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Tiresias visits the analyst’s couch

by
19 November 2007

Peggy Woodford enjoys reading two brilliant new examples of contemporary fiction

Where Three Roads Meet
Salley Vickers
Canongate Books £12.99
(978-1-84195-986-3)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

DELPHI catches at the heart in a way few ancient sites do. It is omphalos, the world’s navel: visitors are drawn into its atmosphere, despite themselves. Chastened, we begin to sense how profoundly the early Greeks desired and feared Phoebus Apollo’s answers to their questions. All aspects of human existence were covered in the interpretations given by the seers of the oracles.

Sigmund Freud spent his life trying to analyse the balance of those aspects in the psyches of his patients. So there is a peculiar appropriateness that Salley Vickers decides in her new novel to imagine Freud involved in a duologue with Tiresias, the greatest of Delphi’s seers.

He appears to Freud first in 1923, when Freud’s fatal mouth cancer was detected; his visits intensify after 1938, when, now in Hampstead, Freud is clearly sliding towards death. Tiresias has come to tell the analyst a story, “a story with no sense”.

Freud at first sends him packing, but is slowly drawn in by Tiresias’s part in the life of Oedipus, on which terrible sequence of events Freud has based the central premise of his life’s work.

Freud, the crisp rationalist who does not accept ambiguity, is up against a man who was trained from boyhood to interpret the ambiguities of the numinous. Their clash is skilfully developed.

“But there are places, thin places, where the membrane of the earth is stretched and the immortal forces may more strongly be felt.”

  “The immortal forces, my good fellow, are a perennial fiction. A primitive defence against reality.”

“Or reality’s original?”

The reader is held throughout by the intellectual relish of these encounters, and by Freud’s slow change of attitude during Tiresias’s gripping retelling of the Oedipus story.

Vickers is both knowledgeable and passionate about Delphi and its long history. She knows that if Delphi does not come across as a special place, the impact of the book will seem thinner. Yet she puts into Tiresias’s mouth a long descriptive passage (“The dusky-leafed laurels, the sky-piercing cypresses . . .”) that jars — we hear her voice, not his, in her enthusiasm for a place she clearly loves.

But this is a minor lapse en route to an intensely moving ending, when Freud learns precisely what question Oedipus asked the oracle.

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