Thursday, January 27, 2011

Review of A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell

I loved the new novel A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell. It is a really fun, enjoyable, yet poignant and meaningful romp through history with an endearing, lovelorn, lustful shlemiel-like hero. It's a very clever book. I've written a review which has not been published, which I thought someone might like to read. Here's my review below; in part, I'm still exploring the question of why shlemiels are still re-appearing as an archetype in Jewish literature, which I asked in a review of Dinner for Schmucks in a piece in the Forward a few months ago:

Joseph Skibell’s new novel “A Curable Romantic” evokes the spirit of Voltaire’s Candide with a postmodern Jewish twist in order to ask the same question as Voltaire: how can we be optimistic, how can we have hope, in the face of evil? Voltaire wrote Candide to revolt against the philosopher Leibniz’s philosophy of optimism after experiencing the devastations of the Seven Years’ War and the Lisbon earthquake. Skibell is responding to the horror of the Holocaust, in which many of his relatives perished. The question for Skibell becomes, how is it possible to hope after the Holocaust?

For such a serious metaphysical question, much of the novel is surprisingly laugh-out-loud humorous, with a shlemiel-like hero, Dr. Sammelsohn, who becomes interwined Zelig-like with a father-figure who is the visionary leader of a movement, first Sigmund Freud, then Dr. Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, and finally Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. Sammelsohn starts the novel as a Jewish Candide, a shlemiel embodying unbridled, persistent and unwarranted optimism, seeking love at every turn. The novel is invested with irony--we always know more than Sammelsohn--because we know the fate of Freud, Esperanto and sadly, Shapira, who was murdered in the Holocaust, though the book he is valiantly working on in the the novel does get published in the 1960s after a construction worker finds it hidden in a canister. (This book-within-a-book suggests that writing, i.e this epic itself, can be the individual’s greatest weapon against nihilism.)

The novel starts in 1895 when the twenty-one-year old Sammelsohn, an opthamologist living in Vienna, attends the opera and falls in love with Emma Eckstein, Freud’s well-known case study, and meets Freud before the publication of “Studies on Hysteria” made him famous. When we first see Sammelsohn, he has cut off his forelocks, in an effort to shed any traces of his shtetl past. (He escaped his shtetl to flee a forced marriage to the village idiot, Ita.) He shows up at the opera wearing the too-large jacket of another man. Yet despite Sammelsohn’s purposeful donning of “appurtenances”: “the little mustache and goatee I wore in an effort to appear not more masculine, but less feminine; my unruly hair, worn in the Bohemian style; the little trinkets and fobs dangling from my vest. . .”, Freud can immediately infer the very shtetl town of Sammelsohn’s birth. Sammelsohn’s shtetl childhood, his Jewishness, is not so easily discarded. The Jew, try as he might, cannot so easily forsake his past or his Jewishness.

The figure of the dybbuk, which originated in the Hasidic lore of the shtetl, re-appears throughout the book as Ita occupies different bodies, chasing Sammelsohn through the centuries. Trapped between the spiritual and the material world, never at rest, the dybbuk is a metaphor for every wandering Jew. As Sammelsohn reflects: “It’s a peculiarity of us Jews that we tend to drag our history along behind us, clattering and clanking like tin cans tied to the tail of a frightened dog, and the more we attempt to outrun it, the louder and more frightening it becomes. Still, it’s nearly impossible for me to describe the shame of being haunted by a dybbuk at the dawn of the twentieth century, as though I were nothing but a benighted Ostjude!”

Interestingly, here Sammelsohn has internalized this pejorative term that German Jews used against Eastern Jews, and the Nazis later applied to all Jews, a term that draws boundaries-the East and the Jew, ways to exclude, the very opposite of the utopian vision, in which there are no boundaries between people, naively expressed by Dr. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, whom Sammelsohn meets in Book Two.

Like Sammelsohn, Freud tries to resist the influence of his shtetl Jewish past. When he and Sammelsohn are alone in the hospital room, Freud resists believing that Eckstein has actually been inhabited by the lovelorn Ita as a dybbuk. Freud insists that it is not the dybbuk possessing Eckstein but her hysteria, preferring to align himself with the science of psychology rather than Hasidic mysticism, and that the two angels who appear are merely symptoms of his own cocaine use. Yet when the dybbuk predicts the date of his daughter Sophie’s premature death, he is chastened; he hangs a mezuzah on the door. He proceeds to publish a paper he thinks will be revolutionary, stating his new theory that the origins of hysteria lay not in “early sexual traumas,” as he had until then maintained, but in “dybbuk seductions.” Yet his colleagues denounce him, and under their pressure he recants his belief in dybbuks, declaring that God was merely a “symptom of our child-like longing for a father.”

This is the key choice men must make in the novel, between choosing a life of mysticism or what’s deemed “realism”, of envisioning a world better than this one or of turning one’s back on what could be and only seeing what is, the faults of man and not the potential. Freud gives in to his colleagues and denies his belief in God and Jewish mysticism. Zamenhof, the second father-figure in the novel, also seeks to escape his shtetl origins, but he chooses to hold onto Jewish mysticism, to not elude his intrinsic Jewish faith.

Sammelsohn immediately finds a kindred spirit in Zamenhof and tries to help him spread his dream of one language creating one universal brotherhood. Alluding to the last line of Candide, an overly optimistic Sammelsohn imagines that “Esperanto will be endorsed by the committee as the international language. Little by little, the entire world will begin speaking it. . .The dark world of separation and exile--known only too well to me from my childhood in Sziboyta — will disappear, and with a dawning sense of excitement. . .men will begin recognizing one another as brothers. . .No longer forced to live in fear, every man will tend to his garden until the entire world is one rich and thriving garden.” Skibell suggests that Voltaire’s last line about tending gardens is too naive--men are too full of hatred for there ever to be such a garden. The French turn on Zamenhof, wanting him to eliminate his prayer exhorting men of all religions to join hands from his speech before the Congress in France in 1905. (“Esperanto is a scientific endeavor! Let us leave the God of Israel out of it entirely!”) Zamenhof ultimately resists giving in to the pressure to take Jewish mysticism out of his writings, and reforms are enacted which strip Esperanto of its very mystical qualities.

Things only go from bad to worse. (As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his new book Future Tense is what happens when Jews choose universalism over particularism). Early in the novel, Freud’s friend Dr. Rosenberg says he had a nightmare that he was Captain Dreyfus, wrongly exiled to Devil’s Island for an act of treason. Freud and his friends made light of Rosenberg’s fears, saying Dreyfus’ fate was singular, and didn’t apply to all Jews. Near the end of the novel, trapped behind walls in the Warsaw Ghetto, being called “Der Jude,” in the singular by Hitler in Mein Kampf (the very opposite of the pluralistic utopia for all, Jew and non-Jew, envisioned by Zamenhof, Sammelsohn realizes that Rosenberg’s nightmare had come true: “here I was, here we all were, a million or so Captain Dreyfuses, trapped inside our own Devil’s Island, our every existence deemed an act of treason.”

Yet Sammelsohn, now a middle-aged man, does not give up hope. Throughout the novel there has been a tension between the dreamers, the luftmensches who believe in utopias and Jewish mysticism and the Jews like Freud, Sammelsohn’s father, and Herr Bernfeld, Sammelsohn’s father-in-law, who choose realism over mysticism, who assimilate and erase their Jewish difference, that leads to monetary success, and thereby achieve wealth and success. At one point, Bernfeld, a businessman who thinks Sammelsohn is not worthy of his daughter, says he sees people for what they are. Therefore he can profit from their inevitable “warring ways” and with that money can “build schools, fund hospitals, endow laboratories, plant a few trees. . .while fools like [Sammelsohn] go rushing off to greet the Messiah.” In another moment, Sammelsohn questions whether Zamenhof’s dream to “refashion the world” is doomed: “How many dictionaries, how many grammars, how many vocabulary lists would it take before the world was reconsecrated in all its pristine glory? Or, I shuddered to think, was my father right to turn his back on the world, seeing it for what it was: irredeemably violent, venal, base?”

Through the fate of his characters, Skibell suggests the answer is no. In the end, the approach of the dreamer, who does not turn his back on the world despite its harsh realities, wins out. Skibell has a special place in his kishkes for the Jewish dreamer, the Romantics like Zamenhof and Rebbe Tzapira who envision a better world and refuse to be “cured” by others of their mysticism or their faith. By imbuing this novel with the beauty and magic of Jewish mysticism, Skibell suggests that mysticism can, indeed, should, live hand-in-hand with realism (just as his description of Sammelsohn walking in heaven includes the smell of urine and freshly baked bread.) In the final lines, Sammelsohn escapes Warsaw and states, “I’d had my fill of myths and dreams. I was walking into a realer world. . .I was heading towards Palestine, towards the Promised Land, and it was only there, I knew, that a man could live as a Jew, and a Jew could live in peace.” While he is forsaking one set of Jewish myths for another, his walking on towards the Promised Land is a testament to the Jewish belief in the value of hope, of dreaming that this is not the “best of all possible worlds,” that there is a better world to come. We, the reader, know that what awaits Sammelsohn (despite his certitude) is not certain peace. (Hopefully, Israel will not be the impossible dream that was Candide’s Eldorado). And yet we are not meant to scoff at him and what’s left of his tempered idealism: It’s optimism, hope, call it delusion or vision, that is intrinsic to shlemiels and to survivors, and it’s what made the establishment of Israel, our history and our future, possible.

1 comment:

neil.nachum said...

I also enjoyed the book. Several of my family members are psychologists and I head the UN office for Esperanto.