Book Review: Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz

Recording on the beach illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

Recording on the beach
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

In the introductory material to the New York Review of Books‘ re-issue  of this 1968 novel, the writer Stephen Koch states that Linda Rosenkrantz was the precursor of “reality tv” with this inventive, unusual work. He says that Rosenkrantz’s technique, far more than anticipating reality television, was even the precedent for everything from Friends to Broke Girls. 

His latter assertion, he bases on the fact that this novel deals with two “twenty-something” women and one male talking about relationships, hopes, dreams, and reality. Before Rachel, Monica and Ross dished, Rosenkrantz’s characters were doing the same.

And before Snooki and the “Situation” shared more than we wanted to know about their adventures at the Jersey Shore, Rosenkrantz’s kids were already at it.

And how she did it was that she took a tape-recorder (they were very bulky in the mid-1960s) everywhere she went one summer, on the beach, in the shore-houses, at clubs.

Cover of NYRB's  re-issue of Linda RosenKrantz's Talk

Cover of NYRB’s re-issue of Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk

The concept sounded wonderful. Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder and recorded her friends as they made dinners, basked on the beach, drove to clubs, and packed and unpacked.

At the end of the summer, she had more than twenty-five characters speaking the truth–or at the very least speaking. And they speak a lot.

Thankfully, she winnowed the twenty-five down to three: Vincent, a gay male painter; Emily, a struggling actress with a drinking problem; and Marsha, who has a “serious” job in New York, and who is the anchor of the novel. All of it is supposed to take place against the background of New York’s edgy art scene, with Warhol the subject of more than one name drop. (At the time, Rosenkrantz was editor of Sotheby’s Auction magazine and was quite cognizant of all the goings on in the art world at the time.)

The three are all at the shore. They are all in therapy. And they share their therapeutic insights with us. And on top of it all, there is an odd love triangle.

Emily loves Marsha. They are the best of friends and Marsha tries to nurture Emily through her psychiatric problems and her drinking. Vinnie understands Emily more than he understands Marsha, but Marsha is madly in love with him despite knowing he is gay. (And there are hints that Vinnie might also be in love with Marsha, but… .)

Take these three people, have their conversations recorded, and then transcribe them in a novel may have worked 50 years ago, but it does not work today. The psychoanalysis is juvenile, the relationships are sophomoric, and the conversations–for the most part–are deadening.

Koch was right when he said Talk was the precursor to reality television. He just didn’t tell us that it was the precursor of all that was inane, self-indulgent, and titallating about the genre. Talk might have been ground-breaking in 1968, but in the 21st century, it doesn’t even work as anthropology.

Imagine sitting on a towel on the beach next to these three people, discussing their analysis, their love lives and more. It would be enough for me to hope for a rip tide.

Adam Phillips: Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature

illustration by jpbohannon

illustration by jpbohannon, 2013

In the office of a colleague a while back I noticed a towering pile of books on the desk, as if he were re-arranging his book shelves or carting out old titles to a different location.  But no,  it was his “to read” pile, and it was impressive and imposing.

Among the authors gathered, there was one whom I had not heard of–Adam Phillips. A psychoanalyst by trade–specifically a children’s clinical psychotherapist–Phillips read literature at Oxford, specializing in the 19th century British romantics.  And as the “science” of psychoanalysis has always been symbiotically tied to literature,  a degree in literature seemed the perfect training ground.
Adam Phillips photo: Andy Hall

Adam Phillips
photo: Andy Hall

And so I decided to dive in.

Of Phillips’ seven or so titles, Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature seemed a reasonable starting point. And, the frantic busyness at the end of the school term made a collection of independent essays more attractive and less of a task.
 

“As poets struggle to find a place in contemporary cultural reality, psychoanalysts, implicitly or explicitly,  are still promoting the poets as ego-ideals.”

Philips, “Poetry and Psychoanalysis”

The crux of Phillips’ essays is the mutual relationship between literature and psychoanalysis…and psychoanalysts’  established reverence for creative writers. Literature, according to Freud, gave birth to psychoanalysis and psychoanalysis often gives resonance to literature.

And so go his essays.

He begins with the essay “Poetry and Psychoanalysis” and brings in the young poet Keats–a former medical student–who famously stated that science ruined poetry when Newton reduced the rainbow to a prism.  Not so, Phillips says, for poetry (and you can read “creative writing” where Phillips says “poetry”) can do what the sciences cannot.  Indeed, much of his argument is that the science of psychoanalysis is bringing understanding to the vision of poetry.  Freud said, Phillips tells us, that the poets had long before discovered the unconscious, and that he only had devised a way to study it.

Phillips graciously gives way to “poetry” saying that the short history of psychoanalysis has been an attempt to study the unconscious that poetry reveals. And since both poetry and psychoanalysis–the “talking cure”–depend on language, and often, coded language, the two are intrinsically welded together.

And so he is off.

There are marvelous literary essays on Hamlet, Hart Crane, Martin Amis,  A.E. Housman and Frederick Seidel, all informed by an accessible shading of psychoanalytic theory, as well as masterful psychoanalytic pieces on Narcissism, Jokes, Anorexia and Clutter, informed by a broad knowledge of literature/poetry.  It is Phillips’ contention–his modus operandi, if you will–that the two disciplines can or should depend on each other for clarity.

Hamlet-and-skull-on-stampThe collection ends with the title piece, “Promises, Promises.”  In it, Phillips examines the “promise” that both literature and psychoanalysis offer. He writes:

“If we talk about promises now, as I think we should when we talk about psychoanalysis and literature, then we are talking about hopes and wishes, about what we are wanting from our relationship with these two objects in the cultural field.”

What does reading literature promise us?  What does analysis promise us?  Phillips contends that both promise us, to a degree, “the experience of a relationship in silence, the unusual experience of a relationship in which no one speaks.”  Of course, ultimately, the analyst must speak.  But it is in that silence that often we become “true to ourselves.”

Reading psychoanalytic theory can often be dry and dusty, but Phillips’ writing never is. Bringing in an encyclopedic knowledge of both creative literature and psychoanalytic literature (and, at times, arguing that there might not be a difference),  Phillips imaginatively and wittily plumbs past and current trends, canonical and esoteric literatures, clinical practice and private correspondence to bring to light his vision of psychoanalysis and literature’s potential and promise.

Sunday Book Review: Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

For ninety-percent of the novel Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd, I was enthralled.

Vienna before the first World War, London on the eve of war, the no-man’s land between the trenches, neutral Geneva at the height of hostilities, London during zeppelin bombing raids. The settings are dramatic and richly drawn.

As was the plot: A young actor, following his famous father’s footsteps (if that’s not Oedipal enough for him, his mother catches him at his first experience at masturbation to boot), goes to Vienna to find a cure for a sexual condition–to Vienna, the center of the burgeoning new concept of psychoanalysis. Although he meets Freud himself, it is Freud’s English speaking neighbor who takes Lysander Rief on–and who successfully cures him.  And we know he is cured because his four month affair with the English bohemian Hettie Bull ends in a pregnancy and his arrest for rape by the Viennese authorities.

When two British diplomats arrange for Rief’s escape, they also arrange for his indenture to British intelligence.

Soon after Rief returns to London, his rescuers called in his debt and he is asked to enter Geneva via  the front lines. He is successful at his mission, survives seven bullet wounds, and completes the assignment that he had been ordered to finish.  And then he is given a second mission.

The action–of both the military and intelligence escapades and Rief’s romantic life–is riveting, fast paced and cleverly intertwined. Each character seems to be connected to another and no one is entirely innocent. And Rief’s inner-life is subtly and intelligently revealed. One learns much about military ordinance, psychoanalytic practices, the British class system and the early 20th-century British world of theater. And the information is never pedantic or overwhelming but richly woven into the plot.

Yet the solution of Rief’s intelligence mission and the resolution of his own personal quests seems to be lacking.  As the Novel wraps up and the various strands are pulled together, the story begins to limp rather than gain strength.  By the end, I felt I was reading a Hardy Boys’ Adventure. The solution was pat and somewhat anti-climactic.

I had been look forward to Waiting for Sunrise for several months and to be quite honest I enjoyed reading it very, very much. Until the end that is.  I was disappointed. It seemed that Boyd had simply decided to quit.

William Boyd

I like William Boyd very much. I feel he is greatly underrated among his contemporaries and is a wonderful stylist with a perfect ear for the nuances of an age.

I had previously read several Boyd novels and do not remember this falling off, this disappointment before. The novels all successfully re-create historic eras, describing its people, its culture, its ethos, its fears, all braced by an intelligent understanding and description of the scientific theories and advancements that are at that moment being born. For instance, Brazzaville Beach deals with mathematical chaos theory and the sociology of chimpanzees.  The New Confessions (modeled on Rousseau’s Confessions) also deals with World War I–as with Waiting for Sunrise–moves through Hollywood and Berlin, treats the horrors of World War II and then ends with the Hollywood Communist  trials, the whole while treating  us to the internal workings of the Hollywood film industry.  The Blue Afternoon (my personal favorite) is centered on the United States invasion of Manilla and its ultimate acquisition of the Philippines through the Treaty of Versaille and travels from Lisbon, Manilla and Los Angeles, from 1902 through the 1930s, while leading the reader through advancements in surgery and trends in architecture.

All of Boyd’s novels are rich with fascinating information, realistic period details, and memorable human stories. And all are vastly enjoyable and worthwhile.  Waiting for Sunrise, however, for me, ends a little too quickly and a little too weakly.

Friday Film Review: A Dangerous Method

                                                  

After many missteps and thwarted plans, I finally got to see A Dangerous Method. I don’t know how accurate it was–though it seemed so– but to watch Freud and Jung working together, fencing with each other’s ideas and techniques, is intriguing. History usually sets them in direct opposition to each other–and they saw themselves that way as well after their infamous break–but I see them as simply taking and following two different paths. Jung deals with humanity at large, with myths and archetypes; Freud with the individual, with the conscious and the sub-conscious.

The film is marvelous, hinting at what Jung is about to discover, what he begins to question about Freud; marvelous with Sabina Spielrien talking about anima and animus to Jung, arguing eros and thanatos with Freud; and ominous with the small undertones of the fomenting friction between Jewishness and Aryanism: Wagner’s Siegfried and Spielrien’s Judaism, Jung’s dream of an apocalypse coming from the north and washing Europe with blood, Freud’s concern that his work will be disparaged as the perversity of Jewish doctors.

Jung, it seems, had to break with Freud, just as the son has to break with the father. In fact, Jung’s father complex with Freud seemed quite evident. Although we are dealing with a film and the demands of drama and a story-arc, Jung seems much more fragile than I had imagined. The film ends with his seeming quite shattered–which historically he was–but it was still surprising to see such a towering figure so broken.

All in all, I loved it…and it is sending me to find the book it was based on by John Kerr, plus anything at all on Sabina Spielrien–a relatively forgotten figure in the beginnings of psychoanalysis.