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A Very Sad Freud

Freud’s Sister

by Goce Smilevski, translated from the Macedonian by Christina E. Kramer
Penguin, 266 pp., $16.00 (paper)
Freud Museum, London
Sigmund Freud with his mother and sisters, including Adolfina (center), at their father’s grave, Vienna, 1897
All normal people are normal in the same way; each mad person is mad in his own way.
—Freud’s Sister

Like the fine mist of poison gas that hisses into the Nazi death chamber at Terezín at the terrifying conclusion of Freud’s Sister, obliterating the carefully preserved memories that comprise the novel, an air of paralyzing melancholia pervades virtually each page of this meditative work of fiction by a Macedonian writer born in 1975, whose appropriation of the private life of Freud’s youngest sister Adolfina and of the Holocaust generally is bold and unexpected. This is Smilevski’s third novel, and since it is a joint portrait of Adolfina Freud and her oldest sibling Sigmund, it dares to provide a kind of shadow biography of Freud that is highly critical of the “great man,” seen from the perspective of an admiring sister whose life, like the lives of three other Freud sisters, Freud is charged with having neglected to save from the Nazi death camps.

Imagined biographies, like imagined histories, are works of fiction primarily, yet most readers expect, not unreasonably, that a “novel based in fact” (as Goce Smilevski describes Freud’s Sister) will explore probability rather than merely possibility. Smilevski makes his intentions clear in his Author’s Note:

Although Sigmund Freud wrote that “reality will always remain unknowable,” we do know about Freud’s exit visa [from Austria, 1938] and the opportunity it represented for his sisters, and about Freud’s final months spent in exile in London—they are documented in detail. We also know about the fate of Freud’s sisters. Their final months, however, are lost to history.

Freud referred to Adolfina in a letter as “the sweetest and best of my sisters”; from letters, Smilevski says, we know that Adolfina was “mistreated by her mother, that she lived with her parents as an adult and cared for them until their deaths,” and “that she spent her life in loneliness.”

The silence around Adolfina is so loud that I could write this novel in no other way than in her voice. The well-known facts of Sigmund Freud’s life were like scenery, or like the walls of a labyrinth in which I wandered for years, trying to find the corridors where I could hear Adolfina’s voice so I could write it down, and in this way rescue in fiction one of the many lives forgotten by history.

The challenge for the writer of fictitious history/biography is to create a “voice” that is both original and appropriate—in this case, the voice of a virtually unknown person who is used, by the author, as a kind of lens, at times a virtual rifle scope, with which to view Sigmund Freud in a way that is sure to be provocative.

In its most distilled form, Freud’s Sister is a dialogue between the imagined voice of the silenced Adolfina and the highly articulate voice of Sigmund Freud. It is in those touchingly rendered scenes in which Sigmund meets with his “sweetest and best” sister, spaced through the decades of their lives, that Freud’s Sister acquires a dramatic urgency otherwise missing from the intensely inward, frequently hallucinatory and surreal text of impressionistic reminiscences and philosophical musings of Adolfina and others imagined by the author.

When Sigmund is present, the novel comes into sharp focus: as if inspired by Sigmund’s intelligence, a far cooler and more detached intelligence than her own, Adolfina is capably of speaking clearly and persuasively. At other times Adolfina is scarcely articulate, and exasperatingly passive, to a degree that suggests mental retardation. Years pass in Adolfina’s life in which nothing seems to happen of any significance: apart from an early, disastrous love affair with a pathologically depressed younger man named Rainer Richter, Adolfina has no interests, no work, no training, no education, no life other than that of sister to the ever more famous and notorious Sigmund Freud and daughter to a malevolent and unmotherly mother.

Yet like a cruel fairy tale Freud’s Sister manages to suggest, even as Adolfina’s life becomes ever more narrow and helpless, that there might still—somehow—be a way for her to be “saved”; there is the desperation of hope in the face of doom, as in the pathetic reasoning of a fellow prisoner whom Adolfina encounters in the first Nazi camp:

This is not a true camp but a transit camp, a way station. Trains, each holding a thousand people, occasionally depart from here for the other camps. It is different there…. They say that people are sometimes brought into rooms where, they are told, they are going to shower…. Poisonous gas is then released, and they suffocate…. So it is best for us to remain here as long as possible. Until this evil subsides. Then we will all go home.

Freud’s Sister begins in the last year of Adolfina’s life, 1938, in Vienna. In a sequence of surpassingly painful vignettes the elderly woman “sifts through her earliest memories,” each of which involves her brother Sigmund, six years her senior: as a boy he stroked her cheek with an apple, he whispered to her an enigmatic and ominous fairy tale of a bird that tears out its own heart, and he gave her a knife. (Decades later, when both are old, and Sigmund is nearing his betrayal of Adolfina and her sisters, as he is nearing his own death by cancer, Sigmund denies ever having told Adolfina the fairy tale.)

Two of the Freud sisters—Paulina and Adolfina—are taken with others from the Jewish quarter to a park where they are forced to run as German soldiers aim rifles at their backs:

Hundreds of old legs set off running. We ran, we fell down, we stood up, we began running again, while behind us we heard the soldiers’ laughter, sweet with carelessness and sour with the enjoyment of someone else’s pain.

For the time being, the terrified sisters are allowed to live, and to return to their home in the Jewish quarter; the next day, Adolfina visits the eighty-two-year-old Sigmund, to appeal to him to acquire exit visas for his sisters, as he’d done for his own family. But Sigmund is curiously unmoved by Adolfina’s plea, saying repeatedly that the Nazi violence is not going to happen in Austria, though, as Adolfina has tried to tell him, it has already happened—to her and their sisters. With maddening indifference, as he fusses with his “ritual cleaning of the antiques in his study,” Sigmund insists that such harassment won’t last long in Austria; when Adolfina counters by saying that the occupation of Austria is the start of Hitler’s campaign to conquer the world and to “wipe anyone who is not of the Aryan race from the face of the earth,” Sigmund, in Slimenski’s rendering, says placidly that Hitler’s ambitions won’t be fulfilled:

In just a few days, France and Britain will force him to withdraw from Austria, and then he will be defeated in Germany as well. The Germans themselves will beat him; the support they are giving Hitler now is only a temporary eclipse of their reason…. Dark forces guide the Germans now, but somewhere inside them is smoldering that spirit on which I, too, was nurtured. The nation’s madness cannot last forever.

Adolfina’s older brother Sigmund has long been a defender of all things German, and with some disdain for the Jewish religion; for him, as for others in the Freud family who have wished to imagine themselves fully assimilated into German culture, German is the “sacred language.” Adolfina thinks of how, in this fierce identification with Germany,

the slender thread was broken between us and our forgotten ancestors. We were the first nonbelievers in the long line of generations from the time of Moses to our own…. We were enraptured with the German spirit and did everything to become a part of it.1

At this crucial meeting, Sigmund refuses to listen to Adolfina. He quotes from an article by Thomas Mann titled “Brother Hitler,” in which the “old analyst” who lives in Vienna is imagined as the (unarticulated, unconscious) reason for Hitler’s having invaded the city—“his true and authentic enemy—the philosopher and unmasker of neurosis, the great deflator, the very one who knows and pronounces on what ‘genius’ is.’” In Smilevski’s recapitulation, Sigmund’s pride in Mann’s words blinds him to the reality of Hitler’s invasion of Austria and what it will mean for the Jewish community and for his own family.

Following this meeting, Sigmund distances himself from Adolfina and sees her again only just before he flees to London. His reasons for leaving Vienna are blatantly hypocritical: “I am going not because I want to but simply because some of my friends, diplomats from Britain and France, have insisted that the local offices give me exit visas.” Failing to provide visas for his sisters, Sigmund will be taking with him his wife, their children, and their children’s families, as well as his wife’s sister Minna, two housekeepers, Sigmund’s personal doctor and his family, and “Jo-Fi,” Sigmund’s pet dog.

It’s the last that Adolfina will see her brother, who will die of cancer not long after relocating to London. Abandoned in Vienna, Adolfina and three of her sisters are eventually rounded up, with other Jews, and brought by freight car to a “small fortified town” where they live in a barracks. There, Adolfina is befriended by Ottla Kafka, whose brother Franz died in 1924; in a curious interlude, Ottla recites her brother’s little story “The Bachelor’s Misfortune” to Adolfina. It is Ottla who speaks of the “way station” as a place where no one will die, though very soon Ottla is sent by train to another camp where, in the company of young children, she is executed. As vividly as if it were her own death, Adolfina imagines the awful scene:

I thought of them being unloaded at the camp and led to a room where they’re ordered to strip off their clothes. I heard Ottla tell the children they must shower first, and advise each of them to pay attention to exactly where they were leaving their clothes, because after the shower they would need to get dressed as quickly as possible so they could get to the beach…. Some of them extend their arms, expecting jets of water. But then, instead of water from the showers, a poisonous gas spreads out from somewhere.

Following this scene, Freud’s Sister becomes an effort of reclamation, as the doomed Adolfina recalls her life in dreamlike detail. “At the beginning of my life there was pain”—this melancholy statement sets a tone from which there is virtually no variance through Adolfina’s childhood, girlhood, and adulthood. The author seems to have been considerably challenged in imagining a life for the “silenced” Adolfina apart from her relationship to her brother. Adolfina fails to achieve anything like a distinctive identity. Her mother persists in perceiving her youngest child as “the pain of her life” and says repeatedly to her, “It would have been better if I had not given birth to you.” (Adolfina’s mother had been forced into a loveless marriage with a much older man and had lived in poverty and misery.)

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    In an extended analysis of Freud’s controversial monograph Moses and Monotheism (1937), Smilevski suggests that the purpose of Freud’s radical argument—to declare that Moses wasn’t a Jew and in this way “deny a people the man whom it praises as the greatest of his sons”—was to establish Freud himself as a “self-made leader and prophet.” Through the persona of Adolfina, Smilevski deconstructs Freud’s motives:

    Throughout his life [Freud] tried to prove in his works that the essence of the human race is guilt: everyone was guilty because everyone was once a child, and in the competition for its mother’s love, every child desires the death of its adversary, its father…. He blamed the most innocent; the most innocent and the most helpless carried this primordial sin.
    In his self-mythologizing, Smilevski writes, Freud imagines himself as Cain, and as Noah, as well as Oedipus; but in those desires he doesn’t wish to acknowledge he also wanted to be a prophet—“and so he took Moses away from the Jews.” Freud “wanted to be unique, autonomous, self-made,” as he wanted “to lead the human race to freedom from the I, to free humans from the fetters of repression and the dark abysses of the unconscious.” His identification with German culture is predominant, and his sense of himself as Jewish secondary:

    “My language is German. My culture, my achievements are German. I considered myself intellectually to be a German, until I noticed the growth of anti-Semitic prejudices in Germany and in German Austria. Since then, I prefer to call myself a Jew.” He said it just like that: “I prefer to call myself a Jew,” and not “I am a Jew.”
    Adolfina concludes that her brother associates his “Jewishness” with his “blood”—“the thing he could not change, and he felt a kind of shame toward it.”

    For differing views of the subject of Freud’s Jewishness see David Bakan, Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition (Van Nostrand, 1958); Peter Gray, A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis (Yale University Press, 1987), and William J. McGrath, “ How Jewish was Freud?The New York Review, December 5, 1991. 

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