Janet Malcolm, In the Freud Archives (1983)

I have an excuse to be blogging about this book so late (about 3 months after finishing it): this baby is robbing me of many (most?) of my neurons, that’s a fact (whatever is left is mainly dedicated to my husband, son and coworkers, sorry guys). And you don’t want to read this book absent-mindedly.

But I’d be sorry not to blog at all about it, because it needs to be praised, and promoted, so that people buy Janet Malcolm’s books in droves. Yes, that’s this good.

I’d never had known Janet Malcolm if not for book bloggers. I think it’s Rebecca from Of books and bikes who put me on her track. And now I am all the more convinced that I must read everything she’s published.

In the Freud Archives’ subject or title are not sexy: it’s mainly about Freudian scholars fighting over who will get access to the archives and secrets of the master. But don’t be afraid, it’s fascinating and brimming with tension (these scholars fight hard!), so that it resembles more a thriller than a scholarly paper. The plot comes down to that: the old king of Freudian archives, Kurt Eissler, unexpectedly gives the keys to the Archives to a young, dashing and ambitious scholar, Jeffrey Mason (the equivalent to reaching the Holy grail), but soon after the designated prince turns against his mentor and publicly challenges the Freudian orthodoxy that sexual hysteria derived from the patients’ imagination and not from actual sexual abuse. Eissler and Mason then launched an all-out war fueled by personal bitterness and disappointment.

It’s non-fiction, but she doesn’t make it all dry and serious (that’s why I read it with glee, when I usually read so little non-fiction). On the contrary, she takes time to flesh out characters and use metaphors. Freudian scholarly disputes get real and highly personal. She explains the bottom line of Freudian theories, but she also describes what people had to eat when they met, like in a reportage.

The book goes beyond this plot itself, because as much as it is about manipulation and expectations, Malcolm herself played no mean role in the dispute: Mason sued her for libel over it and the suit lasted 10 years before she was cleared. Just as in The Silent Woman, I’m not sure how objective Malcolm was or even tried to be in her relation to the different parties, but the strength of her books is that she doesn’t try to hide the necessary subjectivity of the writer.

Sure, you need to be a bit interested in Freudian stuff before reading this book, but to me, it was an exciting experience (I admittedly know more about Freud than about Sylvia Plath). I’ve heard that The Journalist and the Murderer is her best book, so I’m looking forward to reading it (hopefully next year, if  the baby gives me some neurons back!).

PS. Do you allow me 1 minute bragging? Back during summer, on the French equivalent of NPR, I was surprised to hear one of my favorite French non-fiction writers, Emmanuel Carrère, and an influential (if on the traditional side) philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, praise Malcolm as their latest literary discovery, as The Journalist and the Murderer was just being translated and published in France. Duh, I said, why haven’t they asked book bloggers?

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8 thoughts on “Janet Malcolm, In the Freud Archives (1983)

  1. You’re right. more people should think about asking book bloggers if they want a good book. This is definitely the place to come for unbiased and knowledgeable reviews. We have nothing to gain from saying precisely what we think.

    This sounds fascinating to me. There is nothing like good old academic rivalry to bring out the worst in people. And it starts so early as well. I have seen a PhD student at the point of violence when I’ve had to tell them that someone has already covered the very topic they thought was going to make their name. Penknives at dawn!

  2. I adore Janet Malcolm – she’s one of my favourite non-fiction writers and I think I can recommend everything she’s written. Like you, I love the way she shows how subjectivity is rampant in all non-fiction. And she does write in a way that’s reminiscent of the thriller. Also – congratulations on your new arrival! I do hope there are pictures available???

    • I rush to correct your impression: I’m in pre-baby maternity leave, and I will definitely have some pictures in January when the baby will be there. In the meantime, this foetus robbs me of all my energy… and I don’t think it’s going to improve very soon.

  3. Pingback: 2013 in Review and an Outlook on 2014 | Smithereens

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