Mark Axelrod-Sokolov, Madness in Fiction: Literary Essays from Poe to Fowles

Mark Axelrod-Sokolov, Madness in Fiction: Literary Essays from Poe to Fowles (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) 98 pp. £45.99 Hb. ISBN: 9783319705200

Literature has always been interested in representing Madness. The list of texts dealing with the issue is nearly endless, ranging from Euripides to Chekov, from Don Quixote to The Yellow Wallpaper. This topic has been explored in many studies, which now include Madness in Fiction: Literary Essays from Poe to Fowles (2018) by Mark Axelrod-Sokolov.

The book is an interesting and well-written discussion of the theme. It contains five essays on texts published between 1846 and 1963 by, respectively, Poe, Hamsun, Kafka, Hesse and Fowles. Each essay presents a close-reading analysis of how insanity is represented in one novel. Summaries of the texts appear in pages ix to xii, are reprinted in the abstracts heading the chapters, and reappear in the first paragraphs of each essay, which creates some repetitiveness within the book.

Axelrod starts the first chapter (Madness of Insult in Poe's The Cask of Amontillado) by quoting the definition of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and applying it to Montresor, the narrator of the short story. Montresor claims to have been insulted by Fortunato and nurtures wishes of revenge. The nature of the insult, however, is never clarified and Axelrod argues it is motivated because Fortunato poses as a connoisseur of wines but is, actually, an alcoholic. This is clear in Fortunato's ignorance that an Amontillado is a kind of “Sherry”, his indiscriminate mixing of the noblest French wines, and his drinking directly from the bottle. There are also textual elements that point to premeditation of the crime: the “madness of carnival”, Montresor's disguise, the precautions to do away with the servants. His urge to “punish with impunity” (13) is also discussed. The analysis ends with different quotes on insane delusions (Freud, Porter, Foucault, etc.) and the claim that Montresor “is doubtlessly schizophrenic long before the term was ever created” (14).

The second chapter (Madness of Starvation in Hamsun's Hunger) opens with remarks approaching Hamsun's biography to the sufferings endured by the hero of the narrative. The character eats little throughout the novel but moves incessantly. Axelrod explains his wanderings and his predisposition to philosophize by summoning Aristotle and the Peripatetics. He also discusses The Great Hunger Experiment in which, in order to study human reactions to starvation, participants ate little and walked 22 miles a day for several months, and consequently became weak, obsessed about food and abandoned intellectual interests. Axelrod argues that the main character likely eats less and walks more than the participants, and shows how many of the results of the study are accurately represented in the novel. One example would be the writer's block experienced by the main character due to poor eating. His conclusion is that “the novel has revolved around the notions of homelessness and hunger and how those situations contribute do madness” (39).

The following chapter (Madness of Marginalization in Kafka's Metamorphosis) addresses feelings of “spurious parentage” and “precariousness of artistic creativity” (45) in letter's by Kafka and in the Metamorphosis. Attention is given to the easiness with which Gregor's transformation is accepted, as well as to his apparent bigger concern with being late for work. Comments follow on his loss of speech, the changes in his eating and movement patterns, the inflamed reactions of the family, as well as the family's own metamorphosis (the return to work, the discovery of the father's savings, the possibility that Gregor's self-sacrifice was gratuitous). Axelrod argues that Gregor is “imprisoned” in his room because he is no longer part of a productive society, and highlights his unresisting acceptance of being marginalized. The author then suggests the same is true about Kafka (“the aversion you […] took to my writing was, for once, welcome to me” (49)). Elements which symbolically allude to artistic writing within the novel are also considered (Gregor's wish to keep his writing desk, the attraction of his sister's music which will eventually cost his life). Axelrod concludes by saying that “Art is at the core of the story and the marginalization of the artist, in this case the writer, is everywhere apparent” (57).

Chapter Four (Madness of Madness in Hesse's The Steppenwolf) engages in an analysis of elements in the plot and in the narratology of The Steppenwolf. The novel is convincingly presented as a myse em abyme, in which three voices are present: the nephew's in the preface, Haller's in his personal records, and the Treatise's. They are, however, suspiciously homogenous, something that, according to the author, implies “'madness' to them” (67). Axelrod also highlights how the warning “for madmen only”, presented repeatedly throughout the novel, seems at first glance out of place, since Haller does not engage in insane behaviour. The warning is used, actually, to engage the reader in a similar quest between the choice of a life of the mind or a life of the soul. Axelrod sees this bipartition as analogous to the “bicameral mind” proposed by Julian Jaynes: the left-Brain being wolf-like, and the right-brain, human-like. Substantial attention is dedicated to Haller's disdain for the provincial, the comfortable and the bourgeois. The essay concludes that madness prevails in Haller as the foundation of his personal quest.

The last chapter (The Madness of Romantic Obsession in Fowle's The Collector) suggests the insanity of the main character of The Collector is “rational” in a certain sense. Axelrod points to the structure of the novel, to its hierarchy of voices, and to Clegg's insistence in calling Miranda a “guest”,  as part of a strategy used to distance him from his crime. His biography is also employed in a similar fashion since Clegg can pose as “economically, socially, paternally, and maternally deprived” (88). Equally explored are the character's idealization of feminine beauty and purity, as well as his hate of “vulgar women”. The essay reaches its conclusion by pointing to the atrocities committed by the Nazis. According to Axelrod, they were not carried by madmen, but by “very rational men who were certain of their ideologies” (90). The same could be said of the methodical and rationalized madness represented in the novel.

Aureo Lustosa Guerios, University of Padua