Goce Smilevski’s novel Freud’s Sister begins with Sigmund Freud’s sister Adolfina’s harrowing journey to a concentration camp and, eventually, her death in the gas chambers. The attention and privilege that Freud, the legendary psychoanalyst, was accustomed to is brought to light as he makes arrangements for even his dogs to escape to London, but turns down his four aging and helpless sisters. Yet this novel is not about demonizing Freud, but rather about humanizing the sensitive and intelligent Adolfina. Her story, as it emerges from the dark, chauvinist shadows of history, is remarkable - one of an artistic mind deliberately repressed, of aspirations pushed aside and, eventually, about a descent into madness that is more imposed that inborn.
Though the novel is hardly light fare, the reader will experience some thrill in rubbing shoulders with the early twentieth century sibling celebrities who make cameos throughout the book. When I read the novel, burdened as it is by history’s many injustices, I was surprised to meet its rather youthful and vibrant creator. The conversation alternated between the heavyweight western philosophers that Goce is fond of reading to his experiments in mysticism, from his reticence to talk about the war he witnessed in neighboring Bosnia to his half-humorous take on the rather serious political issues plaguing his native Macedonia today. What makes Goce unique is that he is a creative writer completely grounded in a kind of academic rigor, something that is very rare because the two worlds can be hard to straddle and are often at odds with each other. The cold New York afternoon flew by, but we continued our conversation via email and Goce opened up about his peculiar personal connection to Adolfina Freud, the meaning of madness, and how he learned to write like a woman…
Bhakti Shringarpure: Why did you feel a connection to the narrative of Freud's life? Growing up in Macedonia, were there any specific links to his work?
Goce Smilevski: I think I feel a connection to the narrative of Freud’s sister Adolfina’s life, although there are only several things known about her. As a child, I was pretty much lonely. I was kind of alienated from other kids because I felt vulnerable and helpless and I perceived other kids as aggressive, so they thought of me as “silly,” and my parents told me I was “ridiculous” - that was their most common qualification for me. At that time, before being able to understand any of his words, I began to read Sigmund Freud’s work, believing I could understand myself: Why I was the way I was, why others treated me the way they did, and how I could cope with that. I didn’t understand what I read, but I realized that one of the goals of one’s lifetime is to constantly try to understand oneself and others. Somehow, years later, when people around me stopped thinking of me as “ridiculous” and “silly,” I was reading a book by Martin Freud entitled Sigmund Freud: Man and Father, where his aunt Adolfina is mentioned only twice. When I read that all the family believed Adolfina was “silly” and “ridiculous,” and that only now, after her death, he thinks maybe they were all wrong, I thought that maybe that woman and I were created by the same essence, and that only our life circumstances and the different times we were born in are what made our lives so different.
BS: Why the conscious decision to recreate a woman's history?
GS: It is often underlined that history is written by victors, but it is so often a neglected fact that it is written about men, and about only some of the men. It is not a historiographer, but a fictional character, Catherine, who states the truth in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey: "I can read poetry and plays, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels. But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in...The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all." Maybe we can say that historiography is a science of remembering, but it is more about forgetting, as if it is a being with reductive memory, with a very selective memory, and, as Mahatma Gandhi and Isaiah Berlin said decades ago, this selection chooses winners, conquerors, influential people, while the so-called ordinary people are forgotten. And these winners, conquerors, influential people are almost exclusively men. So I was wishing to give a voice to one of these countless forgotten women who experienced her personal joys and sorrows and witnessed the crucial changes of society and experienced one of the greatest tragedies of humanity, the Holocaust.
BS: Why the focus on sisters? Freud's sister Adolfina is, of course, the main character, but then there is also Klara Klimt, sister of painter Gustav Klimt and a feminist kept captive in a mental asylum.
GS: Maybe it is because we can be aware of the shadow that historiography throws on the ordinary people even more when they are connected with those who are brought to light by historiography. However, as I said before, the choice to write about Adolfina was a very personal one. It was a drive to write about misunderstood people, those who were sensitive and were perceived as a mistake, a "something wrong." We know almost nothing about Adolfina and Klara, maybe because they remained all their lives financially dependent on their brothers. Neither of them had families and, in the few sentences where they are mentioned in the books on their brothers, they are just that: women who are dependent on them.
BS: Certain incidents in the book highlight distinctly "female" experiences. For example, Adolfina's reaction to her brother, Sigmund, masturbating, her abortion, a difficult spinsterhood and, in general, her overarching experience as someone living daily with the “medicalization” of gender. How did you successfully create Adolfina's “interior” universe?
GS: Sigmund Freud, who once said that the character of each woman is constructed on the basis of the penis envy she felt as a child, stated years later that women, for him, remained “a dark continent.” My intention was from the very beginning to create Adolfina Freud into something opposite of what a woman was for Freud: a-penis-envy-derivate. All the nuances of her character were created intuitively, without hurry. They developed during the process of the writing of the novel, which lasted for seven and a half years.
BS: You have a fascination with characters that seem passive, and thus invisible to the outer world, but they lead vibrant inner lives. Can you elaborate on this? And do you think that "madness" somehow is connected?
GS: Passive people, who are not psychotic, are related to reality, and their passivity is a result of their preference to think or dream of life rather than to act in life (or out of the fear of acting in life, or some other reason for such a choice). Their thinking and fantasizing about life is connected with reality, thus very often, depending on how deep their personality is, leading to what you define as “vibrant inner life.” The inner reality of psychotic people is even deeper, but it is a depth of an abyss, an abyss that tears apart reality and un-reality. Madness is born out of the construction of inner reality, or inner un-reality, that is believed to be real and is opposite or different from reality.
BS: When we met for the first part of our discussion, we spoke about French philosopher Michel Foucault, well-known for his thinking on “madness.” In your book, I felt that there was not just a deep study of psychoanalysis but also an underlying influence of Foucault's theories. I would go as far as to say that the whole book is a Foucauldian gesture. Your thoughts?
GS: It is a Foucauldian gesture in the same sense as Foucault’s Madness and Civilization is a Pascalian gesture, conceived by the thought of Blaise Pascal that is in the beginning of Foucault’s book: “Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.”
BS: There is a lot written about Sigmund Freud, a lot of feminist criticism of Freud's theories, and there is also extensive material about that particular time period of the early twentieth century right up until the Holocaust. What did you wish to add to the existing discourse on the man and the time period?
GS: Freud was a prophet and an ordinary human being. As a prophet he brought to us the prophecy about our unconsciousness. As an ordinary human being, he was making right and wrong decisions, consciously or unconsciously, as all of us do. He lived in the period of disillusionment, and his biggest disillusion was not with his time, but with psychoanalysis. In a letter to a friend he said that psychoanalysis failed to make people better. It was his goal, a humanistic goal, to unveil the unconsciousness in order to make people better, while psychoanalysis, he complained in that letter, simply satisfied a goal of a mediocre: to make the analyzed cope better with reality and everyday life.
BS: You experienced, or rather, were very close to a kind of holocaust in your own space, in neighboring Bosnia. Writers and artists often process their own experience of trauma by writing about other traumatic events in history. I wonder if Freud's Sister offers a kind of lens into your experience of the Bosnian war.
GS: It is an old saying that not a single generation on the Balkans can live its life without experiencing a war. After the Second World war it was believed, after establishing of Yugoslavia in 1945, that this saying will remain part of the past, and that the generations born in the freedom will never experience what the previous generations did. This hope lasted for less than half a century, not enough for a lifespan of a generation. In the 1990s, after Yugoslavia split into several independent countries, each of them underwent war, of a very different kind – the one in Bosnia was the most tragic, and almost unbelievable, as people there lived several decades in the premise that was a motto of Yugoslavia: “Brotherhood and unity”. I cannot define to what extent and in which way the wars in the Balkans from the last decade of the twentieth century have influenced me, but your question gives me a lens for a different reading of the parts of my novel that deal with the war.
BS: You have written, in a way, a very European book, though it’s a dark rendition of Europe. Tell us a bit about Macedonia and its strained relationship with the "West," with Europe, so to say.
GS: In the past twenty years Macedonia has lived in silent agony. We fell in this condition called “transition,” a term that should name a transfer from one system to another, from socialism to capitalism. But we fell into neo-feudalism. If we look at the statistics, for the past few decades Macedonia has been on the top of poverty in Europe, on the top of unemployment, and according to the statistics, 13 percent of the population is facing hunger now. I don’t say that twenty years ago everything was perfect – not at all. There were so many things needing to be fixed, so many things to be improved, to be changed for better, but unfortunately, the changes were and are for the worse. We became alienated, disoriented; we are sinking in apathy. I still hope for the better…
BS: What's next?
GS: Life and literature, the same as before.
Goce Smilevski was born in 1975 in Skopje, Macedonia. He was educated at Charles University in Prague, Central European University in Budapest, and Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje. He is author of several novels and theater plays. His novel Freud's Sister won the European Union Prize for Literature and is being published in more than thirty languages.
Bhakti Shringarpure is the founding editor of Warscapes magazine.