Smilevski: Adolfina is a metaphor for the people that are forgotten

Sigmund Freud portrait. [Wikimedia]

This article is part of our special report 2014 EU Prize For Literature.

SPECIAL REPORT: “Historiography is obsessed with the rulers, men of power and influential people, while the memories about ordinary people die with those that have known them,” says Goce Smilevski, about his decision to write a novel about Sigmund Freud’s sister, Adolfina.

Goce Smilevski is a Macedonian novelist, and the author of the 2010 European Union Prize for Literature winner, Freud’s Sister.

Who, exactly, is the ideal audience, for Freud’s Sister? Historians, feminists, or psychoanalysts? You seem to be asking so many questions, simultaneously, it’s difficult to parse who it is that is actually being addressed. That’s not a value judgment – it’s one of the book’s strengths. I’m more interested in hearing who you initially thought you were addressing, if that was important, to you.

Writing this novel, I had no impression I am addressing some audience. I had no impression of addressing someone, or talking to someone. During all the seven and a half years of writing it, I had an impression of listening to someone, and it was the voice of Adolfina Freud. You can assume that voice was “imaginary”, but that does not make it less real for me.

Freud has always given psychoanalysis a gender, so to speak. When we think of analysis, we imagine men – the central European, German-accented archetype, despite the contributions of highly influential later analysts, for example, like Melanie Klein, and Jessica Benjamin. Does telling the story of Adolfina help contribute to changing that narrative, insofar as it lends diversity to the Freud story?

The sister – brother relationship, narrated in the novel, opens to this perspective, too. Freud was, in a way, misogynist, saying that the character of each female originates from her penis envy. Later he wanted to (excuse) himself, saying that women will always remain for him a “dark continent”. Why it was so, (we) cannot know. Maybe the reason lies in the fact that he himself never tried to really understand his relationship with his mother. He was talking about Oedipus complex, but he never explained how it worked in his case.

And, we should not forget (that) Freud is the only psychoanalyst that never underwent psychoanalysis. He had what he called auto-analysis. The result of it is his work, his magnum opus, The Interpretation of Dreams. He mentioned his mother there just a few times. And that is a work that puts the basis of the theory on Oedipus complex. So my novel was maybe also an attempt to have a few details on the relationship of Freud and his mother, although the main focus is on the sister – brother relationship. Opening these questions from the perspective of Freud’s sister, the novel, I suppose, as you say, contributes to changing that narrative as structured by Sigmund Freud.

How do you feel about the critical reception of the novel, to date? It received an especially difficult review from the American writer Joyce Carol Oates, in the New York Review of Books, in 2012, which, as you pointed out, contained historical errors about Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp, Freud’s Jewishness, as well as criticized you for your depiction of Adolfina’s handicaps. Did you expect to receive criticism like this, or does it come with the territory of taking on such a topic?

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most extraordinary American novelists. I responded to Ms. Oates in the New York Review of Books, and she responded to my reply in the same magazine, saying “Freud’s Sister is a challenging novel to read, as it must have been enormously challenging to write. The claustrophobic nature of the narrative, the fairy-tale simplicity of the characters, the reader’s uneasy sense that the historical Sigmund Freud is being exploited in a highly impressionable, prejudicial agenda in which the founder of psychoanalysis is both the primary resource and the villain—all combine to create a unique work of art, as I’d tried to convey in my review, that many readers may find mesmerizing and some will find highly controversial.”

I think that the most important qualification of Ms. Oates statements of my novel is: “a unique work of art.” Later, Ms. Oates, in an interview for the Spanish edition of Elle, was asked about European literature, and she mentioned Freud’s Sister, saying about her experience of reading my novel: “I’ve been deeply moved. . . . It’s very difficult to forget and is very likely to be as controversial as it is acclaimed.”

Was Freud responsible for Adolfina’s death?

No.

What got you interested in taking on this specific story? Was it Freud himself, his sister’s neglected narrative, or something completely different?

For me, Adolfina became a metaphor for women from the past deprived of their voice. That was the reason why I became obsessed with her story. Historiography is obsessed with the rulers, men of power and influential people, while the memories about ordinary people die with those that have known them. Adolfina Freud spent all of her life close to her brother, of whom we know so many important and trivial things (including where he bought his cigars and how many cigars he smoked per day), and we know almost nothing of what could be called her personal life, nothing of her joys and sorrows.

Seen in this perspective, Adolfina is a metaphor for the people that are forgotten, those whose lives were, if there is nothing but a material realm, less than traces on the sand of time. Her voice narrating the novel is an echo of the voices of the people that had lives similar to her, and that disappeared from the earth without remaining anything that would witness their existence.

 

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