Author: Suzanne Leclair and William Roy
Publish Date: December 2023
Publisher: Life Drawn
Catalog ID: 9781643376011
Where to buy: https://bookshop.org/shop/graphicmedicine
review by Ishani Anwesha Joshi
Initially published in French as “Freud, le moment venu” and subsequently translated into English by Nanette McGuinness, Through Clouds of Smoke: Freud’s Final Days by Suzanne Leclair and William Roy illustrates an important aspect of Sigmund Freud’s life that is eclipsed by his fame as the father of psychoanalysis: his struggle with mouth cancer. Predominantly rendered in a monochromatic palette of black and white, the graphic novel exhibits a clever interplay with the color red which is strategically employed to portray blood, cancerous outgrowths, multiple surgeries, and the ethos of Nazi Germany. Infused with a painterly quality, the graphic novel threads pivotal moments over a span of approximately 16 years and 7 months, from Freud’s diagnosis in February 1923 to his passing in September 1939. Though the narrative unfolds primarily from a third-person perspective, the protagonist, Freud, interjects at pivotal moments, offering his insights directly. Interestingly, when one stitches together all the text bubbles where Freud’s voice resonates, a succinct summary of the book emerges.
Published in 2023 by Humanoids, the graphic text begins by delineating a panoramic backdrop of Vienna in the early 20th century and gradually zooms in on Freud’s residence. It is only on page 8 that the reader finally meets Freud, a middle-aged bespectacled man in a three-piece suit with a cigar, engaged with a patient. By the time the consultation is over, the ashtray is full. The narrative quickly moves forward to Freud discovering a cancerous lesion in his mouth, which leads to multiple surgeries and even a reconstructed metal jaw dubbed “The Monster” (as it was a constant source of pain). Along with Freud’s mouth cancer, the Leclair and Roy also traces the rise of Nazism in Germany and how the invasion of Vienna in 1938 forced Freud to flee to England. The graphic novel also depicts Freud’s tumultuous relationship with doctors, revealing that during the initial stages of his diagnosis, they had not been forthright in disclosing his condition. However, Freud eventually comes to trust Max Schur, who remains his personal physician till the end.
Chronology plays a vital role in Through Clouds of Smoke as it not only helps the reader situate Freud’s illness in relation to his academic successes but also establishes a cause-and-effect relationship between Freud’s excessive smoking and mouth cancer. Though Freud is seen smoking in the first few pages of the book, it is only on page 12 and 13, the narrator conclusively states that Freud is an inveterate smoker who can smoke over twenty cigars in a day. However, what draws the readers’ attention in these two pages is how Freud lovingly inspects the cigar, holds it, brings it closer to his mouth, and lights it in four separate images. Here, the deliberate slow pacing of the narrative foreshadows Freud’s illness in subsequent pages. In fact, these four images are linked to other images of cancerous outgrowths (most prominently in pg. 25) throughout the graphic novel in a cause-and-effect relationship. Going one step further, Leclair and Roy interspersed the narrative with an ashtray featuring a cigar emitting smoke that gracefully ascends upwards on pages 27, 44, 75, 96, and 124. The image symbolically indicates transitions between chapters or narrative shifts from one event or episode to another while also alluding to Freud’s smoking addiction, which is a major theme of the book.
When asked about his cigar addiction, Freud replies, “Cigars are my inseparable companions. I overlook their harmful effects because they help me concentrate a great deal” (10). Even after multiple surgeries, he reiterates, “I would be ready to undergo it all again if that allowed me to keep enjoying my beloved Trabucos…” (42). Even after multiple attempts, Freud is unable to cut back or quit smoking. His addiction is so severe that even his patients comment on his obsession: “An uncontrollable urge to smoke…” that “would be an excellent subject for interpretation!” (11). Interestingly, Freud goes on to do the same in subsequent pages (pg. 36- 41) when he interprets one of his recurrent dreams. In the dream, a scantily clothed Freud is berated by an old woman on the top of the staircase while he is glued to one of the steps. Based on this dream, he concludes that smoking “brings up some guilt in my adult life, which connects to my first experiences of childhood guilt” (41).
In contrast to the first half of the narrative, where Freud appears as a poised doctor, in the later half, he appears more as a suffering patient. This shift is evident on page 56, when Freud appears against a black background, gazing upward with an open mouth as if offering himself for examination by a doctor. The image is furiously scribbled, evident in the jagged lines, portraying the raw vulnerability of a man in distress. The following three panels are bathed in red, symbolizing the interior of Freud’s mouth and encapsulating themes of blood, pain, and suffering. Upon Freud’s reappearance, his features are blurred and distorted as he is trembling in “Pain, pain, pain” (59). The pain remains his constant companion through his life till another inoperable cancerous epithelioma makes his condition worse and confines him to bed.
The book extends beyond its narrative conclusion, offering a comprehensive six-page appendix that elucidates specific terms, provides biographical details about characters, and expounds upon events referenced within the book. Ultimately, Leclair and Roy’s Through Clouds of Smoke stands out as a visually and thematically compelling work that serves as a graphic biography of Freud and a vivid warning about the hazards of smoking.
Ishani Anwesha Joshi is a doctoral graduate student in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli (India). Her ongoing Ph.D. dissertation concentrates on COVID-19 and Graphic Medicine. She is interested in the field of graphic medicine, health humanities, pandemic literature, and dystopian literature.