Macedonian writer and Gender Studies devotee, Goce Smilevski, draws in his latest novel on an alleged episode from the life of Sigmund Freud to show that the founder of psychoanalysis was a misogynistic pervert, fascinated by Nazism, and obsessed with money and masturbation: in short, a repulsive character.
To do so, he has constructed a novel written in the first person, but the narrator is none other than Adolfina Freud, one of Freud’s sisters, turned into a witness of Fin-de-siècle Vienna for fans of Grand Guignol.
But just before being gassed at Theresienstadt, she recounts her fate and that of several women abused by famous artists. Throughout the pages we are told the lot of two of her fellows in sorority: Klara Klimt and Ottilie Kafka, victims of their appalling brothers.
Reinvented by Smilevski — who seems to be unaware that there were no gas chambers at Therensienstadt — Adolfina depicts the beginning of her story with a scene in May 1938 during which she is supposed to have begged her brother Sigmund to take her with him into exile in London with her other three sisters: he needed simply to add four names on the “list” next to those of other family members, so that all might be saved.
But Freud refused to answer her as he stroked two statuettes of his collection: a small monkey and a mother-goddess naked. Adolfina then tells how, in her youth, after she had been left by her lover, the same brother is supposed to have helped her, without any comforting words, to terminate a wanted pregnancy. After describing other misfortunes, she completes her plea with the mention of a breastfeeding scene, symbol of the greatness of motherhood, which she was deprived by an abortionist brother, yet one entranced by the famous Bellini’s Virgin and Child.
We should laugh reading this maternalist book, dowdy and filled with clichés. But we are astonished when we know that it has been translated into twenty languages, received an award and is intended to prove to historians that Freud was actually primarily responsible for the extermination of her sisters.
To make matters worse, the French publisher has chosen another title: “Freud’s List”, when the literal translation would have given “Freud’s sister”. A way to turn Freud into an anti-Schindler.
It has to be noted and remembered that Freud did not write any “list” when he left Vienna on June 4th, 1938, with Martha, his wife, Anna, his daughter, Paula Fichtl, his housekeeper, Lün, his dog and Dr. Josefine Stross. None of the characters of this story was able to obtain an exit permit for Adolfina and her sisters, all four older than 70 years old. Adolfina died of malnutrition in Theresienstadt on February 5th, 1943, Paula was gassed at Maly Trostinec along with Maria, and Rosa Graf at Treblinka in October 1942.
We would love a writer to take up the pen to tell the story of this tragedy. But to do so, he would still have to put in epigraph Alexandre Dumas’ precept: “We have the right to rape history on the condition of begetting beautiful children”.
Republished with the author’s permission. Appeared originally in French in Le Monde, literary supplement, September 20th 2013. This translation by Anthony Ballenato.
In her review of my novel La Liste de Freud, Elisabeth Roudinesco states that my book “intends to prove the historians that Freud was actually the most responsible for the extermination of his sisters”. The novels do not intend to prove anything nor to historians, nor to anyone else, as the art of the novel is not about proving, but is result of imagination, even when the author uses facts. It is a fact that, when leaving Vienna occupied by Nazis, Sigmund Freud helped, among other people, his two home-maids to come with him to London, and also his wife’s sister. Why he did not took his own four sisters with himself will probably remain an unresolved question. How it is described in my novel should be perceived in the context of the art of the novel, and the aim of my novel certainly is not an accusation.
The misunderstanding of the relation of historiography and fiction is not the only problem in Madam Roudinesco’s text. She also misunderstood the way characters are represented, and insists that in La liste de Freud Sigmund Freud is portrayed as “fascinated by Nazism”, while, on the contrary, in the novel he expresses his strong disgust towards Nazism.
And this is not the end of the misunderstandings. For example, Madam Roudinesco insists that my novel “seems to ignore that there were no gas chambers at Therensienstadt”, while on the pages 45-46 from the French edition, it is clear that the characters are transferred from Theresienstadt, where there are no gas chambers, to a camp where there are gas chambers. It is a fact that the four sisters died in different camps and under different conditions, but I felt there is poetic strength representing the four sisters facing the death together.
Without giving any aesthetic argument, Madam Roudinesco’s states: “We should laugh reading this book maternalist, dowdy and full of clichés . But we are astonished when we know that it has been translated into twenty languages”. We should laugh at Madam Roudinesco’s review on my novel. But we are astonished when we know that she is a psychoanalyst with a notable reputation. She says that in my novel Freud is “obsessed with masturbation”. There is only one scene mentioning masturbation, and it is when the thirteen years old Sigmund masturbates. The claim that this boy is obsessed with masturbation can be done only by psychoanalyst that is not a specialist, but a dilettante.
I agree with the critique. It’s a very poorly written novel, full of cliches and I am also amazed at the fact it has received awards and has been translated into so many languages. I think this is a result of a campaign for the novel in order to promote literatures from smaller and not so well known countries and authors. But when this type of literature enters the grand arena, then it will inevitable face larger audiences and be exposed to real critiques, not just praises – the author is probably used to receive only praises based on the forced, institutionalized popularity of the book through the EU programs on promoting literature from smaller countries.
What a shame for the writer and for the novel… Trying to explain that Jews are the first responsibles for their own slaughter… Is this a joke ? Disgunsting !!!!!!
I read this very bad book and i See it the way Jessica sees it. It is a shame.
Although I am made a bit uneasy if it appears that an author has portrayed a historical figure with rather bold strokes of imagination, I thought that the author defended his work rather well in his post to this site. I have not yet had an opportunity to read this work, but I would only wish that there be some prefatory advice to readers along the lines of the author’s comment above in order to head off the kind of criticism leveled in this review.
Dear Pr. Seraphinoff,
Your arguments are fallacies of high level…. History, fiction, archives, literature, everything is pretended and everything is blurred… Let’s write some absurdities, it pleases the market, let’s shoot on archives and history for the sake of Holocaust Survivors, it’s so fiction-ally right and true… That’s creepy!
I don’t think the novel is that bad. But I find Roudinescous critique somehow exagerated. And I would like to point out that, as far as I have understood, the author does not say that prisoners were gased in Theresienstadt, but that they were transferred to another concentration camp.