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REVIEW: Freud’s Sister by Goce Smilevski

Freud’s Sister
Goce Smilevski

Review by Laura Baas

In one of his letters, Freud refers to Adolfina as “the sweetest and best of my sisters.” His son Martin is not as kind toward his aunt. Reading the few lines that refer to her in Martin’s book about his father, we can conclude that Adolfina was underestimated by her family, and sense the pity that family members felt for her. From letters we also know that she was mistreated by her mother, that she lived with her parents as an adult and cared for them until their deaths, that she spent her life in loneliness. And that is all we know about her. 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.

This short novel was quite the dense read, and the subject required a little research from other sources. Brace yourself for a long review.

The beauty of an historical novel is that a talented author can re-create events with fiction and use the story to make me reconsider what I know (or think I do) about a person or era. My favorite example is Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which forever banished any image of Richard III as a murderous hunchback. Whenever I read one, I always end up reading a biography or history book on the subject, and this was no exception. What I know of Sigmund Freud and his psychological theories makes me think of him as a misogynistic tool—if asked to summarize his theories, I would respond with “it’s some bullshit about how males are the normal standard, females are inferior; women are ruled by their crazy uteri, and men spend all their time worrying about having their junk cut off.”

Sigmund Freud is, in my opinion, completely unfair to both sexes. Four of his five sisters died in concentration camps, and learning this immediately made me curious as to why siblings of such a famous person would be left behind. Surely he must have had some influence?

It would have been very easy for Goce Smilevski to paint him as a villain who abandoned his sisters to their fate. Early on in Freud’s Sister, this appears to be the portrait. The premise of this novel is whether or not Sigmund Freud is culpable in the deaths of his sisters. Opening the story in Austria, 1938, Smilevski has Adolfina pleading with her brother to assist them as he and his daughter pack for London. Sigmund reassures her that everything will be all right and shows her the list of names he submitted to the Nazi authorities for exit visas. The twenty names include his doctor and his dog, among others, but not his sisters.

I checked out Peter Gay’s Freud: A Life for Our Time, from my local library to verify incidents in Smilevski’s book. Sure enough, the list he made is mentioned but that none of sisters’ names appeared on it is not. Their deaths are only referred to in a brief footnote. Smilevski is not kidding about the silence around Adolfina. Granted, Sigmund Freud died prior to his sisters and never knew their eventual fates, but I was surprised that biographers did not mention any possible psychological effect of having to leave four siblings, including the sister he described as “the sweetest,” behind.

Despite my dislike of Freud’s theories, I could not call him a stupid man. He had five sisters and one brother; what would his favorite sister have been like? Smilevski gives us a woman who, though not educated, is intelligent and just as curious about the human spirit as her famous sibling.

At first, I had difficulty connecting with these characters. Dialogue in some places seemed far closer to declaiming than conversation, and, frequently, one or two words would be repeated in a paragraph. For example:

Perhaps I was something like a pit into which my mother could throw her darkness. Perhaps, I thought, she hated in me my father, her ancient husband, who was older even than her own father. Perhaps in her hatred toward me she extinguished her longing to have a husband her own age even before that yearning had been ignited. Perhaps her hate was an expression of that distant pain, born of being forced to smother her girlish dreams prematurely, to obey her ancient husband in silence, to live in poverty and give birth and raise children in that poverty.

This style of the repetition of the word “perhaps” and “poverty” twice in the same sentence at first made me wonder if it was a poor translation or a sign of a writer who needs a thesaurus. Halfway through, I knew it was neither. The repetitions are quite deliberate, giving the effect of poetry or the chorus of a song throughout the novel. At the end, it takes on the guise of a prayer.

A few chapters in, I was eager to find out what Smilevski imagined for Adolfina between birth and the end of her life. He gives us a tender portrait of an intelligent woman frustrated by her society’s inability to accept her as a person, yet loving and devoted to her family, though they reinforce the traditions. It is a novel that has a muted, sad tone, but it is interspersed with moments that verge on playful. For instance, the family friend with fourteen children by fourteen mothers; all these children are named Gustav. Gustav Klimt, who did exist, is believed to have had at least fourteen children, not counting those with his wife. I could not determine if any were actually named Gustav, but it was an entertaining touch.

Smilevski gets inside Adolfina’s head in a way I didn’t think would be possible. He also made me get into Sigmund Freud’s. His novel shows us a man who has requested exit visas for his household: immediate family, doctor, housekeepers. His younger brother and one sister have already emigrated. Adolfina pleads for him to help the remaining four, only to be met with reassurances that everything would be fine and that there is no need to relocate. When confronted with the fact that he himself is leaving, he does not answer. Is brother “Siggie” a cold bastard or helpless in a situation he can barely face? Despite my personal dislike of the man, I would bet it is the latter.

The key for me was Freud’s own words from his diary and letters, which Smilevski used while writing. Peter Gay’s biography of Freud discusses all his work, and Sigmund’s own words appear throughout Freud’s Sister. A short diary entry struck me the most, and I wonder if it did the same for Smilevski. Gay’s biography recounts Freud’s reluctance to leave Austria, even after the rise of the National Socialists. According to Gay, it took quite a few of his friends and bribes to get the visas he did. Efforts were stepped up after his daughter, Anna, was arrested by the Gestapo, leading to the diary entry that affected me. It consists of three words: Anna at Gestapo. Only three words to report that your daughter may be tortured or murdered that day. Freud’s doctor, who had been treating him for cancer, recounted that her father allowed himself to show emotion when she was released unharmed after one day.

Anna herself stayed calm and controlled while in Gestapo hands. It seems the entire family was not given to emotional displays, which would certainly be considered cold by many, even if they loved each other deeply. Is Smilevski painting Freud as a villain? Or did he want to show the family as true to life as possible?

Freud’s silence when confronted also became understandable to me. What could he say to his favorite sister, to whom he had told fairy tales? That he can either get his wife and children out of danger or watch them die with his sisters? That he has to save what he can? His letters and those of friends show that he tried to obtain visas for his sisters after he was in London, but the attempts were unsuccessful. There is no record of if Adolfina and the others knew of his efforts. If he said nothing, it may have just been in keeping with a man born in the middle of the 19th century—don’t worry the ladies with this stuff. He may not have wanted to give them false hope.

It’s also possible that this unemotional man could simply not express his feelings of having to leave his four little sisters behind, and saying anything would have opened the floodgates of pain. He died in 1939, never knowing that his sisters could not be rescued. In the end, I dislike Freud’s philosophy and would probably not like him if we met. I can’t blame him for his sisters’ deaths, though. That belongs only to the Nazi Party.

Given that Smilevski frames his fiction with historical events throughout, I feel the need to bring up an odd deviation from the historical record. Every biographer that mentions Esther Adolfine (Dolph) Freud does include that she died of starvation in Theresienstadt concentration camp. Smilevski has her end in a gas chamber with her sisters, who were deported to other camps and may have already died. Sadly, as with many victims of the Holocaust, records are unclear. This is one of the few things known about the title subject of Freud’s Sister, so I am very puzzled as to why it would be altered. This small oddity does not lessen the overall impact. It’s still a fascinating read.

Buy It: Fans of historical fiction should waste no time in mobbing their local bookstore. If you don’t normally read historical fiction, you should consider making an exception.

Freud’s Sister
Goce Smilevski
Penguin Books
$16.00 (Paperback), 272 pages

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