Freud's Alphabet by Jonathan Tel
Jonathan Tel’s Freud’s Alphabet is not for the mealy-minded. Nor for the reader accustomed to treading linear narrative. In this surrealist post-modern melange of oddments of city life, Freud — or The Doktor, as he’s referred to — drifts in and out of a kind of semi-consciousness, tramping through 1939 London while dying of cancer and emanating general malaise.
He has left his home in war-torn Vienna, accompanied by his self-abnegating sidekick, Ernst Jones. Reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s vaudevillian duo, Pozzo and Lucky, Freud (as master/Pozzo) and Jones (as servant/Lucky), are yoked at the hip as the famous psychiatrist ventures down his bathetic journey towards death; estranged through language and custom in his city, Freud is an acute observer and it is through the prism of his prince-nez, if you will, that his alienation comes alive.
Theatre looms large in this 175-page stream-of-conscious novel, and since we’re drawing comparisons to Beckett, Tel should tip his hat to Ionesco as well. The stylishly short chapters, the italicized ones in particular, open with a “set-up,” similar to that of a play — Jones administering morphine to Freud, for instance, or accompanying Freud to a fair. Similarly, random episodes featuring anonymous characters begin and end without any explanation or development, much like watching actors commingle in an absurdist play.
But while the reader may feel confused about what to make of it all, one thing is constant about the residents of Finchley Road and its environs — they all seem to be in crisis mode: the “genial housekeeper from number 17, Mrs. Q__ in her tweed overcoat and carpet slippers, stomping about with a carving knife clutched in her right hand,” or the “news vendor” who has “surrounded himself with man-high stacks of newspapers, as if to barricade himself in, or establish a makeshift air raid shelter.”
It is the pandemonium of a city’s populace during war, preparing its psyche for death, much like Freud himself; “the city is being emptied. Children are being sent away, just in case, to Canada or the United States, Australia or New Zealand…as far away as possible from where the bombs are, conceivably, going to drop,” observes the Doktor.
And though it’s frustrating to track what exactly is going on, and tempting to skim through some of its more nebulous pages, it works. What makes sense in war? How better to ape the chaotic city than with a chaotic novel?
And keep in mind our narrator’s faculties are crumbling. In fact, towards the end of the novel, Tel channels the most famous of mad men, King Lear. In a bizarre scene, just one of many, Jones pedals a “small boat shaped like a teapot” in Hyde Park, while reciting King Lear to the rapt Doktor. Jones imagines that [Lear’s] beard is grander than ever the Doktor’s was, and the voice possesses a counter-factual Yiddish intonation.” A deliberate chiaroscuro, Tel places a prostitute mating with her john and eating fish and chips in a nearby vessel. Jones envisions her “divided like a centaur or mermaid: while her lower portion is carrying out its professional role, the upper part is engaged in eating the repast.” Effectively, one boat signifies carnality and gluttony – essentially life’s “joys,” while the parallel boat is doomed to dystrophy and death.
With its unsettling mood, Freud’s Alphabet, is an incisive commentary on the outsider during war. It’s an achievement that will leave readers reflecting on its pages for a long time to come. Just don’t expect an easy read on the beach.
Freud's Alphabet by Jonathan Tel