Mind games for ever: J M Coetzee's subject Sigmund Freud in Vienna, 1933. Photo: UNDERWOOD ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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J M Coetzee looks into the psychotherapist - and finds a modern bard

The Good Story is a dialogue between Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, a clinical psychologist and trainee psychotherapist.

The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy
J M Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz
Harvill Secker, 198pp, £16.99

The contemporary gaze has been turned, lately, on stories. There is something in ­stories that is essential to our sense of what it means to be adequately human. Children intuitively grasp this and what makes sense to them tends to be what truly nourishes (and so what deeply informs) the adults they become. Nor is it an accident that all of the great religions are founded on stories. The King James Bible’s translation from the Greek of the opening of the Gospel of John – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” – can as well be translated as: “In the beginning was the story, and the story was with God, and God was the story.” This is not the Gospel writer, as it were, dissing God. Unlike our materially minded age, the ancient world respected stories as the proper reflection of a reality too myriad and complex to define in simply naturalistic terms.

And stories – those we tell, or try to tell, ourselves; those we tell others; those that others tell about us – are the stuff of psychotherapy, the strange business that, in our age, has displaced the shaman, the wise woman, the guru and the priest in our attempts to make sense of our troubled lives.

J M Coetzee, one of our most distinguished living novelists, has been pondering the connections between fiction and psychotherapy. The Good Story is a dialogue between Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, a clinical psychologist and trainee psychotherapist. The title, as one might expect from a writer alive to antinomies, is ambiguous. What is meant here by “good”? Are we talking in moral, aesthetic, evolutionarily successful or remedial terms? And crucially, what relationship do fiction and therapy have with truth?

It is a perhaps unconscious assumption made by most therapists that “the truth shall set you free”. Coetzee finds Freud “echoing” this prescription (given Freud’s stalwart atheism, the Christian ­association is intriguing). “What is it,” Coetzee inquires, playing not so much devil’s as artist’s advocate, “that impels you, as a therapist, to want your patient to confront the truth about themselves, as opposed to collaborating or colluding in a story . . . that would make the patient feel . . . good enough to go out into the world better able to love and work?” The book mimics in form, though hardly in content, the exchanges between therapist and patient. Kurtz’s reply is sensible but predictable: self-serving narratives of one’s self are not fit for purpose. They narrow one’s life options and buckle under strain.

The supposition here is that a better, truer story exists, one that conforms in some way to things as they really are, or were – and that can be encouraged into existence in the therapeutic encounter. Coetzee presses the point: “What is an event itself, as opposed to the event as we interpret it to or for ourselves? . . . Is it possible – philosophically but also neurologically – to speak of a memory that is pristine, uncoloured by interpretation?”

If the real thing is such a dark horse, how do we know when we meet it? Though Kurtz, following the therapeutic model, is guardedly sanguine about the possibility of peeling back the veils occluding truth, both authors rightly mistrust memory as a source of veracity. (During my time as a psychoanalyst, I worked with a chief constable who convinced me the only trustworthy court witnesses are the tentative ones. Those who assert clear memories, he said, were generally shown to have been making things up.)

Memory, the authors agree, is endlessly mutable, subject to both internal and external prompts and steers. Yet it is equally capable of creative, as well as fantastical, formulations and flourishes. The way we recall history alters history: what is it, after all, but a compendium of memories? And the way we forget it alters it, too.

Freud’s most valuable contribution to our theories about consciousness and selfhood may be his theory of the anti-therapeutic inner editor who causes repression, followed by the inevitable “return of the repressed” (the fairy turned malign by exclusion from the christening). The pivotal story of psychoanalysis, the Oedipus drama, is the canonical account of this phenomenon. In flight from the prospect of killing his father, Oedipus meets and kills his father. Desire denied fosters the dreaded deed. (Although that raises a question about how far incestuous and murderous desire is actually innate. A more relevant interpretation of this story is that you don’t lose the things you fear by running from them.)

In the consulting room, Kurtz pragmatically suggests, the task is to reflect relegated matter back into consciousness; to enliven a moribund narrative by enfranchising what has been disowned. The story will then become a renewed space wherein its subject – and author – may the better live and move and have a freer being.

Coetzee cites Dostoevsky, whose pre-Freudian acuity on the return of the repressed was judged so dangerous in The Possessed that it was itself censored. One of the several beauties of Coetzee’s argument is its elegant deployment of fiction – he is especially good on Thomas Hardy and Henry James. It is on his wide experience of fiction, too, that, like a more engaged and more courteous “jesting Pilate”, he draws as he pursues the question, “What is truth?”

What works to set us free in the consulting room, he argues, is not so much truth as sympathy (though not simply mushy ­approval). He challenges the idea, notably promulgated by Melanie Klein, that one can “know” how a young baby feels, suggesting that when we “sympathetically inhabit our neonate selves, we are inhabiting a fiction”, and extrapolating from this that all sympathetic identification with another – of the kind that we experience in fiction – “has a fiction-like status and that our sympathetic intuitions can be relied on only to yield fictional truths”.

By which, as a creator of fiction in his own right, he means no dishonour. Kurtz describes the dispiriting process whereby trainee therapists are obliged to record their verbal exchanges with patients in their care. In the days when I supervised therapists, I mentally divided these accounts into three types: the patently bogus, the enlighteningly edited and the pseudo-record of an alleged dialogue, often laced for effect with ums and ers. The least satisfactory was the last, the supposedly accurate and accordingly more deceptive report.

But stories are not the prerogative of the patient. They are also the medium through which psychotherapists talk about their practice. Freud’s case studies, while cracking good stories, are not literally faithful to the process they purport to describe. What they have is their own kind of fidelity – what Coetzee would describe as a poetic fidelity – to the trauma of human experience. Coetzee’s most radical and exciting claim is “that our own needs and desires have a . . . fiction-like status . . . We try them out and if they suit us we inhabit them. A desire that is too thoroughly understood loses its force and in effect ceases to be desire.”

“How unworthy a thing you make of me,” Hamlet says to his dishonestly “open” friends. “You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery.” As Coetzee suggests, there is an inalienable mystery about being human. Long before psychotherapy was invented, Shakespeare showed how that mystery may more finely be apprehended through a sufficiently subtle story.

Salley Vickers’s latest book, “The Boy Who Could See Death”, is published by Viking

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism