by Thessaly La Force
I was late the other night to a panel at the Austrian Cultural Forum. Let me explain. It was cold. Not only that, but there was no easy way for me to get there on the subway, and I’ve become slightly (just slightly) obstinate about spending money on cabs. So I walked.
Austrians, it turns out, don’t like it when you’re tardy. “It’s already started,” a woman said to me grumpily before I even entered the building. Then she added, unnecessarily, “You’re late.” I pressed on, stammering that I was there on behalf of a books blog, and opened their large glass doors with my mitten-encased hands. Finally, after a stern reprimand from another Austrian Cultural Forum employee, who guarded the entrance to the auditorium, I found myself a seat in the back row, thanks to a kind friend.
I should have been more respectful. The topic at hand? Sigmund Freud. Specifically, Freud as a fictional character. Three authors were there to speak about their experience of using Freud in their novels. And I was curious. I had read Freud in college, like everyone else, but had never thought about what it would be like to use him as a fictional character. As James Wood writes in his book “How Fiction Works”:
Nabokov used to say that he pushed his characters around like serfs or chess pieces—he had no time for metaphorical ignorance and impotence whereby authors like to say, “I don’t know what happened, by my character just got away from same and did his own thing.”
I have to suspect that even Nabokov would have had a hard time pushing Freud around.
Brenda Webster, the author of “Vienna Triangle,” a novel documenting the bizarre and twisted relationship between Freud and his brilliant disciple Viktor Tausk (who later committed suicide), said she approached the matter in a roundabout way, preferring to avoid a head-on confrontation with Freud:
Freud was one of the great minds of the twentieth century, and we are all fascinated not only by what he taught but also by who he was. Not wanting to be guilty of hubris, I found myself approaching him obliquely through the eyes of other characters, making sure to have a balance of attitudes, something that worked very well for my book.
“For me,” she added, “Fiction was a way of answering questions, for gaining imaginative insight.”
And Angela von der Lippe, who wrote “The Truth about Lou,” a novel about Lou Andreas-Salomé, a contemporary of Freud’s who, in addition to being a writer and psychoanalyst, was also a muse to Freud, Rilke, and Nietzsche, noted the difficulties she had in her research:
I made a point of looking for portraits of Lou, and she has a couple of scholarly biographies, but what struck me about the portraits of Lou were how divergent they were. She seemed to have as many personalities as Sybil. She would be nurturing here, she would be conniving there, she would be sexually rapacious here, she would be frigid there. She was coquettish, and then most recently in a review of the Rilke-Lou correspondence in the New York Review of Books, John Banville said, “was as manly as a heterosexual woman could be.”Finally, Selden Edwards, who wrote, “The Little Book,” a novel about an American baseball player who time-travels to nineteenth-century Vienna and meets Freud, confessed that his characters, once walking, took on a life of their own. Especially Freud. Toward the end of the conversation, Edwards, who is a high-school English teacher, made an interesting point: today, Freud is taught as literature, not science. Freud’s theories, Selden continued, despite being completely out of fashion today, are still powerful tools for storytellers. And maybe—I realized, as the panel ended—the man is too.
Causes Brenda Webster Supports
Doctors Without Borders
The Nature Conservancy
Women Support Women