Beyond the Pleasure Principle

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A review of Vienna Triangle, by Brenda Webster

Vienna Triangle is much more than the construction of a fiction around historical facts and figures.

The creation of an historical work of fiction is problematic at best; populating a balanced narrative with well-known personages requires a writer who takes chances. Brenda Webster is such a writer. Her new novel, Vienna Triangle, depicts Sigmund Freud’s fin de siècle Vienna through the lens of 1960s America, two similarly tumultuous periods. Effortlessly, this author interlaces the two eras, along with characterizations and ideologies indigenous to each.

No stranger to this subject matter, Webster has previously written an essay on Helene Deutsch’s relation to Freudian theory (“Helene Deutsch: A New Look”) as well as a memoir chronicling her family’s century-long involvement with psychoanalysis (The Last Good Freudian).

The fictitious protagonist of Vienna Triangle is 28-year-old Kate Berg, who juggles graduate study in psychology and a not-so-perfect relationship with a young sociology professor named Keith, with taking care of her convalescent mother. While writing her dissertation about female psychoanalysts, she happens to meet octogenarian Helene Deutsch, a prized member of Freud‘s inner circle, later unfairly blamed by feminists for not having rejected Freud‘s premise of inherent female masochism; they failed to recognize the liberating nature of Deutsch’s work with patients. The fortuitous liaison between Kate and Helene not only aids Kate in her research but leads her to the surprising discovery of a family secret: a diary that discloses an aspect of her heredity connected to Helene. Thus, these two women provide the novel’s parallel points of view, juxtaposed in a way that accentuates their bond and introduces a vital dynamic early in the story.

The relationship triangle referred to by the title is the historic one between Freud, his brilliant disciple Viktor Tausk, and Lou Andreas-Salomé, Tausk’s lover and Freud’s muse. Related in flashbacks, their affiliation serves as a catalyst for the actions of the contemporary characters. Other, less dominant triads keep popping up over the course of the book, both past (Helene/Tausk/Freud) and present (Helene/Kate/Emily, Kate/Keith/Helene).

Initially, some of the relationships come off as convenient to the plot. Eventually, however, they become a statement of the function of synchronicity in the universe. The novel’s focus on Tausk’s controversial suicide reinforces the role of will-versus-fate and the notion that one must assume culpability for the consequences of one’s actions. This was especially true in the case of Freud’s attitude towards his followers, especially Tausk. Here Webster raises as many questions as she answers: Did Freud’s genius render him incapable of acknowledging the actual sources of his ideas? Did he purposefully appropriate the work of his associates because he was intolerant of competition and assumed that the collective results would exonerate him anyway? Finally, was Freud really Tausk’s rival in love affairs as well as intellectual ones, or was it simple lack of empathy that made him suspicious of his supporters? The overall implication is that Tausk’s suicide could have been prevented had there been a better understanding between these great minds.

Kate’s periodic reading of the found diary results in an effectively paced revelation of her family’s ties to Freud’s universe. Her research thus becomes more personal than academic. Disclosure of pivotal plot points via the diary balances nicely with the viewpoint of Helene Deutsch, whose loyalty to Freud makes her unreliable. Webster doles out this information sparingly, in a writing style reminiscent of the best detective novels but without recourse to the clichés of that particular genre.

The fact that the diary is a total fabrication, but contains real people and events, enables it to act as a medium that connects the novel’s past with its present day. More precisely, it unites characters with mutual ties to the past, even when they were unfamiliar to one another. Furthermore, the diary establishes possible underlying reasons for Tausk’s behavior, embodying the same masculine principles that interact so well with Kate’s feminine values in her world.

Vienna Triangle is much more than the construction of a fiction around historical facts and figures. It brings to light some virtually unknown aspects of the inner workings of psychoanalysis as well as the origins of the movement itself. But this novel’s major success is that it provides a lesson in growth through wisdom, sympathy and humility.

Richard Mandrachio is a writer, editor, and illustrator whose literary reviews, short fiction and poetry have been published nationally. He is also on the Fiction Committee of the Northern California Book Reviewers. More from this author →