Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman entered the literary scene in 2007 with a debut novel titled “Literacy and Longing in L.A.,” a lively, offbeat chronicle of a contemporary woman in crisis that was described by Booklist as “book lust meets chick lit.” Love of books played as important a role as the war between men and women, and it was a rare example of a novel that comes with a reading list and a key to the literary references in the narrative.
Now Kaufman and Mack have extended their range into historical fiction with “Freud’s Mistress” (Putnam’s/Any Einhorn Books, $25.95), the wholly compelling story of a forbidden love affair whose key characters are based on flesh-and-blood figures — Sigmund Freud, of course, and his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays. In life, Carl Jung was the first to reveal his suspicions about the affair, which has since been the subject of much debate in scholarly circles over the years, but Kaufman and Mack have elaborated upon the rumors by giving us a red-hot romance charged with what we might usefully call Freudian conflicts and meanings.
The authors have brilliantly conjured up Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, a place where a physician might prescribe a dose of Bayer’s Heroin to treat a child’s cough, a woman’s nightclothes were equipped with “a tedious number of buttons” as a disincentive to sexual adventure, and where women who found themselves “in trouble” might resort to a self-induced abortion by means of “the root of worm fern called ‘prostitute root.’ ”
Minna, the unnamed lover in the title, also suffers from book lust. “Often, late at night, when her duties were done, Minna read until the candle drowned in a pool of fat,” the authors write. Significantly, one of the pen pals with whom she corresponds about “politics, literature and his scientific work” is her sister’s husband. And, fatefully, Minna’s sister invites the “maiden aunt” to join the Freud household and earn her keep by helping with the six Freud children. “Minna dear,” Martha Freud instructs at dinner on the night she arrives, “sit next to Sigmund.”
We learn that Minna first met the great man when he was “a poor Jew from the wrong side of town, whose family had neither social standing nor wealth.” Minna’s and Martha’s mother deemed him unworthy to court one of her daughters. But in his wife, Freud “got what he wanted: an old-fashioned sweetheart, not a woman with opinions who engaged in serious conversations,” and he turned to his sister-in-law for weightier topics: “Minna was the intellectual, and Martha was the intended.”
But Freud is also shown to flirt with his sister-in-law in oblique ways. He discourses on the role of sexuality in psychology, even as something more is at work.
Scientific detachment cannot contain Freud’s own inner desires: “There are many kinds of erotic tastes, my dear,” he says to his wife’s younger sister. “For instance, if I were to slip satin ribbons around your wrists and ankles and tie them to the bedposts, then slowly make love to you while you lay naked, unable to move, allowing you to surrender to your darker, carnal urges. Even you, Minna, might find that erotic.”
We can readily imagine how unsettling it would have been for Minna to be seduced by a brother-in-law, but with Freud himself as seducer, the love affair achieves a critical mass. “With Sigmund, nothing was as it seemed,” Minna muses. “He consistently upended all that she had been taught.” Even his muttered complaints carry a secret meaning: “I am alone,” he says, “in a house full of people.” Minna does not mistake the meaning of his confession: “Through all her years of knowing him, this is what she learned that night. He was an unhappy man. And unhappy men are dangerous.”
By now, of course, Mack and Kaufman have crossed into speculation, but their vivid account of the long-rumored love affair — and the shockwaves that it would have sent through the Freud household — is credible enough. Still, they are not shy in describing the two otherwise sober and cerebral lovers in moments of wild abandon: “The sedate sister-in-law, sinfully luscious as forbidden fruit,” they write. “The sex was vivid, demanding, deranged, and endlessly self-indulgent.” And, “She should shoot herself, throw herself over a bridge, be branded, flogged or stoned.”
This novel also includes a bibliographical essay and a lucid discussion of the scholarly basis for believing that Freud and Minna were, in fact, lovers. By the end of the book, however, we are already convinced that the story rings true. Kaufman and Mack have performed the alchemical feat of turning the dry pages of history into narrative gold.
Note to the reader: I have had business dealings in the past with the authors of this book.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.