BLOOMSBURY/FREUD; The Letters of James And Alix Strachey, 1924-1925. Edited by Perry Meisel and Walter Kendrick. Basic Books. 360 pp. $21.95.

JAMES STRACHEY's The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 volumes published by the Hogarth Press 1953-74, is today the definitive English translation of Freud. Strachey served as general editor of the series, revising existing as well as providing new translations, and his wife Alix worked as his chief assistant. Although both did some original work (most notably Alix's The Unconscious Motives of War, 1957), the Standard Edition remains their chef-d'oeuvre. They met in 1910, married in 1920, and wrote each other daily during their only extended separation, 1924-25. These letters make clear that the groundwork of their relationship was psychoanalysis, and love.

The "Bloomsbury" of this book's title is in some ways a misnomer. Member of the Cambridge Apostles, brother of Lytton Strachey, resident of London's Gordon Square, pacifist, James Strachey certainly had strong ties to the informal group of friends whose lives (and sometimes achievements) have become the objects of numerous studies. Alix's marrying James joined her to this amorphous band, which at one time or another also included John Maynard Keynes, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster, and G.E. Moore. The group defined James and Alix's world, but this book contains little fresh gossip about Bloomsbury.

But it does contain many fascinating and amusing anecdotes about the early Freud followers and their milieus. Freud himself psychoanalyzed both James and Alix. He handpicked James to be his English translator, and sent Alix to Berlin to finish analysis with the eminent Karl Abraham. Her stay there forms the basis of these letters. In addition to Abraham, she comes into contact with Theodor Reik, Melanie Klein, Lou Andreas-Salom,e, Ernst Simmel, Wilhelm Reich, amd many other psychoanalytic luminaries, about whom she provides unworshiping vignettes. Wilhelm Fliess treated her tonsillitis.

Just as interesting are her reports to James about the rich cultural scene of Berlin between the wars. She quite conquers her agoraphobia (fear of open or public places -- for which she went to Freud originally) and spends evenings attending Wilhelm Furtwangler concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic, Max Reinhardt's production of Shaw's St. Joan, a first-run German version of Pirandello starring Max Pallenberg, the Diaghilev Ballet, and Fritz Lang's classic films.

Alix psychoanalyzes herself and others throughout her letters to James, usually quite seriously and often insightfully, sometimes comically. At a ball, a young man asks her to dance. She interprets it "a curious psychological incident . . . I was clearly a Mother- Imago. Well, having got me, he couldn't get away (M.-fixation) . . . I tried . . . to shove him onto various females of his own age (Sister-transference), and he tried, too, but failed & clung to me. So I went off rather suddenly. -- Later in the evening I looked him up again . . . but he seemed offended & depressed (injured Narcissism)." At such times as this one wants to advise: Oh, Alix, shut up and dance.

James reports to Alix on the London cultural-intellectual life she has left behind. He too mingles with notable psychoanalysts, including Ernest Jones, Hans Sachs, and James Glover (who analyzes James), but he seems often to regard the psychoanalytic scene more flippantly, or pecuniarily, than does Alix. About one of his patients -- the more frugal of the two he regularly practices on -- he recounts:

"The buzzer announcing Winnie was followed by a longer pause than usual today; & I rightly guessed that he was writing the cheque on the stairs. He rushed in & pressed it upon me . . . threw himself upon the sofa & started off feverishly with: 'There's someone whose name I keep forgetting.' And then long talks about why he should forget names . . . It flashed into my mind tht he'd made some mistake over my name on the cheque, & I nearly risked the coup de th,eatre of walking over to the writing table . . . & looking at it. However, I restrained myself. When he'd gone, I went and looked at it: he hadn't signed it!"

BOTH ALIX AND James analyzed patients most of their lives. During the period of these letters, they were truly neophytes. We see them struggling to understand, practice, and translate Freud's work. They had found in psychoanalysis a venture to shape their talents, as fledgling as that young movement.

But where as patients, observers and even practitioners their weaknesses seem understandable and often amusing, as translators their fallibilty shocks. The letters' editors Meisel and Kendrick call the "Standard Edition . . . unquestionably the greatest achievement of its kind in the twentieth century." Yet nowhere do they so much as mention the many references James and Alix make to understanding German incompletely -- even after translating, and publishing, hundreds of pages! "I must take proper German lessons. I get worse at it every day," writes Alix (in one of many examples), after she provides advice, and corrects proofs, for Freud translations. All the editors have to say about the Stracheys' German is that in 1914 James wrote to his brother Lytton, "'I can understand no German neither spoken nor written . . . and don't much want to,'" and that in 1921 Alix was "ignorant of German." None of this will still Bruno Bettelheim and other distinguished critics who charge the Stracheys with botching Freud's plain, if difficult to translate, German. How, what and when did James and Alix study? The editors fail in their narrative to answer the most important questions raised by the very correspondence they have collected; alone these letters provide more ammunition for those who assail the Stracheys' translating expertise. Professional competence is not nearly as clearly conveyed as is love.

Alix had campaigned to win James; how the editors describe her success could characterize the Freud translations: "a compromise based on a collaboration." Alix's leaving James drew them only closer together. As she writes him: "I never believed before that I should keep so much of you by writing to you & getting your letters. It's like a conversation . . . " Their relationship and their work continued, healthier.

As a fitting irony, the best description of this documented separation comes from Bruno Bettelheim -- in his article eloquently criticizing the Stracheys' translation. He quotes a letter from Freud to Carl Jung, before Jung went from colleague to rial, in which Freud defines psychoanalysis: "in essence a cure through love." These letters portray a loving, compromised cure.