By D. M. Thomas
Carroll & Graf, $21
Reviewed by Gelareh Asayesh
Eating Pavlova, D. M. Thomas' fictional account of Freud's final days, reads like one long, psychedelic dream. It is erotic and earthy, imaginative, even haunting. But it is insubstantial in the manner of a dream, slipping through the fingers with little of itself left behind.
The place is Hampstead, England. The year is 1939. World War II has begun and sirens wail like banshees as Sigmund Freud lies on his deathbed, alternating between the unbearable pain of cancer and morphine dreams. At his bedside is his youngest daughter Anna. The great man's faithful doctor, Max Schur, waits with the final injection. Each day, Anna begs her father to hold on a little longer. With the drug racing through his veins, Freud reviews his life and narrates his memoirs.
He reveals shocking secrets, then recants them. He tells alternate versions of the same story, and hints at which is the true one. Early on, he confesses to telling "many lies and half-truths." What becomes quickly clear is that for Thomas' Freud, dream and reality are interlocked. In fact, dreams are the superior reality.
In these dreams, simple facts, like the name of Freud's father, change from one moment to the next. First it is a simple mistake _ Sigmund's father was not named Joseph after all, but Jacob. Later we are told that the man Freud had always believed to be his father was actually his grandfather, and it was his uncle who was actually his father. This is the skeleton in the family closet. It is a colossal ruse carried out in the name of passionate love, in which Freud's grandfather marries his son's pregnant lover to preserve the son's marriage and protect his unborn grandson. Is this the truth, at last? It is difficult to say.
Freud's dream-reality is dominated by the two forces he deemed sovereign: death and lust. Death is upon him; lust pervades his every recollection and perception. Freud dupes and seduces his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, with lurid letters purportedly written by his close friend and colleague Wilhelm Fliess. The biographers will wonder when the letters are found, Freud muses, ever-conscious that posterity will seek to disentangle the web he is weaving around his life. Meanwhile, the forces of Eros are a tremendous source of creativity for Freud; the lust between Minna and "Fliess" is of great help in writing Freud's crowning achievement, The Interpretation of Dreams. "The enigma of the dream was opening to me like a woman's lips," Thomas' Freud says. "In fact, dream, I found, was the mother."
Later, Freud denies writing Fliess' letters to Minna. Or perhaps he did write them. "Who can tell what happened in the past?" Freud says. "Those events are happening somewhere else, in a land where there's strict censorship."
This censored land is the land of the conscious, the domain of that reality which anchors the life of ordinary mortals. Its antithesis is the unconscious referred to in the book's title. Freud dreams of a giant delicatessen reminiscent of today's supermarkets. Shoppers are unrestrainedly filling their carts. Anna chooses strawberries, which are placed next to a meringue dessert called Pavlova. This reminds Freud of seeing the great ballerina dance and how he wanted to "take" her. He wants her and he wants half a dozen other women; he wants to take "everyone and everything." Eating Pavlova is about that dream world where he can do that; a world where one can gorge oneself on sensual pleasures uncensored.
Eating Pavlova is a book that is likely to fascinate Freud scholars. Those familiar with Freud might find Thomas' interpretations of events and relationships titillating and intriguing. For the ordinary reader, however, the book is less accessible.
From the beginning, Thomas throws at us an ever-revolving cast of characters. The members of Freud's complex family, social and professional circles jostle across the page. What emerges for the average reader is a confused web of lust that at times grows more intricate than a soap opera plot. In the midst of all this heaving libido, other elements of the book _ such as the ominous presages of World War II, and its impact on Freud and other Jews _ become muted. Characters become one-dimensional.
Even Anna, who shares the stage with Freud, has a bloodless quality. In her 40s at the time of her father's death in September 1939, Anna Freud never married. She followed in her father's footsteps, achieving a separate fame for her work in the psychoanalysis of children. Thomas spends much of the book exploring her attachment to her father, who was also her analyst. Yet this complex relationship lacks resonance in Thomas' telling.
There is no questioning the creativity of D. M. Thomas or his ability to evoke a powerfully surreal world of the mind. Perhaps the limitations of this book reflect the limitations of its subject, Freud. Powerfully obsessed with the mysteries of the mind, Eating Pavlova ultimately gains little hold on the heart.
Gelareh Asayesh is a free-lance writer living in St. Petersburg.