Sigmund Freud was 82 when he left Nazi-occupied Vienna for London with his wife and children, sister-in-law, doctor and his family, and two trusted maids. Left behind were four aging sisters, who were all deported. One died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic, two at Treblinka in Poland, and one at Auschwitz.
It is a little-known detail about the life of the father of psychoanalysis, one that famous Freud biographers such as Ernest Jones and Peter Gay only mention in passing. And it is likely what has propelled little-known Macedonian author Goce Smilevski to literary stardom. Freud’s Sister is a work of historical fiction that imagines the life of one of Freud’s younger siblings, Adolfine. Published in Macedonia five years ago, it won the prestigious European Union Prize for Literature in 2010 and has since taken the continent by storm. Penguin, scheduled to publish it in North America at the end of August, is tight-lipped about details on the English edition. Meanwhile, Smilevski’s agent is also negotiating movie rights, according to the book flap of the Italian edition, published in September 2011.
The question of whether Freud is partly responsible for the death of his sisters is central to the novel, which opens with a scene where the four elderly sisters, all over 70, are sent to Theresienstadt, then skips back to Adolfine’s childhood and follows her life to the end, when she enters a gas chamber. We know, from archival information about the Freud family, that she was a sickly child who grew up to be a spinster vexed by her mother, and that she died at Theresienstadt, a transit camp that had no gas chambers. Freud’s son Martin reportedly described her once as “not very intelligent.” The book is a literary investigation into what it must be like to live one’s life in the shadow of a genius. The fictionalized Adolfine is a perceptive and spiritually rich human being, but few characters in the book realize it. To most people in late 19th-century Vienna she is one of society’s most supremely useless members: an awkward, unmarried, childless woman.
Smilevski’s book is very much a defence of the outcast, and of women in general. Freud is portrayed as the man who, for all of his talk of incest, anuses and penises, doesn’t get past the prejudices of his time when it comes to females. “Freud was, in a way, misogynist,” Smilevski wrote in an email interview, adding that the doctor never subjected himself to his own psychoanalytic method or ever really tried to understand his own relationship with his mother.
It is an unflattering rendering of one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, and one that, at least in Europe, has upset some psychoanalysts. There is wariness that critics will once again use the shortcomings of the man to attack his work, says Stefania Nicasi, a member of the Italian Psychoanalytical Society based in Florence. Then there’s the question of whether the flaws of Smilevski’s fictional Freud have anything to do with the real Freud. “A work of historical fiction makes it difficult to tell what’s history and what’s fiction.”
In particular there’s the thorny question of whether Freud’s departure from Vienna can be construed as abandonment of his siblings. Freud’s Sister doesn’t mention a number of significant and well-documented facts that could have influenced his decision, says Pisa psychoanalyst Maria Grazia Vassallo. For example, Freud’s doctor had been treating him for years for cancer, which may explain why he wanted him close. Smilevski’s novel doesn’t mention Freud left the equivalent of $20,000 to his sisters or that he asked Marie Bonaparte, an influential former disciple who got him the permit to leave Austria, whether she could obtain visas for his sisters as well. According to Peter Gay’s 1988 biography, evidence shows she tried to do so.
Whatever historical oversights Freud’s Sister may contain, Smilevski’s talent as a storyteller is more than enough to redeem it. Take the Freud portrait with a grain of salt, and revel in the pleasure of a beautiful, sensitive novel.