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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Freud's Sister

Goce Smilevski

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To purchase Freud's Sister

Title: Freud's Sister
Author: Goce Smilevski
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007, rev. 2010 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 262 pages
Original in: Macedonian
Availability: Freud's Sister - US
Freud's Sister - UK
Freud's Sister - Canada
Freud's Sister - India
La sorella di Freud - Italia
  • Macedonian title: Сестрата на Зигмунд Фројд
  • Translated by Christina E. Kramer
  • With an Author's Note
  • Note that in his Acknowledgements Smilevski notes that: "The novel has been edited for its English-language publication"; admirably, the publishers also acknowledge messing with the text on the copyright page

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Our Assessment:

B : quite well presented, but also horribly bleak

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Forward A+ 21/9/2012 Nicholas Meyer
The NY rev. of Books . 6/12/2012 Joyce Carol Oates
Publishers Weekly . 30/7/2012 .
Il Sole 24 Ore . 16/10/2011 Elisabetta Rasy
Wall Street Journal . 19/10/2012 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) wrenching and disturbing novel (.....) Freudís Sister is a novel that requires slow and careful reading. There are so many ideas being explored that reading too fast may scramble and render them difficult to absorb. This is a book you want to set down and think about every few pages. (...) Freudís Sister is that rare artistic achievement that is more than the sum of its parts -- informative but also wise, insightful and deeply moving." - Nicholas Meyer, Forward

  • "The most engaging passages in Freud's Sister, the exchanges between Adolfina and Sigmund, are spaced through the novel at intervals (....) Reading Freud's Sister is not an easy or pleasurable experience. (...) Though the novel is fairly short, it often seems interminable" - Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Review of Books

  • "Smilevski beautifully juxtaposes Freud's scientific studies of mental illness with Adolfina's own beliefs regarding the beauty of madness (.....) Though occasionally plodding, Adolfina's story is deeply moving, and Smilevski's approach to her final moments is unforgettable." - Publishers Weekly

  • "La Adolfine di Smilevski sembra la figura animata di un quadro di Schiele, cosž come il suo amante Rajner e le sue amiche di giovinezza. (...) Per la vena barocca e potente di questo giovane e dotato autore (...) la narrazione si costruisce non come una linea retta ma come un gorgo, una spirale cui contribuiscono in eguale misura il corpo e il pensiero." - Elisabetta Rasy, Il Sole 24 Ore

  • "Freud's Sister is a brooding, sepulchral book." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Freud's Sister is narrated by Adolfina (Esther Adolfine), one of Sigmund Freud's many sisters, six years his junior. The novel begins with her brother's great personal failure: his blindness in the late 1930s to the danger Hitler posed and, after the Austrian Anschluß, his failure to ensure his sisters would be able to emigrate along with the rest of his family; four of his five sisters, including Esther Adolfine, died in Nazi concentration camps.
       The Freud of these opening section is largely in denial -- "You needn't be so alarmed", Freud reassures her, the support the Germans: "are giving Hitler now is only a temporary eclipse of their reason". Of course, soon later Freud and his entourage -- including dog -- are on their way out of the country, while the sisters are left behind: "If it were necessary for you to leave, I would have thought of it", he reassures Adolfina as he still convinces himself (if nobody else) that everything will be hunky-dory soon enough again. Soon later he was dead in his London exile, and the left-behind sisters stuck, doomed to await their inevitable fate.
       Eventually, the old sisters are shipped off to Theresienstadt (oddly referred to here as Terezín, though at the time surely everyone would have used the German name for it) -- where Adolfina immediately makes the acquaintance of both Hermann Broch's mom (the great writer Broch had been able to emigrate after the Anschluß), as well as Kafka's sister Ottla -- a bit of rather unnecessary name-dropping that adds little to the story.
       As their final fate is sealed, some thirty pages in, Adolfina returns to the beginning and recounts her life-story, which then makes up the bulk of the novel (though of course that account must come full circle, and indeed concludes in this same place).
       Apparently relatively little is known about Esther Adolfine, and in his Author's Note Smilevski explains that: "The silence around Adolfina is so loud that I could write this novel in no other way than in her voice." Freud's Sister is thus not a documentary novel, but rather a very free fictional imagining of her life, based on the basic facts that are known. Problematically for an historic-biographical novel that tackles such an explosive topic -- Freud's abandonment of his sisters, and their horrible fates -- one fundamental known fact is radically changed: Esther Adolfine did not die with her sisters in the gas chambers at Treblinka (as Adolfina does in the novel); her death in Theresienstadt was no less tragic but nevertheless was a very different one from that presented in Smilevski's novel.
       It is understandable why Smilevski chose the near-blank slate of Esther Adolfine as a character, as she allows him the greatest possible creative freedom. She remained unmarried, and spent much of her adult life living alone with her parents. Using only the most basic known outlines, Smilevski can present her largely however he wishes (and, as noted, he takes liberties even with such facts as her death).
       Adolfina is presented as somewhat slow and different from her siblings. She does not, for example, attend school. But young Adolfina has a very close relationship with brother Sigmund (then still Sigismund -- oddly Smilevski doesn't go in for the real and pet names, as, for example, Esther Adolfine was known 'Dolfi'). Their relationship waxes and wanes, from intimate to fairly distant, but generally Sigmund is the one person Adolfina can rely on.
       Their father is very old, and it is the mother that is the dominating parental figure. In Adolfina's case, this is terrible, because her mother is not in the least supportive of even just her existence. One form of psychological abuse is merely replaced by another:

When my illness ended, Mama even stopped repeating to me that it would be better if she had not given birth to me. From then on she began to compare me with other girls, to tell me that I would never be like them, to tell me that my life would always be a painful void.
       Her mother treats her differently from her sisters, too -- and her continued unmarried state just reinforces her status as excluded outsider.
       Adolfina does make several close friends in childhood and youth: one boy who moves away eventually returns and they even become lovers, but he has his own issues -- "Everything inside me is dead" he tells her (and after a few sessions with Sigmund her brother tells her there's not much hope: this guy revels in his own misery) -- and that ends in complete tragedy. A girl friend young Adolfina spends a lot of time with also wastes away, and while a lasting and close friendship develops between her and Gustav Klimt's sister, Klara ... well, she has her issues too, and winds up spending most of her life institutionalized.
       Sex is often an issue -- it is also what drives the first wedge between young Adolfina and her brother -- and out-of-wedlock pregnancies cause no end of trouble to many of the characters (except for Gustav Klimt and his fourteen Gustavs). But Smilevski doesn't go much for Freudian readings of all the sex-issues in play, interested mainly in the consequences. Adolfina's fate not to be a mother does weigh on her -- reaffirming her mother's opinion of her being unable to fulfill an expected role.
       There's an awful lot of dying in Freud's Sister: from abortions (which sometimes literally leave a mark) and suicides galore to more straightforward deaths (and, overshadowing everything, the knowledge of how the sisters will end). It can get to be a bit much -- there's a point when Smilevski tosses in a dead bird, for god's sake -- so much so that it gets simply numbing.
       Since the story is told from Adolfina's perspective, Freud's reasoning is seen only through her eyes. The limited exposure to him offered to readers leaves him a very loosely defined character; no doubt all readers bring with them a quite specific picture of the man, but despite how the book starts with and returns to that dreadful question -- how could he fail his sisters so ? -- Smilevski's second-hand portrait barely suggests an answer. In some ways this is effective -- Adolfina's puzzlement about his failure is convincing enough -- but it's hard to believe she wouldn't have more insight (or couldn't have offered more in her description of him through the years). As is, Smilevski's Freud remains an almost entirely enigmatic figure (and it's hard to believe he was this enigmatic to Adolfina, given their closeness).
       Adolfina does note how:
We were enraptured with the German spirit and did everything to become part of it.
       She also notes that Sigmund continued to believe in this 'German spirit' and that the spread of Nazism was a "temporary madness". This, like most avenues, remains largely unexplored, however.
       Quite a bit of the novel takes place in the 'Nest', a mental hospital -- with even Adolfina institutionalizing herself for a time. This makes for an interesting perspective on concepts of madness, but Smilevski doesn't develop this very much either. Freud and his theories rarely come into the mix, and even one back and forth between the head of the institution (a Dr.Goethe ...) and Freud doesn't dig very deep.
       Psychologically most interesting is the very final scene, in which Adolfina loses herself not in bitterness or anger about her fate but in negation, willing herself to forget. It seems an odd choice -- but given a character who was (historically) essentially a blank state perhaps Smilevski knew nothing else he could do with her than return her to that state, to wipe the slate of everything he had written on it clean again .....
       Freud's Sister sits uneasily between character-portrait and historical novel. It is very much Adolfina's story, and as such very much an invented story -- but it is anchored so deeply in such familiar historical facts (Sigmund Freud, the Nazi concentration camps) that it is difficult to see as simply a fiction. Yet the novel offers almost no insight into Freud and his actions -- even as those actions are central to the novel. And Smilevski's fudging of history with regards to Adolfina's death is also an odd note that undermines the story -- coming across as a terrible final judgment that her actual death was not tragic enough for his purposes and had to be embellished.
       Note also that both in the Acknowledgements and on the copyright page it is noted that: "The novel has been edited for its English-language publication". It is admirable that the publishers acknowledge this openly (if in tiny print ...) -- usually publishers don't bother telling you that they've messed with the translation (as they far too frequently do) -- but it does mean that the English-language version is not just a translation of the original Macedonian, but rather tailored in some fashion to American (and British) audiences. Without recourse to the original I can't judge how this turned out, but I do note that in my experience editorial interference with translated texts is almost always a very, very bad thing.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 August 2012

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Freud's Sister: Reviews: Other books by Goce Smilevski under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Macedonian author Goce Smilevski (Гоце Смилевски) was born in 1975.

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© 2012 the complete review

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