Friday, October 1, 2010

A Cure for Dismal Reading

I’ve finished a novel that I just have to recommend. As a historical novel, it certainly is a proper subject for Creating Van Gogh and should be of special interest to readers of this blog. But to call Joseph Skibell’s A Curable Romantic, released last month by Workman, a successful historical novel is to suggest only the beginnings of its breadth and its charm. You could also call it a supernatural novel or a religious novel or a comic novel or a World War Two novel or a novel about modern Jewish identity (the prevailing theme of every one of Skibell’s books). But the best thing to call it is simply a wonder. A Curable Romantic takes you from Szibotya, a small Galician town on the rim of Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the seventh heaven--literally. Along the way one encounters dybbuks and angels, reincarnations and possessions, exorcisms and excursions into the afterlife. Too there’s Sigmund Freud—who in Skibell's humourous characterization is at turns brilliant and ridiculous, cowardly and insightful, dead set against all religious “fantasy” and at the same time ready to believe almost anything . (Perhaps my favorite moment in the novel is when Freud shows a map he has drawn for the narrator, Jakob Sammelsohn. The map details the history of Sammelsohn’s soul as explained to Freud by the dybbuk Freud has been psychoanalyzing for weeks.) Skibell's rendering of Freud is emblematic of the book as a whole: a quirky but seamless blend of history, personality, tragedy, and impossibility. The novel introduces us to other historical figures as well, most importantly L. L. Zamenhof, inventor of Esperanto. As Zamenhof replaces Freud as the most important father figure in Sammelsohn's life, we are led through a (somewhat fantastical) history of that language’s bid for world acceptance. The latter part of the novel, meanwhile, chronicles the creation of the Warsaw ghetto. And as if that wasn’t enough, we are finally taken through several layers of heaven by our narrator and a semi-psychic, semi-magical rabbi with whom he has become associated.

Readers of Skibell’s first novel A Blessing on the Moon are already familiar with his idiosyncratic blending of magic realism, world history, black comedy, and Jewish folklore. But that unlikely bouillabaisse is all the more delicious, and ingenious, in his latest book. The novel is simply startling: bitingly funny, sexually urgent, and gently nostalgic all at once. It is also in many ways a perfect book for America and for these times. So much of the history of immigration in this country, after all, is tied to the events in Europe from 1890 to 1945, events that culminated in the war that opens when A Curable Romantic ends. And so much of our bestselling fiction these days is tied to the magical that it seems perfectly natural for a novel to describe a standoff between Sigmund Freud and a sexually frustrated dybbuk. Yet because the magic in Skibell’s book is so smartly done, and so not presented merely to dazzle or gross out, the book becomes relevant--even important--in ways that a Twilight or a Shining or a Harry Potter can never be. While as entertaining and as fantastcial as any novel you will ever read, A Curable Romantic asks seriously universal and profoundly eternal questions while leading a reader through some very real byways of late 19th and 20th century European history. If this seems too much to ask of a single volume of fiction, I am happy to report that A Curable Romantic delivers on all fronts.

I have long thought that Skibell deserves as much acclaim as other more heralded novelists of his generation (including one that recently landed on the cover of Time). I can only expect that A Curable Romantic will finally win him what he so richly deserves.

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