This is an excellent book for smart guys: who, like me, like big ideas, and who admire guys who express big ideas in books and art, like Freud, Klimt, Kafka. This book is about people with those names.
But not about those whom we exclusively associate with those names, while ignoring that there must have been others.
It's about those with the names Adolfina Freud, Klara Klimt, Ottla Kafka, sisters of the famous smart guys. Also appearing briefly are Mia Krauss the grandmother of famous writer Karl, and Johanna Broch the mother of famous author Hermann. The women, except for Klara who has died by then, meet in a Nazi prison, consigned to die in gas chambers. And forgotten since.
Not so for the famous men: they if still living, like Sigmund, had more worldly regard and were provided with the means for escape, and a better afterlife.
This book is about what the world, with us smart guys following along, usually disregards, consigns to the margins, ignores, forgets, now as then.
Adolfina, the narrator, and her friend Klara, despite spirited attempts to engage the world on their own, came to recognize that they're not much wanted or respected. Deemed depressives, they volunteered to spend years in a madhouse. Among the authoritative sane, only the director of the madhouse, named Dr. Goethe, a relative of the famous one, tried to understand them respectfully, on their own terms, but his path seemed eccentric, antiquated, too romantic, a path not taken by the modern age which increasingly accorded empathy and imagination much less sanction than scientific detachment and rigor -- the smart, dry, perhaps delusional, rationality championed by Sigmund and so many others.
But Sigmund was the family's champion, always supported, and a champion for the modern age, while Adolfina's needs and desires were usually annoyances, distractions, embarrassments, and worse. She didn't seem smart. Her mother often disparaged her. Others saw her as silly and ridiculous. Klara's situation was much the same, but she made herself useful at times by looking after brother Gustav's many illegitimate children, about whom Herr Klimt didn't care much as he was a wild and crazy guy, a loose cannon, but one well-regarded and rewarded by society: he produced very marketable, very profitable goods. Something mere madness with its excess of empathy, nurturing, love, vulnerability, sorrow . . . usually doesn't produce.
We still live where reason must be rationality -- the ordering of life with math and physical science as exclusive model, metaphor and method, with quantifiable, marketable results much preferred. Where that which is not rational is unreason, and is consigned at best to entertainment -- rationality's silly little timeout. And if not entertaining, then to be discarded.
But this novel offers us a journey toward the other side, toward the reason of the arational, the unquantifiable, disrespected, useless, discarded Other, almost unbearably sad sometimes to take us to depths of feeling out of mind's grip, past rationality's control, maybe only slumming there, but back up . . . The novel's Adolfina experienced and perhaps came to understand the inner and outer life, the unconscious and madness and all that, more poetically, more tragically and therefore more spiritually, what Germans call geistlich, than her famous brother. Do we have a use for that? Toward the end, she presents us with an incipient Neo-Platonism akin to that of T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" . . .
This book is partly a poet's, a vulnerable dreamer's argument against critics who always seem more knowing, more mature, more rational, smarter. The author, like Flaubert on Madame Bovary, might be inclined to say, "Freud's sister, that's me!" And his achievement is that this work made me want, see, accept this to be so for me also. Great books seductively force us to recognize characteristics within ourselves, internalize characters, and so make us more.