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“When Nietzsche Wept”


Someone gave me this for my birthday.  I’d not heard of psychotherapist and novelist Irvin D. Yalom before, although apparently he’s quite popular, and sufficiently revered to merit the publication of a ‘Yalom reader’.  This is an accolade of which I can only dream, not least because I have never written a novel.

Lovers of psychoanalytical historical fiction need look no further.  The plot centres on Dr Josef Breuer, feted Viennese physician, mentor to the young Freud and his relationship with Friedrich Nietzsche, notable philosopher.  In the opening chapters Breuer is much troubled. Chiefly and inconveniently he is in love with a former patient, the famous Anna O, whose treatment in the real world has since been regarded as marking the inception of psychoanalysis.  Relations with his wife are correspondingly poor, but rather than tackle this he has thrown himself into his work.

Enter Lou Salomé, who requests a meeting with Breuer, stating no less than that the ‘future of German philosophy hangs in the balance’.  She fears that Nietzsche, with whom she has recently ended a relationship, may take his own life.  Feeling a responsibility to put matters right, she asks Breuer to meet Nietzsche but to conceal her involvement.  Breuer cannot resist her charms and agrees to help.

Nietzsche is plagued by a mystery illness, which regularly leaves him incapacitated.  He is prepared to allow Breuer address his physical concerns, but when Breuer suggests that Nietzsche’s problems might have a basis in his psyche, best addressed by in-depth conversation, he rejects the proposition.  Desperate to help him, Breuer then hatches a plan whereby he persuades Nietzsche into an unusual bargain: Nietzsche will be admitted to Breuer’s hospital where Breuer will treat his physical ailments.  In return Nietzsche will use his philosophical skills to ‘treat’ Breuer’s existential crisis.

Yalom has hit on an interesting conceit which sustains itself nicely until the end of the novel.  The dialogue between Breuer and Nietzsche is particularly well executed.  On the other hand I found Yalom’s writing style, with his liberal use of exclamation marks, somewhat irritating.  The protagonists are caricatures as Nietzsche is cast as a brooding intellectual and Breuer as a workaholic physician whose weakness for attractive females is difficult to believe.  The ending is a little too neat and Freud, who pops up on a number of occasions, appears to have been included for the sake of completeness as he has very little to do with the actual proceedings.


Updated December 2018

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  1. A really good book. I purchased this novel years ago in Ca, and managed to get a signed copy. It was also made into a movie. The novel has a wry humor and really interesting plot. Enjoy!