Alex Pheby’s second novel, Playthings, is a fictionalized retelling of the life of Daniel Paul Schreber (1842-1911), the prominent German judge who repeatedly fell victim to bouts of schizophrenic psychosis, and who detailed his experiences in the autobiographical work, Memoirs of my Nervous Illness. Somewhat treasured within the psychiatric discourses, Schreber’s life and writing have sustained seemingly unremitting interest over the decades, with critical interpretations appearing from Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, and more.
Not merely confined to the academy, however, the lingering allure of ill-fated Schreber has also inspired numerous filmic, novelistic and musical works, emanating from both the American and the European continents. For some, the notion of laying claim to the inner life of a deeply scrutinized historical figure would be enough to hamper, or even deaden, one’s inventive energies; in the case of Playthings, however, we can be thankful that Alex Pheby was not discouraged.
After considering the super clean prose and the thought-provoking treatment of its beleaguered protagonist, one would be hard-pressed to argue that Playthings is not a genuinely imaginative contribution to Schreber studies. Praise withstanding, the novel is unequivocally Freudian in tone; save for the fact that it deliberately downplays Freud’s own diagnosis– that Schreber’s neuroses were as a result of his repressed homosexuality – and, instead, foregrounds a more active and many-faceted interpretation. That being said, Playthings is a novel about disturbances in the familiar. It is, after all, the strange absence of Schreber’s normally attentive wife, Sabine, that catalyzes Schreber’s initial resignation of lucidity.
When Sabine Schreber is discovered, collapsed in an upstairs room, Daniel Schreber ignores the pleas of his housekeeper, convinced in his belief that the unconscious woman is nothing other than an impostor. This leads to Schreber’s delirious peregrination through the streets of Dresden, which culminates in his eventual committal to an asylum: a place not totally dissimilar to the ‘Institute’ over which his father had once presided, and in which he had lived as a child. In this asylum, between a routine of daily humiliation and maltreatment, Schreber invokes the memories of his childhood, and in remembering, repeating and working through these afterimages, the novel’s villain comes to prominence.
In Moritz Schreber, Pheby finds not just a ruthless disciplinarian- a patriarch of iron fist and inflexible posture -he also finds a composite of the totalitarian and the proto-fascistic ideal. In short, the impossibly upright Moritz Schreber is a man for whom obesity, lethargy and physical deformity are synonymous with moral perversion. In this way, Playthings admirably develops from individual psychoanalytic account, to a wider cultural examination of ‘Fatherland’, and of the notoriously germane Freudianism: the ‘narcissism of small differences’.
Yet, where M. Schreber is the embodiment of a logic that crudely associates rigidity with nobility, beauty with virtue, and violence with strength, he is also an emblematic counterpoint to Daniel Schreber’s own sexual transgressivity. This dramatic tension between the regimental father and the recalcitrant son finds its template in a provocative scene at the heart of the novel, which involves Daniel and his siblings assuming the roles of their momentarily absent parents, with Daniel feigning motherhood. Much longer than the laconic chapters that stand either side of it, this focal scene renders the thematic throughline of Pheby’s novel, that is, the undulations of femininity and absence, juxtaposed against incursions of masculinity and presence.
Taken as a whole, then, Pheby’s novel is somewhat redolent of the lean volumes of the French existentialists, with their doomed protagonists and their pressurized examinations of the customary, religious, and sexual status quo. Where it differs notably, from the work of, say, Sartre or Camus is in its interrogation of the history of German Idealism that (arguably) fostered the intensification of anti-Semitic prejudice.
By transcending the old reductionist charge so often levelled at psychoanalysis, Pheby recruits his personal Schreber as a candidate to explore the permeability of gender and to discredit the inherent absurdities of the totalitarian cast of mind. Throughout, Playthings remains nimble of pace and absorbing of theme, but, implicitly, it ventures the same ethical problematic that Schreber himself once posed, viz. at what point can a man deemed insane be incarcerated against his will?
At the very least, Playthings is a wonderful exemplar of the relationship between psychoanalysis and fiction, and stands as a dutiful reminder of why Joyce was compelled to compare Freud’s talking cure with blackmail.
Playthings has just been shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2016. Find out more here.
Review by Thomas Paton
A graduate of Sussex University’s Critical & Creative writing MA, Thomas writes reviews, short stories and critical essays, and expects to continue on to doctoral study in 2017.