Tidewater Review - October 2010


A Curable Romantic
reviewed by
Anne Stinson


A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 608 pp. $26.95.
Dr. Jacob Sammelsohn is the hapless, helpless bumbler in this long, long (608 pages) picaresque novel. Sadly and hilariously, the main characters’s whole life is one stumbling embarrassment after another in this tale that begins in his childhood in the 1870s and leaves him a lonely pilgrim on foot from war-ravaged Europe in 1945.
The book, like his life, is highlighted by three distinct periods and three great men of his era. Book One is subtitled My Life in Dr. Freud’s Vienna; Book Two’s topic is Milojn De Jesoj, an incomprehensible phrase until his subtitle clarifies it, My New Life in the Esperanto Movement.
Unless the reader is a certain age, he/she may not have heard of the experiment that created a new artificial language that would hopefully bring mankind together as one.
Book Three (we’re now in the homestretch at page 497) is titled On The Devil’s Island, subtitled My Life and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto. By a miracle, Sammelsohn survives the Holocaust, but it was touch and go during Hitler’s pursuit of the Final Solution. He leaves the reader as he walks across Europe on his way to Palestine.
Dr. Jacob Josef Sammelsohn, nicknamed Yankl, spends his early childhood in an all-Jewish village in Austria-Hungary. His big family is dominated by a tyrannical and fanatically religious father who is so incensed at the wickedness in human nature that he speaks only in scriptural quotations. The boy is ritually married at age 13 to the young girl his father chose, but the chaste union is cancelled when Yankl is caught reading modern books with his childish bride.
There went wife number one. His father’s rage prompts the old man to choose another female for Yankl, a deliberate humiliation for the young man who is forced to marry Ita. She’s no prize, having been nearly strangled at birth when her father tied a shoestring around her neck. As a result of her injury, she cannot speak clearly and her face is horribly disfigured. She is reviled as the village idiot.
On their wedding night, she revives all the folk superstitions about dybbuks, the spirits that inhabit people. She claims that she has been through hundreds of reincarnations waiting to meet Yankle. She had loved Yankle all her lives, past and present.
The young groom is horrified – repelled by her looks and frozen with fear of the occult, he bails out through a window. Ita throws herself into the river and drowns.
Years pass.
Poor Yankl. As his adult misadventures begin, he’s now 30 years old and still a virgin. In the intervening years, he earned a medical degree and set up a dismal practice in an area so poor he also lived in poverty. A fellow physician admitted that he, too, was penniless since he refused to send a bill if his patient died. “I can’t collect a ruble without a cause,” he explained.
So doth Skibell, the author, jolt the reader to the tragicomedy with an outrageous pun. His wit runs through the doleful litany of woe in the book like an undercurrent of laughter at misfortune.
Yankl retreats to Vienna, giving up general practice for a career as an oculist, testing eyesight and selling spectacles.
Here’s where Dr. Sigmund Freud enters the picture. Yankl is at the theater (the cheapest seat on the fourth balcony) when he sees below him a ravishingly beautiful young woman. She’s the historical figure Emma Eckstein, a patient of Dr. Freud who is unraveling her dreams to cure her neurosis.
How the impoverished young oculist fares with the young lady is almost a given, but author Skibell weaves a fascinating story of the birth of the psychiatric “talking cure.”
A rival of Dr. Freud disagrees with the process with a hilarious theory that all young women’s mental problems are caused by masturbation (his lecture is at an excruciating dinner party) and can only be cured by a nose operation and giving up self-abuse.
Yankl, naturally, is obsessed with the notion that Emma Eckstein might be the reincarnation of Ita, his second brief wife. Emma, indeed, claims to be Ita and tempts him unmercifully.
Dr. Freud urges Yankl to consider that the dybbuk is truly inside Emma and that consummation of the thwarted marriage could cure Emma of her malady. Haunted by superstition and his father’s mandate that he take Ita as his wife, Yankl suffers the most ludicrous interruption of lovemaking this reader has encountered in literature. And even Dr. Freud has to reconsider his earlier statement.
“What stuff and nonsense they filled your head with,” he said. “Mine too, of course. Oh yes – I had a religious upbringing – strict, too – a Hebrew teacher, Hammerschlag, by name, the whole bolt of cloth. But with the tools of scientific objectivity, you understand, I’ve been able to put it all behind me. And when you witness my curing of Fraulein Eckstein with the young science of psychoanalysis, you, too, will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that dybbuks, demons, ibburs, and such like, are nothing more than the fairy tales we use to enslave ourselves to our own ears. Why, religion is nothing but a prison house constructed by the inmates themselves; the clerics, the guards we appoint above ourselves. Men will do anything not to confront the empty, howling wilderness that is the universe God abandoned long ago, this terrifying no man’s land filled with chaos and desolation.”
Emma dies during the wrenching effort to expel the dybbuk, Ita (through her nose), and Yankl is still a virgin, promising Emma/Ita on her deathbed that he would save himself for her next incarnation.
Dr. Freud publishes the whole wacko story of his famous patient and later recants the whole thing.
Yankl moves on to Book Two and becomes entangled in the new search for a universal language, a true historical fact that fits snugly in the enormous strides of medicine, manufacturing, global commerce and ferment of the new century.
What draws our hero into the sphere of linguistics is, as always, his sudden passion for a woman, the lovely, rich and intelligent Loe Bernfeld. Her enthusiasm for the novel idea of Esperanto, the new tongue, matches her admiration for its creator, old Dr. Hamenhof, Yankl’s new mentor.
The author briefly tests the reader’s credulity and patience with whole conversations in the invented language with its borrowed prefixes and suffixes from Russian and Polish. The unfamiliar references cause no end of mischief later in this tale of quixotic tilting at windmills.
Yankl’s obsession for Loe Bernfeld leads to a decade of longing with an engagement ring in his pocket, but he’s paralyzed by the inability to propose marriage. His indecision is partly extreme shyness and partly his fear of betraying the spirit of Ita and his vow to wait for her next incarnation. Loe has finally had enough of his dawdling and seduces him in one of the epic scenes in the book.
Good for you, Loe! the reader wants to shout.
The marriage is tempestuous. Loe is rich, and her father abhors their marriage and Esperanto. Yankl works at a sham job and draws a salary from his father-in-law, but mostly helps Dr. Hamenhof with writing his vocabulary while Loe charms her rich friends for funds for the venture.
Their shared work for the cause keeps them together. Ultimately, Yankl botches his part in the battle for Esperanto’s original acceptance, just as Loe feared he would. Furious, she divorces him.
It’s time for Book Three to commence as the skies darken for Jews after the first World War. Its title, On The Devil’s Island, is Skibell’s cryptic title for the last harrowing chapter of Yankl’s life, subtitled My Life and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto. Like the many nods to mysticism in his previous chapters, this one outdoes anything that has come before.
Yankl has survived World War I in uniform, mostly in a medical unit, and he’s now gray-haired, alone and penniless in Vienna.
He describes his plight along with the rest of Europe’s: “Even after the Armistice, terrible privations ensued. The war had cost its sponsors billions, and we were all paying for it now...Of the 100 million men mobilized on all sides, 16 million had been wounded and 13 million killed. And though I’m loath to admit it, this left a considerable number of war widows in my immediate vicinity.” The lonely women “...paraded through my apartment and into my bed...we were all very kind to each other, and grateful.”
Dr. Hamenhof had not survived the war, but as Yankl recalls, he had left two lovely daughters. He decides to call on them to pay his respects. Off to Warsaw he goes, to reintroduce them to their “Oncle Yankl.” One is now married with children, the younger one is tart tongued, but Hamenhof’s son has a beautiful young wife. Yankl is smitten again and is welcomed into the family for frequent visits.
Meanwhile, a new face in Germany is broadcasting vitriol into the airwaves and at huge rallies. The Jews are responsible for everything, he says. Before long, Warsaw is trisected behind walls: Germans in one sector, Poles in another and Jews in another. Yankl’s travel papers are revoked, then his passport.
Unspeakable horror ensues as gates are locked against food deliveries, all furs coats are turned over to German soldiers as people starve, are frozen to death or are shot for the slightest infraction of the rules. The only access to the ghetto is through openings for the trains that continually collect their quotas of passengers chosen by Jewish guards who deliver their assigned numbers or must make up the shortfall with their own family members.
One more gate is opened frequently; it’s for the cart that carries corpses to the Jewish cemetery outside the walls. Yankl’s new mentor is the courageous Hasidic leader, Rav Kalonymos Kalmish Szapira. The rabbi gently turns him away from the Powliak Prison doors where Yankl hopes to have his passport renewed. Yankl is now drafted to copy the rabbi’s sermons for a book he’s writing about God’s testing them with their ordeal and his mercy that will arrive to save them all.
Does Yankl fall and freeze on the muddy streets where he’s helping to cover dead children who froze overnight? Or was it true that they were two heavenly spirits, the same ones he recognized when Ita was emerging from Emma’s dying body?
To reveal the climax of Yankl’s imprisonment in the ghetto would be unfair, so this reader will only hint at Ita’s role in the magical event that sent the post-WWII survivor trudging in the direction of Palestine.
As testified earlier, this is a novel as long and engrossing as War and Peace. Due to the genius of its author, the whole improbable story is as gripping as it is fanciful. There is not a boring sentence or paragraph or page in all 608 of them. Your critic is bedazzled by the book’s pathos, wild humor and the humanity of its characters.
Joseph Skibell is also the author of A Blessing on the Moon and teaches at Emory University.