Books: The Books Interview: The Mysterious Case of Lisa A ; How Does Lisa Appignanesi Blend Glamorous Thrillers with Serious Theory? Dr Freud Has the Answer, Reveals Ruth Padel

By Padel, Ruth | The Independent (London, England), April 22, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Books: The Books Interview: The Mysterious Case of Lisa A ; How Does Lisa Appignanesi Blend Glamorous Thrillers with Serious Theory? Dr Freud Has the Answer, Reveals Ruth Padel


Padel, Ruth, The Independent (London, England)


How, these days, do you bridge the increasingly deep fault-line between popular and academic writing? How do you write between totally different genres without losing credibility in the eyes of readers and publishers? And how on earth do you move between a long- haul project concerned with carefully structured, intellectually profound ideas - and commercial, sexy, glamorous novels advertised on escalators in the Underground?

The way to do it, apparently, is intimate acquaintance with the thinker who made everyone accept that sex is the key to the psyche, and self-examination the major route to understanding the world: Sigmund Freud. Publishers do not often club together to promote an author. But they did this month, for Lisa Appignanesi, and the spot they chose for the launch was Freud's last home, now the Freud Museum in Hampstead. The house hosted a celebration of four books in three genres, all from the same perceptive intelligence - a woman whose downstairs toilet is festooned (well, you have to put them somewhere) with awards bestowed by the French Academy.

Lisa Appignanesi's novels are high-profile psychological thrillers. As in a psychoanalytic case history, their plots often turn on the memories and fantasies of a mysteriously troubled psyche. "The thriller is a fascinating genre because it allows you to explore, within a compelling fiction, some of the big questions - the nature of fear, loss, death, mourning, fantasy and its links (or not) with the real," she reflects. "It's true that thrillers, unlike analysis, are and need to be terminable. But there's usually another to write or read."

Her new novel, Sanctuary (Bantam, pounds 9.99), is set mainly in London. Its background theme is the rivalry between different approaches to psychotherapy. "I'm neither a practitioner nor a patient so I have no real way of judging this," comments the author. "I suspect that the various therapies are as good or bad as their practitioners." The key crowd scene, which brings together all the main players, is a launch party held - where else? - in the Freud Museum. Its lost heroine is a journalist with a social conscience who wrote a column in the Independent. Her disappearance hinges on a lost father, dangerous therapeutic practices, and GM crop experiments.

The Dead of Winter, out now in paperback (Bantam, pounds 5.99), is set in Canada with a detour to the South of France. It also has rivalry in its background: Canadian separatism, and the rift between French-speaking and Anglo-Canadians. This novel, too, is a search for the truth about a beautiful and sexy but psychologically opaque lost woman (in this case, dead).

There is always a cat in the background, a fluffy animal familiar who functions as an irrational emotional marker. There is a lost father, who may be bad; key characters not quite sure what has happened to them. As in Freud's case histories, a few vital "memories" may not be quite what they seem. These books are gripping reads, but also deeply reflective; and the clue that unravels the mystery is always psychological.

Lisa Appignanesi started out by lecturing on European studies, especially French ideas. In 1951, when she was five, her family emigrated from Poland and first alighted in Paris, where she and her brother were force-fed the language, and then went on to French- speaking Canada. English came last. "I've never really identified with a nationality," she says. "I guess I used to feel like a Montrealer and now feel like a Londoner. Nationalities are always so big and amorphous; they seem to work best in jokes."

She came of age intellectually just when French structuralism, feminist psychoanalysis and philosophy were turning the university arts world upside- down. Gurus like Roland Barthes demonstrated that new interpretative tools could and should be applied to popular culture as thoroughly as to alien cultures (as Levi Strauss was charismatically doing) or high art.

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