Warning: These comments contain spoilers.
Conrad Aiken is not talked about much now but he was a distinguished literary figure from the early to mid-20th century. He is most remembered as a poet but he wrote several well-received novels and a couple of much-anthologized short stories. He was poet laureate and won a Pulitzer Prize. His poetry uses the prosody of English richly, and it was through listening to him reading his poetry that I became interested enough to pick up his novel The Great Circle.
There is a curious story about this novel and Freud. Freud was an admirer of Aiken's work and particularly described this book as one of his favorite novels. Aiken was interested in Freud, and they corresponded, which led Aiken to set out by ship for England with the expectation that he would be analyzed by Freud. By chance, Eric Fromm was on the same ship and Fromm persuaded Aiken that was a bad idea. Aiken and Freud never met, although Aitken lived for some years in England.
This novel recounts in five long chapters a painful and chaotic few days in the life of its protagonist, a Cambridge intellectual of the 1920s or 30s. In the first chapter, he is in a state of manic anxiety and loquacious overthought as he returns to Boston by train from New York because he anticipates that he may discover that his wife is having an affair with another man. In the second chapter, he reaches his apartment where he discovers that what he feared was true. He and his wife have a scene. The third is a flashback to his middle childhood where at a beach resort he suffers tragic events that involve secrecy and infidelity. Aiken is good with children, writing realistic child dialogue and realistically and movingly portraying their minds. The fourth chapter really must be one of the oddities of psychoanalytic literature. It is a sort of session with his analyst that begins when he arrives at his analyst's apartment, drunk, at 1 o'clock in the morning and with lengthy and creative verbal skill, talks to the long-suffering therapist about his painful feelings and problems in a richly evasive manner, all the while downing drink after drink. The analyst eventually goes to sleep. It makes it interesting to consider why Freud admired this work. In the last chapter he meets with his estranged wife, they have a ambiguous conversation, and he departs to spend a few days alone at the beach resort were the tragic events of his childhood occurred.
The effective plot tension of this novel consists at first of wondering whether his wife is actually unfaithful, then of wondering what will become of them as a couple, all the while wondering if the protagonist can hold his shit together. Characterization of the protagonist is rich, complex, and sometimes funny; the secondary characters are well drawn, particularly children, but only sufficiently to fill their places. The prose (narrative, dialogue, and stream of consciousness) is quite a remarkable achievement. His power as a poet and the richness of his imagination make us feel the role of unconscious images in our emotional life and relate the sufferings of his protagonist too much of culture.