Toward the end of A Curable Romantic (Algonquin, $26.95, 608 pages), Dr. Jakob Sammelsohn finds himself back where he started in the book’s opening pages: lusting after a beautiful, unobtainable woman through a pair of binoculars, dressed in an outfit that doesn’t belong to him. What a fool he is! After almost 50 years, he is still a country bumpkin.
Sammelsohn blames his failure to learn from experience on the cruel punishments his father doled out when Jakob was just a child: “He’d broken something deep within me. Thanks to that brokenness, I’d lurched through my life with a crooked gait, listing to the side, never quite arriving where I intended, and the more I attempted to straighten myself, the crookeder I became.”
This may be true, but it’s an endearing, often hilarious lurching that brings us into company with the events of Joseph Skibell’s ambitious and thoroughly delightful new novel, which begins in turn-of-the-century Vienna and ends in the Warsaw ghetto during the 1940s.
Skibell, a professor of creative writing at Emory University, addressed questions of faith in his first book, A Blessing on the Moon (1997), a mesmerizing tale about the holocaust that wove together history, Talmudic fables, and Yiddish folk tales. In The English Disease (2003), a secular Jew struggled with a lack of connection to his Jewish roots.
When the curtain rises in A Curable Romantic, similar elements are all in place, the angels and demons of Jewish mysticism hovering impatiently behind the modern setting. It’s 1895 and Sammelsohn, a poor ophthalmologist hoping to soak up some sophistication, bumps into Sigmund Freud in the lobby of an opulent Vienna theater. Sammelsohn has just fallen headfirst for Freud’s patient, the lovely Emma Eckstein, and in hopes of an introduction, accepts Freud’s invitation to join his weekly card games.
After an eternity of smoky evenings in which he’s a captive audience for Freud’s developing theories of psychotherapy, Sammelsohn finally meets Emma, whom Freud is treating for now-classic symptoms of hysteria.
But Sammelsohn has barely begun his courtship when Freud makes a startling announcement: Emma believes she is possessed. Although Freud notes the similarities “between a case of severe hysteria and one of demonical possession,” he reluctantly admits that in this case, it looks more like a demon.
Or a dybbuk, to be more precise—the spirit of Sammelsohn’s dead child bride, Ita, the village idiot he was forced him to marry back in rural Poland as punishment for his rebellious nature. She dates back to the horrible days when Sammelsohn’s father, a devout Hassid, spoke aloud only in scripture—his speech appears as bolded Hebrew characters—even delivering a birds-and-the-bees speech to his son using appropriate passages from the bible.
All the same, the horny Sammelsohn decides Ita-in-Emma is pretty hot. Unfortunately, in another unexpected development, a couple of bickering angels appear and order him to evict her from her host body—or else.
What a field day Skibell has with this big fat Jewish exorcism! Neither Freud nor Sammelsohn knows what to expect from one minute to the next: the slutty, love-hungry Ita, or the freaked-out, well brought-up Emma. Sammelsohn recognizes Ita from the way she calls him “darling Yankl” and reminisces about their past—but wants to believe Freud’s explanation that she’s no more than a guilt-induced fantasy. The longer the battle for Emma’s body, the more slapstick involving panting and pawing and mistaken identities—scenes Skibell handles with a wonderful mixture of affection, irony and wit.
Finally, even Freud, a likeable, Groucholike cokehead who’s a long way from becoming the unquestioned expert in his field, has to admit “there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, et cetera, et cetera, and the geographies of the mind, believe me,” than are dreamt of in his and Sammelsohn’s thoroughly modern world.
Sammelsohn agrees—despite his distaste for the “stuff and nonsense” of his religious upbringing, his memories of those numinous teachings won’t let go of him. He is descended from the famous “Seer of Lublin,” a legendary Hasidic leader of a century ago. And what is this nagging feeling that new faces in Sammelsohn’s life are so familiar? Skibell scatters these tidbits offhandedly, but their importance becomes clear as the focus of the book deepens and its humor darkens.
Meanwhile, the 20th-century Sammelsohn wanders crookedly along, a clueless, lovestruck nebbish inhabiting the new century as uneasily as Ita does her host’s body. In the second half of the book, Sammelsohn witnesses the rise and fall of the doomed Esperanto language movement, then makes his way to Poland, still dogged by Ita and her wisecracking, probationary angels. Eventually, he finds himself among the desperate Jews in the Warsaw ghetto facing starvation and certain death.
Unless, that is, Ita turns out to have some pull with the Holy One. If he’s even still up there.
A Curable Romantic has no end of fun with its themes, notably the limits and usefulness of language, whether the jargon of psychology, religion, Jewish doctrine, Esperanto or even the unpronounceable language of the angels. At the same time, it’s a tale of great compassion and reverence—a remarkable, deeply-felt examination of man’s relationship to an ever-changing world.
(A version of this review ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Nov. 7 2010.)