Little known fact: four of Sigmund Freud’s five younger sisters died in the Nazi gas chambers, and he could have saved them. But he didn’t.
Of course, he didn’t know what he wasn’t saving them from. In 1938, with the Anschluss in place and Austrian Jews in keen danger from a maniac German dictator, Freud’s powerful friends finagled a way for him to leave Vienna. He was permitted to make a list of people he wanted to bring with him. Among the 20 names he submitted were those of his two housekeepers, his personal doctor and the doctor’s family, and his small dog. His sisters were not on the list. There was no real reason to leave Austria, Freud believed, so why uproot the entire family? Freud escaped to London, where he died of cancer the following year. His sisters were deported to the death camps in 1942.
In Freud’s Sister, which won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2010—and newly translated by Christina E. Kramer—the Macedonian writer Goce Smilevski digs deep into the family’s history that produced such brotherly treachery—perhaps negligence is a better word. Telling the story from the perspective of Adolfina, Freud’s next-to-youngest sister, Smilevski chronicles a sequence of small disappointments, from Freud’s unreachability in childhood to that last fatal refusal to procure exit visas.
Of all Freud’s sisters, it was Adolfina whom he called “the sweetest and best” of them. Unlike the other Freud girls, Rosa, Marie, and Paulina (Anna survived), Adolfina has always been just a little bit different. She feels things more keenly, and can’t seem to produce the “appropriate” responses. Abused by her mother, perennially lonely, and abandoned by the man she loves, Adolfina eventually commits herself to a psychiatric institution called the Nest. There, through conversations with Gustav Klimt’s sister Klara (also a self-committed inmate), she tries to understand sanity and madness, mothers and daughters, the ways we love and the ways love misses its mark. More than anything, Adolfina wants a child, but has to abort the only one she conceives when the man who fathered it commits suicide. Her own mother (who tells her throughout her life, “It would have been better had I not given birth to you”) dies calling Adolfina “Mama.” When she is deported to Terezinstadt, Adolfina takes with her none of her own clothing or belongings; only the baby bonnet she once bought for her unborn child.
Smilevski shows the many ways in which Freud’s understanding of women was deeply flawed, in spite of his close proximity to them, but this occasional foray into psychoanalytic criticism, veiled as fiction, is in danger of repeating Freud’s shortcomings. Smilevski invents an incident in Freud’s adolescence (Adolfina sees him masturbating on his bed, and shrieks and shrieks) which prompts Adolfina to dismiss Freud’s account of female sexuality, rooted in the moment a young girl sees male genitals for the first time and realizes they are different from her own, igniting a case of penis envy and leading her to believe in her own castration. Adolfina finds this concept limited: she has a different story to tell, one not of envy, but of fear and sadness. “When my brother communicated this to the world as absolute truth,” she says, “he did not recall my pain that afternoon when he was thirteen years old, and I was seven, that pain and fear produced by the sight of the differences in our bodies, of the thought of growing up and separating from childhood, from the presentiment that my life and his were not going to continue together and would March on separately towards death.”
The attempt to find the rationale for a figure’s work is a delicate thing to do in fiction as well as in the blank spaces between biographical records. It is all too easy to be heavy-handed and reductive, something of which Freud himself was guilty on many occasions. Smilevski succeeds in avoiding this pitfall, using Adolfina to point out the blind spots in Freud’s worldview: on love, death, and womankind Freud is notably limited. The dreamlike repetitions of images which pass through Adolfina’s mind confirm Freud’s understanding of human consciousness, but he cannot track her heart and its generosity. On the sensitivity of childhood, Adolfina beautifully notes: “We were at an age of innocence when, through touch and sound, taste and smell and sight, one could sense things living beyond the surface, when it seemed to us that blood flowed even through inanimate objects.”
But, perhaps, once again, a bit like Freud, Smilevski too often does not trust readers to make their own connections. He spells out relationships between objects and events that would be more powerful if they were left implicit. When he attempts to capture Adolfina’s last thoughts as she enters the gas chambers, he provides a review of nearly every image or metaphor previously recorded in the novel. It represents Adolfina’s stream of consciousness as her life flashes before her, but the recapitulation undermines the subtlety they once so delicately possessed. It is as if Smilevski is demanding an encore by thumping on his own book.
As the bodies of Freud’s nieces and nephews pile up (the last third of the novel is a litany of the deaths of the Freuds), Adolfina attempts to make sense of it by discoursing with her brother on death and life, mortality and immortality; scenes which comprise the novel’s philosophical vertebrae. “The question is not whether something of the person— let us call that a soul— continues after death,” she says. “The question is this: If it does not have a higher meaning, is our existence here completely meaningless?” Adolfina postulates the idea of an eternal present, where everything that has ever been exists, “pulsing in parallel and synchrony,” and “where through countless intersections every gesture and each word, each smile and each tear, each enchantment and each moment of despair has its justification and its purpose.” In these scenes, Smilevski takes his place alongside Freud in the pantheon of philosophical writers whose mind and heart probe as one.