Zugzwang is a term used in chess to refer to the state in which a player is reduced to utter helplessness, obliged to move, yet every move is guaranteed to make his position worse. Replete with parallels between the logic of the game, the practice of psychoanalysis and the sociopolitical shenanigans of a country on the brink of revolution, there are many zugzwangs in the novel, leading to a climax in which Dr Spethmann is faced with an impossible choice between different kinds of love.
The relationship of personal to political is raised as the two friends Spethmann and Kopelzon contrast their comfortable lives with those of their fellow Jews (p136):
‘Is it not right to speak of duty when we see these things? When we see our brothers forced to live as beasts? What should we do then? This is the question, Otto. This is the question for men like you and me, comfortable, well fed and successful. What do we do for our brothers?’ He drained his champagne in a single gulp. ‘Madmen and fanatics are killing us every day,’ he said, ‘murdering us.’
Parallels are drawn between the analytic process and the detective work involved in an investigation of murder. With the search for the truth taking priority over the witness’ comfort, the analyst questions Anna about an incident in her childhood immediately after a session of lovemaking, while the police inspector has no qualms about subjecting Dr Spethmann and his daughter to a spell in prison. The limits of both a citizen’s rights to privacy (cf Peter Carey’s Amnesia) and the therapist’s commitment to confidentiality are tested, for example when Dr Spethmann’s case notes are inspected by the police and when he chooses to disclose aspects of the therapeutic narrative to safeguard those he loves.
It is also a novel about the nature of change, whether it be by the unhurried process of psychoanalysis or by revolution. Dr Spethmann just happens to be seeing the de facto chief (in Lenin’s exile) of the Bolshevik faction of the Social Democrats, who expresses his impatience with his therapist’s approach (p57):
‘How would it be if I went to the people I represent and they told me all about their problems – how they couldn’t survive on their wages, how they lived twenty to a room and had no clean water, how rats swarmed over their children at night? How would it be if they told me all this and all I could say was: “What colour are the rats?”’
Although therapeutic practice has undoubtedly changed in the last hundred years, it’s not difficult to imagine some present-day analysands identifying with this sentiment. Yet one of the things that interested me about this novel was the presentation of psychoanalytic practice in its very early days. I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about the history to assess the accuracy of the characterisation but, given that the story was set a mere twenty years after Freud and Breuer published their seminal Studies on Hysteria, I wasn’t particularly surprised at Dr Spethmann’s fluid therapeutic boundaries. After his initial session with Anna, they sit in his consulting room chatting over tea, although he does concede that he’s crossed a line when they become lovers. I think it’s typical of practice at the time that Dr Spethmann would meet his current and prospective patients at social gatherings, and offer treatment to his friend. I can only speculate as to why that was considered acceptable: with Freud’s insistence on the scientific objectivity of his new technique practitioners might have considered it akin to any other medical intervention; the presumably restricted pool of interest among the largely affluent Jewish intelligentsia made for a significant overlap between the analyst’s social circle and his/her work.
Another difference was in the analyst’s belief that the recovery of repressed memories would constitute a cure whereas, as I’ve remarked in relation to another fictional therapist, modern therapists would consider this neither necessary nor sufficient. Might the same be said about the quest for a sociopolitical cure: does an uprising of the oppressed automatically end their suffering; can we construct more egalitarian structures without exposing the injustices of the past?
Follow the links for my thoughts on how to write a convincing contemporary psychotherapist and for my reviews of other novels in this series. Next in this series, we meet a therapist in training in Kate Evans’s The Art of the Imperfect. Next in my general reviews will be Vigilante by Shelley Harris.