The Eitingons, By Mary-Kay Wilmers

Spies, lies and a family story muffled in fur
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Mary-Kay Wilmers has spent her professional life "obsessively attending to" other people's words. Now she has produced her own – also a life's work, or at least two decades', drawing on a century of family history. The family is her mother's, the Eitingons. The name is unusual – they were Jews from the Pale of Settlement – and so, it turns, out was the family. Extending from Moscow to New York to Vienna, the family intersects with some of the key moments of 20th-century history.

Wilmers (right) begins her quest with a memory that's also a confession. She once tried, she confides, to steal the letters of an aunt who had died. She wanted them because she wanted to find out more about her family history. But "perhaps", she muses, "there's a case for letting things lie, and being spared the worry about whose story you are really trying to tell and who gave you permission to tell it".

This anxiety - about whose story is being told - permeates this memoir, and you can see why. It starts, shockingly, with Trotsky's murder in Mexico, and the escape of his assassin in a car driven by a KGB agent called – drumroll - Leonid Eitingon. It continues with the trial in Paris of a Russian singer, Nadezhda Plevitskaya, for the part she had played in the kidnapping of a White Russian general, and the possible implication of a psychoanalyst friend called – drumroll - Max Eitingon.

It segues into the story of a Russian Jewish New York-based multi-millionaire entrepreneur, investigated by the FBI five times for "Penetration and Possible Use of American Fur Industry by Soviet Agents". Called – drumroll – Motty Eitingon. All of whom may, or may not, have been connected by more than their family name.

Max and Motty certainly were. They were cousins of Wilmers's grandfather. Motty made, and later lost, vast fortunes with a near-monopoly of the American fur trade, using imports from the Soviet Union. He funded the luxurious lifestyle of his entire extended family, including his cousin, Max, who became a friend of Freud. But did Max have some link with Leonid as well as Motty? Did he, in other words, have a link with Stalin as well as Freud? These questions are never answered. Not, it has to be said, that Wilmers hasn't tried.

Her research is exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting. Since reading in 1988 an article in the New York Times suggesting that Max was "Leonid's agent in Freudian camouflage", she has left no stone unturned. She has visited relatives of Leonid's in Moscow, and put them up – in a style which they clearly found insufficiently lavish – in London. She has visited offices of the KGB and found them more Ealing Comedy than James Bond. She has met former KGB agents in car parks in California. And she has read books. Boy, has she read books. Nine pages of them, according to the bibliography.

"Every intelligence agent," she notes in the course of her research, "has a duty to disinform, which must be liberating when you're writing an account of your life; disinformation is a postmodern thing: it allows you to have your cake and eat it". Her book, too, is "a postmodern thing", asking questions that can't be answered, leading down by-ways that end up as cul-de-sacs, interweaving fact and speculation in ways that might, or might not, echo the interweaving of the conscious and unconscious. "Maybe", she says, "we all use our lives as cover."

Maybe we do. We certainly don't learn a great deal about Mary-Kay Wilmers from this book, beyond the fact that she is – as her jacket photograph indicates – a highly intelligent, analytical woman with a forensic, unflinching gaze. She looks precise, stylish and wry, and so, indeed, is her prose, which is full of dry asides and incidental aperçus. If she lacks charm – an assertion once made by her father, which touched her to the quick – her book doesn't.

What it does lack, however, is narrative drive. The Eitingons offers glimpses of an extraordinary range of worlds. To have a family that was there at the birth of psychoanalysis and of Stalinism – at the heart of both – is a considerable literary asset and a fabulous starting point for an exploration of histories, written and rewritten, secrets, lies and different types of truth. But sometimes it feels just a bit too much like wandering through a deep, dark Russian forest, desperate for a pathway, or a clearing, or just a shaft of light. What this book needs, I'm afraid – this book written by a woman who has edited the London Review of Books for 17 years – is a ruthless editor. Then it could have been not just a fascinating, but a truly gripping read.