Archive for March, 2010

Brenda Webster (2009) – Vienna Triangle

Friday, March 26th, 2010

I started out not really liking this novel.  A friend recommended it because it concerns Freud and some of the early history of psychoanalysis.  My Ph.D. is in psychology.  Although I have never practiced on people for money, I did lead a few men’s consciousness-raising groups in the early 70’s—and I have at least some familiarity with the work of Freud and the development of psychotherapies of all different kinds that followed.  On that count I ought to be a reasonable audience for the book.  My problem, however, was not with historical or academic issues.


What put me off was the stilted quality of the prose in the first few chapters—a quality that often afflicts novels in which real world characters are given fictional treatments, especially when the author uses third person narrative from that character’s standpoint.  You know the kind:


Albert Einstein ran his hand through his unruly hair as he confronted the pile of patent applications before him.  “I wonder,” he thought, “if everything in physics is relative.  If what I’ve been looking for these last few weeks is a theory of relativity  [Blessedly, this is not an excerpt from the book.  It’s my own invention.]


Exposition is a bit forced as the Webster maneuvers to introduce her historical character and strives then to provide enough context for us to understand Just Who This Is.  The problem is, the first character we meet in this way in Vienna Triangle is Dr. Helene Deutsch (née Rosenbach) an early follower of Freud who became a psychoanalyst and eventually director of Freud’s Vienna Psychoanalytic Clinic.  I couldn’t have told you that, but at least I recognized her name.  The 80-something Deutsch as Webster imagines her conforms to the stereotype of the psychoanalyst who views everyone through Freud-colored glasses.  It’s a bit heavy-handed—dehumanizing both Deutsch and the people she meets.


In Chapter One we meet Helene and two fictional characters: Kate, a Ph.D. student in psychology, and Emily, Kate’s mother, who shows some discomfort on learning Helene is a psychoanalyst.  In Chapter Two, narration switches to Kate’s perspective.  The novel is set in the late sixties, feminism is on the rise, but Kate’s faculty advisor is ambivalent about Kate’s thesis project to research the early history of women in the psychoanalytic movement. Her mother’s feelings about psychoanalysis become clear:


“Every profession has its scoundrels….  I have a feeling that psychoanalysis has more than its share.  Operating the way they do, behind closed doors with no one controlling what they do.  God knows what might be going on.”  [I’d like to be able to give a page reference here, but for reasons not known to me, e-books on the Amazon Kindle are not calibrated in page numbers, but in things called “Locations”.  This passage is in Locations 183-188.]


In Chapter Three, the author is still awkwardly writing historical background on Helene Deutsch as if it were a recounting of Deutsch’s present thoughts.  Attempts to give Deutsch a real character fall flat.  Kate begins interviewing Helene and explains that she wanted to interview someone who was in on the earliest development of psychoanalytic theories about women. 


“And I have the advantage of being one of the few still alive and not senile,” Helene said cheerfully, knocking three times on the wooden arm of her rocker.


Kate frowned.  Her mother was an almost compulsive knocker on wood.  [A what!?]  “I wouldn’t have thought you’d be superstitious.”  [Locations 387-393]


This is the “little human foibles” school of character revelation.  Yuck!  Nonetheless, the interview takes an interesting turn.  Kate wants to know whether the Helene’s presence in Freud’s discussion group “had any influence on the direction psychoanalysis took.”  Unfortunately, the question never gets answered.  The author has other things in mind for Kate to get into.


I’ll give another egregious example of overwriting and then drop the subject.  Kate is thinking about the fact that Helene must have been quite a beauty in her day.


Helene seemed to read her thoughts.  “I had pretty plumage once,” she said, quoting Yeats.  At one time she had read widely in the English poets.  [Locations 404-409]


The intrusive didacticism of the final sentence begs for deletion.  I don’t know if the author knows for a fact that Deutsch was widely read in the English poets, but in a novelistic context it simply doesn’t matter.  Helene quotes Yeats.  That’s all we needed to know.


What Kate (and the author, of course) is really interested in turns out to be the juicy details of the sexual liaisons of Helene, Freud, and a few other members of the Vienna psychoanalytic community.  Hey, sex sells, so I can’t be too critical here.  Eventually, this resolves itself into a fascination with a triangle involving Freud, a remarkable woman named Lou Andreas-Salomé (five years his junior), and Viktor Tausk (twenty-three years younger than Freud, eighteen years younger than Salomé).  Over some years, this Vienna triangle (as the title would have it) evolved.  Tausk and Salomé were lovers.  Freud and Salomé were close (perhaps at times lovers?).  Freud and Tausk were rather like father and son—in the best psychoanalytic, oedipal conflict sense—Tausk bent over backwards trying to gain Freud’s favor while Freud feared that Tausk wanted to supplant him and possibly even kill him.     


Helene Deutsch was twenty-eight years younger than Freud.  Freud personally undertook Deutsch’s psychoanlysis, but refused to accept Tausk, choosing rather to assign Deutsch (who was a friend of Tausk’s) to that task—something of a slap in the face to Tausk, especially as Tausk was already an experienced analyst; whereas he was Deutsch’s first analytic patient.  Several months later, Deutsch abruptly terminated Tausk’s analysis (at Freud’s insistence the author has Helene declare—I am not sufficiently familiar with current scholarship to know if Deutsch actually confirmed this).  Shortly thereafter, Tausk committed suicide.


The payoff of all of the foregoing is the author’s conclusion that Freud was not a Nice Guy—that Freud the idol had feet of clay.  In the first three or four decades after Freud died in 1939, any suggestion that Freud was anything but a paragon of individual and intellectual virtue was anathema to the analytical community that grew up around him.  Apparently, the reasoning was that if the founder were flawed, the founder’s work might be flawed and thus open to challenge.  I’m sure there are still people around who care.  Most don’t.  An analyst friend of mine whom I told a little about the book said, well, that’s all old news, you know.


Webster’s exploration of the Vienna triangle is interesting even if some of her imaginings are less than convincing.  She imagines a diary kept by Tausk during his final years.  Then she has Kate discover it in a locked drawer of her mother’s desk.  Why is it in her mother’s desk?  It turns out that Tausk was her grandfather.  Well, an author is entitled to one unvarnished coincidence.  Still, I can’t imagine anyone writing some of the made-up diary entries Webster created for this book.


I haven’t even mentioned the subplot involving Kate discovering that she is pregnant by her boyfriend and feeling ambivalent.  It’s all rather predictable and laced with occasional psychoanalytic jargon in keeping with the overall decorating scheme.  Is that too catty?


Bottom line: Don’t read this to be bowled over by its literary merit—it’s not quite writing by the numbers, but it does have a definite mechanical feel.  Read it to get a melodramatic view of the untidy goings on in the world of Freud during the early days of the development of psychoanalysis.  Or maybe better, take a look at Paul Roazen’s (1969) Brother Animal: The Story of Freud and Tausk, which my analyst friend recommended as the definitive tell-all on this subject.

Mary Lawson (2002) – Crow Lake

Monday, March 1st, 2010


Crow Lake reminds me of another gentle but powerful book, James Agee’s semi-autobiographical 1956 novel A Death in the Family.  Agee was six when his father was killed in an automobile accident.  Kate Morrison, the narrator of Crow Lake, is seven when both of her parents die in the same way.


Death in principle I had known about; death in practice—no.  I hadn’t known that could happen.  (p.30)


But whereas the story of A Death in the Family deals with the struggle of its child narrator to understand the full implications of his father’s death, the narrator of Crow Lake tells her story from a vantage point some twenty years after the traumatic event.


Kate’s narration as Lawson has written it is a complex interweaving of events in her present and events in her past, especially the first year following her parents’ death.  Lawson is true to the reality that our adult recollections of childhood are—can only be—the memories of a child under the scrutiny of the adult that child has become.  For better or for worse, we cannot retrieve anything more than we saw and felt at the time.  And so, we come to take for granted that the way we experienced the events of our past and the interpretations we placed on them are no more and no less than the facts of our personal life—who we are and who those closest to us are as well.  And therein hangs the tale of Crow Lake.


At first, it is not clear what the story of Crow Lake will be.  Following an idyllic prologue, chapter one begins on an ominous note:


When the end came, it seemed to do so completely out of the blue….  We didn’t know that the Pye nightmare was destined to become entangled with the Morrison dream.  Nobody could have predicted that. (p.7)


Dark clouds on the horizon.  We read on to a description of dinner at the Morrisons’.  We learn that the Morrisons are not generally an expressive lot.  As Kate’s twenty-seven year old self recalls, the family recognized a number of supplemental Commandments to the usual Ten.  For example, “the Eleventh Commandment, carved on its very own tablet of stone and presented specifically to those of Presbyterian persuasion: Thou Shalt Not Emote.” (p.9)  Later, we learn that “the Twelfth is Thou Shalt Not Admit To Being Upset, and when it becomes evident to the world that you are upset, Thou Shalt On No Account Explain Why.” (p.36)  We are introduced to older brothers Luke and Matt, and younger sister Bo, charmingly described as having “a fine, fair fluff of hair that stood straight out from her head as if she’d been struck by lightning.”


I can’t easily discuss the book further without giving away plot points that are better discovered on reading.  Stop here if you want to experience the book as written, but please come back later. 


Okay, you were warned.  Disaster strikes the next day.  In the penultimate paragraph of chapter one, Matt tells Kate that her parents have been killed.  Kate’s reaction is finely drawn.


I remember being terrified that he would cry….  As if that would be the worst thing; much worse than this incomprehensible thing he was telling me.  As if for Matt to cry was the one unthinkable thing. (p.19)


Yes, this is how a seven-year old might react.


But the death of Kate’s parents doesn’t involve the Pyes at all, so the reason for Kate’s cryptic reference to the “Pye nightmare” remains unexplained.  Indeed, it remains unexplained for another two hundred pages or so, and even then it is not until the last fifteen pages of the book that we understand what Kate has been obsessing over for two hundred seventy plus pages.  It is to Mary Lawson’s credit that she manages to keep up the tension without driving the reader completely crazy.  Not only that, the denouement, is reasonably satisfying and (not withstanding that the French dénouement means untying) ties together just about everything that has gone before.


As I say, the tension is not unremitting.  In fact I made a note to myself on page 27 that says I just realized that I had at this point forgotten to be worrying about the Pyes.  But time and again there is a reminder that something terrible is going to happen (from the reader’s standpoint) that has already happened (from the narrator’s standpoint).



Ordinarily, to tell a story that happened in the past, you start with once upon a time and then proceed with A said this and B did that, then A did this and B did that and said that, and so on until you come to the end and then stop.  The story of Crow Lake is told in a much more complex way.  Events in the story are presented out of temporal order so as to illuminate extra-temporal themes, thoughts, and feelings.  A case in point.  In chapter three, Kate talks about her boyfriend Daniel (pp.35-37).  She starts from a point in time at which she has told Daniel about her family and then recalls.


It was a long time before I told Daniel much about my family.


In the next sentence, she goes back to the beginning of that “long time”.


When we first started going out we exchanged bits of personal information as you do, but it was all very general.


And then back to even before that—before they started going out.


I knew quite a bit about Daniel’s background because a lot of his background was in the foreground, so to speak, right there at the university.


Now, she pops into the present.


Daniel is Professor Crane of the zoology department.  His father is Professor Crane….  His mother is Professor Crane….  It’s a little Crane dynasty.


Oops, that wasn’t the real present.  It was some kind of generic present, a present-tense recitation of facts learned in the past—facts learned in the past and then later modified in the past as seen from still later in the past:


Or, as I learned later, it’s a small subsection of a large Crane dynasty.


Now, she takes us back much further into the past.   


Daniel’s forebears roamed the cultural capitals of Europe before emigrating to Canada.


Generic present:


Daniel is a curious man….


Back to the beginning of the relationship:


One evening when we’d been going out for a couple of weeks he said, “So tell me the story of your life, Kate Morrison.”


Hearkening forward from that point:


I didn’t know at the time, but that little request from Daniel was the beginning of what was going to be a problem between us.


Generic present, again:


            I am not from a background where people talk about problems…


Hearkening further forward:


So I did not, in the months to come, say to Daniel that sometimes he made me feel that he would like to … slide me, like some poor hapless microbe, under his microscope, where he could study my very soul.


And back to the past, but still with awareness of things yet to come:


            All that was in the future, however… 


I couldn’t figure out at the time why I felt such a resistance to the idea…. 


And all the way forward to Kate’s actual present.


But I now think that most of my reluctance was due to the fact that story of my lie is all bound up with the story of Matt’s life….


All this time-traveling in three pages!  It’s not that when an author chooses to narrate in the past tense he or she must always describe events in strict temporal order from earliest to latest.  But it is unusual for the temporal discontinuities to come so rapidly one upon another; and it is a considerable accomplishment for Lawson to have deployed this rhetorical strategy so effectively.



The TV Guide summary of Crow Lake would be something like: From age seven, Kate has believed her brother Matt’s life story is a tragedy.  Nineteen years later she realizes she was wrong.  The key word is “tragedy”.  In the last chapter, Matt’s wife Marie, hardly a person given to confrontation, nonetheless summons tremendous personal strength to confront Kate on precisely this issue:


 “[Y]our disappointment, your thinking his whole life is a failure…. that’s been the hardest thing [for him]….  You think what happened is the great tragedy of [Matt’s] life.  You can hardly look at him, you feel so sorry for him and so angry with him still.”


Marie hits the nail on the head.  Kate is stunned.  Kate’s nephew Simon appears and the conversation veers back to uncontroversial matters.  A few minutes later, Daniel notices that Kate is in a state and asks her what’s wrong.  Kate summarizes Marie’s accusation, protesting that it’s not true that she thinks Matt’s whole life is a failure, “but it is true that what happened to him is a tragedy.”  Why does Kate insist on the word tragedy in connection with what happened to Matt?  It all happened when Kate was seven.  “Tragedy” is not a word ordinarily in the vocabulary of a seven-year old girl.  On rereading, I found the answer.  It’s Miss Carrington’s word.


When Aunt Annie comes after the funeral of the parents Morrison, Miss Carrington tries to make clear that Matt has the intellectual ability to obtain a scholarship to go to university.  Aunt Annie, while sympathetic, replies that it’s just not possible.  Money is too scarce.  Miss Carrington, overheard by a curious and anxious Kate, tells Aunt Annie hyperbolically, “You must understand—it would be a tragedy if Matt did not go to university.  Genuinely it would be a tragedy.”  (p. 58)  Aunt Annie elaborates on the dire straits of the Morrison children.


Miss Carrington said bleakly, “A tragedy then….”


When Matt returns later, Kate tells him what Miss Carrington had to say:


She said you were the cleverest child she’d ever taught.  She said it would be a … tradegy … a tragedy … if you didn’t go to university.” (p. 63)


So nearly two decades later, Kate is still parroting Miss Carrington’s word.  The imperfectly understood traumas of childhood give rise to life decisions; and those decisions will rule our lives imperfectly for as long as we let them.  We can’t see them.  We need others to draw our attention to them and to insist that we reconsider them from our adult standpoint.  Kate is lucky that Marie cares enough about Matt to raise the issue, and Kate is lucky that her Daniel cares enough to insist on an alternate, adult, formulation.


“Well, I agree with you about one thing, Kate.  I do think there’s a tragedy here.  But I don’t think it’s what you think it is….  [I]t’s just a shame.  It’s not a tragedy.  It makes no difference to who Matt is….  [M]y guess is that he came to terms with it a long time ago.  The problem is, you didn’t.  And as a consequence, he’s lost what he had with you.  That’s the real tragedy.” (p. 282)


To her credit, Kate responds to the challenge to her idée fixe.  For the first time since she was seven, she looks back at her assumptions about Matt with new eyes—as an adult—realizing that “The weight of … years … of things unsaid, unresolved, had made strangers of us.”  (p. 286)   Suddenly the future looks brighter.


Mary Lawson has accurately observed and portrayed the process by which one may, with only the best intentions, become estranged from reality, suffer thereby, and eventually find reality again.  With the exception of Calvin Pye (whom I guess we didn’t really meet face to face in the story), I was pleased to meet her characters and spend time with them.  May we all find ourselves in such a supportive community.