawkins, which is part of the reason I wrote the book."

In Tiresias, Vickers has voiced a powerful advocate for the unseen forces; but this is simply the latest expression of a theme that runs throughout her work. Miss Garnet's Angel, her bestselling debut, was wrongly seen as an addition to the syrupy ranks of books about guardian angels, Instances of the Number 3 had an errant husband come back from the grave and in Mr Golightly's Holiday, God – yes, the white-haired, long-frocked patriarch – decides to jack it all in and go and live in a cottage.

Such themes and frames of reference are not to all tastes. "I've recently been in correspondence wtih various followers of Dawkins. I think he's different, but his followers are astoundingly impolite and jump to all sorts of conclusions which are absolutely untrue about me." That's partly why her Freud and her Tiresias are so gallant and polite to one another, even as they fiercely disagree. But it's also because their encounter "mirrors an analytic session, and you don't know who's the analyst".

Psychoanalysis, which she no longer practises since the publication of her second novel in 2001, has become "very, very codified", she maintains. "I would work quite happily in a room like this with books and pictures and flowers, but a lot of people, particularly Kleinians, work in an absolutely blank environment so that you can't read anything about them into it. But if you look at Freud's consulting room – well, I'd like to say it's like this! It's full of the most wonderful artefacts – my God, he had an eye. Beautiful Turkish rugs, bits and bobs, masses of books... So the clinical image of a psychoanalyst working with a simple couch and chair has arisen out of nothing. It certainly wasn't anything Freud suggested."

Salley Vickers came to writing late, publishing her first book in 2000. I ask what made her suddenly decide to become a writer. "I didn't decide! I never decide anything. Everything of importance in my life just happens. It's not true to say I'm not ambitious but I'm incredibly lazy." She goes into a peal of laughter. "I'd much rather sit and chat to you than do anything. But I comfort myself with that great remark of Pascal: all the troubles of the world come about because men refuse to sit still in a room. I'm really good at sitting still in a room."

Nor is she much of a one for research. "Again, I'm really lazy. I don't like doing research. I like going to Italy and Greece..." Miss Garnet displayed her deep familiarity with Venice, where she used to spend every January. "I still get letters from people who've been to Venice because of Miss Garnet. And I want people who read Three Roads to go to Delphi to see what I'm writing about. I think it will make them want to go. Delphi's incredibly dramatic. The temple is fabulous. There's the Castalian spring, where the pilgrims used to wet their heads before going in. You couldn't consult the oracle without paying serious money – it cost a lot to get the answer you wanted..."

"It's a just war, Tony!" I suggest.

She became a fixture at Delphi, to the point where she was eventually ignored by the custodians and left to wander at will and steep herself in the atmosphere.

"When you go there, it really does feel like a sacred space. There's something special about it. And the oracle came through this strange female, over 50 years old, which is unknown in any other rite in Greece."

Such passionate absorption, I say, is a refreshing change from authors who research their novels on the internet. She smiles. "If all I do with a book is send people to a beautiful place in the world, I'm really happy." *

The extract

Where Three Roads Meet, By Salley Vickers (Canongate £12.99)

'A hefty girl, wide-hipped ... with a tongue that could take the skin off your ear... To look at her, solid as Parnassus, or hear her laugh, like a jay's screech, you would never guess she had the power of divination. There was nothing otherworldly about my Pythia. But when she was seated on that tripod and had drunk from the cup of sacred water, you witnessed a person transported'