Tel’s first novel (Arafat’s Elephant, stories, 2002) is a slight, poetic little thing that has its considerable charm but remains determinedly airy and unballasted.
When Freud escaped Vienna and settled in London, he was to die there the next year, in 1939, victim of cancer of the mouth. Tel’s story takes up that year or so in 26 alphabetic “chapters,” from “Apple” to “Zebra,” that describe prewar London, the neighborhood Freud lived in, and aspects of his daily life, mainly concerning his friendship with Ernest Jones, the great protégé of Freud’s who, in this telling, euthanizes the great man (though in real life, Jones wasn’t the one). The patient, indeed, had bouts of great pain, and he came to London already wearing an artificial palate—a device that, in one whimsical passage, jumps out of Freud’s mouth and flies around, chattering. Fancy can be powerful (and powerfully charming), but here it hints at a will-o’-the-wisp quality of the whole that keeps Tel’s little novel from drawing the strengths it seems to want from its subject. A light-toned treatment of Freud—at one point he sees a number of patients in a day: all are magically cured—is hardly taboo, but Tel’s true subject just doesn’t quite ever get chosen. Is it Freud? London? The coming war? The past? At one moment, London is described (to Freud’s perplexity) as a city where feeling must be hidden behind humor, at another as a city quaintly going about its Our Town–like ways (a postman’s “wife is pregnant with what will become the goalkeeper of a first-division ball team 1962-67”), at another as a city where no one has an inner life. Even if a reader just follows along with the author’s mercuric eye, there’s still the matter of Freud, like Tel’s London, never quite getting in focus, solidifying, or deepening, resulting in a book that, at end, has a central figure but not really a central character.
A museum of a place and time that’s filled, however brightly, with trinkets.