Freud's Alphabet, by Jonathan Tel

The cockney inside the psychoanalyst
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The celebrated aphorism of Dr Samuel Johnson about the fascination of London would have been echoed by Dr Sigmund Freud. After the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, the aged psychoanalyst, having signed a declaration exonerating the invaders, was allowed to leave Vienna for London, where he spent his final year.

In Jonathan Tel's elegant and original novel, Freud muses on other cities in which he might have settled, including Paris, where he studied. But London quickly asserts its charms. It is a city that, in a real sense, has been created by writers: "They have smoothed it down into the shapes permitted by the English language. The city is no more nor less than its fictional equivalent."

Such a city has a particular appeal to Freud, whose case studies have so often been likened to short stories. Tel's Freud concludes that "the novelists have not done such a bad job, the range of personalities, of characters, of thoughts, of psychological complexes, is so vast as to pass for unlimited".

Tel uses Freud's interest in these personalities and processes to create a further fictionalisation of London, defined by the very rudiments of language: the alphabet. So, in 26 chapters, Freud casts his eye over London and its inhabitants, exploring such subjects as the history, the longing of its citizens for a natural life outside - and sometimes inside - its boundaries, and the tendency of Londoners to define their fellows by obvious social roles.

Freud's professional method was to extrapolate the universal from the particular. Tel makes this the predominant characteristic of his fictional counterpart. However, this begs many questions, such as the grounds on which Freud (and Tel) assert that London is a city where private lives are more at odds with social roles than elsewhere, or that Londoners are given a licence to misbehave in the fog similar to that enjoyed by Venetians during carnival.

The text is interspersed with photographs of Freud's study and of Londoners preparing for war. The alphabetical progression is likewise interrupted by episodes in which Freud and his biographer, Ernest Jones, explore London. They range from the surreal, when Freud wins toys at a funfair, to the farcical, when he swims nakedin Hampstead pond, to the poignant, when Jones prepares to inject his dying mentor with a fatal dose of morphine.

The originality of the novel's structure is at once its strength and its limitation. In place of the inevitability of true art, the narrative feels arbitrary (which Tel seems to recognise when he calls the alphabetical order of Freud's spice jars "as arbitrary as they come, nevertheless not without its uses"). It might just as easily have been 12 chapters, as Freud's Signs of the Zodiac, or continued ad infinitum, as Freud's Primary Numbers. Ultimately, Freud's Alphabet is best as an idiosyncratic and charming commonplace book.

Comments