Salley Vickers describes the approach made to her to contribute to the Canongate myths series as a gift. A trained Jungian psychoanalyst, her antipathy to Freud and his interpretation of the Oedipus myth meant her material was a given. However, in the course of writing and researching Freud, the man, she found him becoming more sympathetic as a human being. And so it is that psychoanalytical antipathy and human empathy create an interesting tension in Vickers’ retelling of the ancient Sophoclean tragedy.
The novel is set mostly in London during the late 1930’s where Freud and his immediate family have settled following their escape from Nazi Vienna. Freud is dying from oral cancer, a result of his heavy cigar habit. As he lies dying, he is visited by the ancient Greek, Tiresias, who proceeds to educate him in the “real meaning” of the myth. In a series of conversations, spanning months in which the horror and pain of Freud’s final illness is made manifest, Tiresias describes first his life as an interpreter of Delphic oracle and then the catastrophic fulfillment of the infamous Oedipus prophecy.
The contrast between Tiresias’ poetic language and Freud’s earthiness (“Virginia Woolf, all head, no genitals”) imbue texture and wit. So, too, the opposition of the supernatural and rationality. From a slow start, the novel truly comes to life as Oedipus insists on unravelling his own life by demanding the knowledge that is going to destroy him. Plenty of irony accompanying tragedy as Tiresias debunks Freud’s Oedipus complex. As Vickers pointed out at the Borders Book Festival last Saturday, Freud shoehorned a small part of the myth to fit his theory.
Neither Freudian nor Jungian (I am too uniformed to make a judgement), I find Vickers’ arguments persuasive. On a more solid and subjective footing I can also say that this is the most enjoyable of the three Canongate myth retellings I have read. The idea behind the series is excellent, yet I’ve found the execution mediocre up till now. While Atwood’s feminist Penelopiad is interesting but ultimately unconvincing, Winterson’s Weight is purely self-indulgent. Vickers’ contribution is a cut above both of these. Although fuelled by a personal agenda, Vickers does not forget the skills on which her literary reputation rests. Already mentioned is the poetry of Tiresian language. Particularly satisfying too, the parallels drawn between the fallen Oedipus and the dying Freud, both in personality and situation. Thus does this volume provide incentive enough for me to continue reading my way through the series.