- A recent Good Reads reviewer wrote that she had some problem with the ending of Guises of Desire. Her difficulty was that, although the Author’s Note at the end had explained what my thinking had been regarding the causes of Bertha’s illness, the explanation had not been clear in the novel itself. In other words, she felt that readers would not be able to work out a diagnosis for themselves, or guess at the kind of diagnosis I had based my interpretation on.
I can understand why the reviewer felt this and I’ve been wondering what I could have done to avoid this kind of dissatisfaction – if dissatisfaction it is.
Perhaps the explanation can be found in the views of another reader who has commented that I never slip into a contemporary frame of reference, that the setting is pre-Freudian and that nothing of Freudian theory creeps into my character’s words or reflections. I would add that the setting is also pre-modern-neurology and that the kind of diagnosis I have in mind would therefore not form part of it. It’s difficult therefore to see how, while remaining resolutely in the 19th century and with the narrative perspective being that of the characters rather than omniscient, I could have created a picture which would have led the reader, unless a medical professional, to think: Oh yes, Bertha Pappenheim clearly has such and such a condition. As it is, readers are drawn rather into the world of Bertha herself, experiencing the same confusion as Bertha, her family and her doctors, totally perplexed as to what’s going on and trying to figure out their own explanation.
Of course, I could have written a different kind of book, one which would have demonstrated quite clearly where I was coming from. I’d thought, for example, of doing one of those split-time novels which are popular now in historical fiction, with perhaps the parallel story of a modern neurological researcher working on the Anna O case, or something similar. Or I could have done something more avant-garde, interspersing the narrative with fragments of contemporary analysis of the case, with excerpts from case studies of later patients displaying similar syndromes, and so on.
It’s interesting to compare Guises of Desire with the novel Lying Awake by Mark Salzmann which tells the story of a contemplative Catholic nun who has mystical experiences associated with temporal lobe epilepsy. Because the setting is a contemporary one, a full depiction of her condition, both subjective and medical is possible. Of course, this could give rise to a whole new set of questions. Does the corresponding electrical activity of the brain create the content of the mystical experiences or does it provide a conduit to a supernatural dimension. The answer to this is likely to depend on the religious views, or lack thereof, of the reader. And it’s still pretty much true that one’s interpretation of the Bertha Pappenheim case depends on which school of psychological thought one subscribes to.