Book: A riveting look at Freud

Simeon House for The Mail on Sunday

Of the many intriguing details in Andrew Nagorski's account of Sigmund Freud's escape from Nazi-run Viennia in 1938, my favourite is how the psychoanalyst swam breaststroke 'so that he could keep his coiffed beard out of the water.' 

For Freud, Vienna was a lifestyle: he loved black coffee and cigars and hated telephones; his days were punctuated by cafe strolls and salon debates.

Nagorski paints him as a complicated genius: visionary, fussy, a loyal husband, a cultivator of acolytes. He also had a deliciously wry sense of humour, which he even tried out on the Gestapo (at one point, forced by Hitler's secret police to sign a declaration that he had been well treated, he sarcastically asked if he could add the sentence 'I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.').

Nagorski's fascinating volume is two books in one, the first a biography of Freud, the second a story of evading the Nazi death machine. And, as befits a former bureau chief at Newsweek, Nagorski has a terrier-like ability to unpick conflicts.

In his overview, the psychoanalysis movement appears riven with more petulant factions than a political party. And Freud's decisions are often cryptic: he takes his housekeeper into exile but leaves his four sisters behind (all four died in concentration camps).

His eventual escape from Vienna, on the Orient Express via Paris, was due to the combined efforts of an extraordinary group of characters, including the great-grand-niece of Napoleon and a rather louche Welsh doctor. He was even assisted by one of the Nazi officials tasked with plundering his wealth. By the summer of 1938, Freud had set up his couch in Hampstead. 

This might all seem like a pyrrhic victory - after all, Freud succumbed to cancer only 15 months after his arrival in London.

However, as Nagorski illustrates with cultural insight and a careful pacing of events, his flight to safety in order to 'die in freedom' amounts to a tale of unlikely resistance at a time of appalling tragedy.