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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.