In 1938, Sigmund Freud is granted an exit visa from Vienna with certain individuals of his choice. His four elderly sisters are not included, and their fates are sealed. As one of them, Adolfina, is about to enter the gas chamber, she recalls her earlier life.
No novel about Europe at the time of the Holocaust is going to be a comfortable read, but when family abuse, melancholia, madness, and suicide are also factored in, it can be a herculean challenge.
While one has enormous sympathy for Adolfina and her callous treatment at the hands of her mother, brother, and even her lover, it is difficult to accept that someone displaying such a submissive personality would have been capable of this articulate – at times even assertive – philosophical dialogue. Adolfina just doesn’t ring true; she seems to be a construct of female helplessness and psychological disturbance that has been created as a device to reflect new ideas about Freud himself and his own selfish motivations. Her friend, Klara Klimt, sister of artist Gustav, is a more believable and appealing woman, with her fighting spirit and determination to help people.
Although heralded in Europe as a major work of literature, as a historical novel, there are questions as to what truth it is based on and whether it bears any resemblance to the real lives of its characters. It is hoped that whatever the real Adolfina’s pre-Holocaust life was like, surely it had to be better than this.
The constant repetition of certain phrases and themes on the meaningless of human existence also just add to the gloom. As Sigmund Freud tells his sister, “Enjoyment, suffering, they are the same. It is called enjoyment of negative pleasure.”
Definitely one for the literary intelligentsia who like being miserable.