A Curable Romantic

Historical novels are so plentiful these days that we might sometimes forget how difficult they are to write. Particularly good examples of the form—Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge, or Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America—read so smoothly that they create the illusion of an effortless performance. But in fact it's hard to blend research and fabrication without showing the seams. It's harder still to settle readers convincingly into a historical moment and keep them there, enthralled, over time. 


Into this risky terrain strides Joseph Skibell, whose lengthy new novel begins in fin de siècle Vienna in and ends in the Warsaw Ghetto in the early 1940s. His wayfaring narrator, the romantic of the book's title, is a young Jewish oculist named Jakob Sammelsohn who hails from a small Galician village called Szibotya.


Jakob suffered a devastating rejection at age twelve  when his pious father denounced him for reading secular literature instead of studying Torah. Unable to abide his father's humiliating punishments—the worst of which was a forced marriage to Ita, the village "idiot girl"—Jakob fled his hometown and made his way to Vienna, where a sympathetic uncle took him in and looked after his education.


Vienna is a dazzling Art Nouveau wonderland to this boy from the hinterlands, bustling with innovation and teeming with intellectuals. Yet while he has left the world of his father far behind, Jakob is hardly done with father figures. During the course of the novel he will be patronized by no fewer than three mentors, all real-life luminaries: Sigmund Freud, who in 1894 was just beginning to raise eyebrows with his early work in psychoanalysis; L. L. Zamenhof, founder of Esperanto, the utopian international-language movement; and Rav Kalonymos Kalmish Szapira, a brilliant Warsaw rabbi who was murdered by the Nazis in 1943.


Skibell has set for himself the difficult job of weaving Jakob's fictional story into the facts of these men's lives. He involves his narrator first in the case of Emma Eckstein, an actual patient of Freud's. In Skibell's imagining, Emma suffers from a hysterical condition in which she appears to be possessed by a dybbuk, a demonic spirit from Yiddish folklore. This dybbuk claims to be none other than the specter of Jakob's unwanted bride Ita, who killed herself after Jakob abandoned his birthplace and is now making an other-worldly plea for his attention.


Is Emma's hysteria really caused by demonic possession, as Jakob nervously begins to believe, or are its origins purely medical, as Freud insists? The case stirs up a debate about the purpose of faith in the modern world--a theme that permeated Skibell's first novel, a tale of Holocaust magic realism called A Blessing on the Moon, and his second, The English Disease, a social satire about intermarriage. That theme appears again in the new novel's Esperanto section, in which Jakob joins a delegation of dreamers who imagine that a universal language might promote brotherhood where religion has failed. And it reverberates through the book's final passages, which chronicle a rabbi's refusal to abandon his faith in the darkest moments of the Nazi genocide.


Skibell's confluence of big ideas and lofty personalities is admirably gutsy. So are his generously dispatched love scenes, in which he propels his eager young narrator into the arms of several delightful fräuleins. But while ambition in a novel is always praiseworthy, it's never more important than execution, and several defects conspire to take the reader out of Skibell's earnestly constructed illusion.


First among those is the dialogue, through which the characters are forever either declaiming (Freud on Emma Eckstein's condition: "If the reaction is suppressed, the emotional charge attaches itself to the memory and manifests as hysteria") or exclaiming (Emma on Freud: "He's just so handsome, and his theories are so brilliant and so bold!"), but seldom simply talking.  Too many speeches throughout the narrative are nakedly expository, particularly when the drama dials down. (In the Esperanto passages, for instance, much of the conflict involves a passionate argument over accent marks.) In general, the clanking machinery of historical fact is a disruption here rather than an enhancement. 


When the drama ratchets up, though, things tend to get worse. The demonic possession scenes are flat-out ridiculous, lacking any of the supernatural authority that distinguished A Blessing on the Moon. Instead of bringing the reader closer to this brave new era, in which brain science is just beginning to clash with religious belief, their clichéd wailing and flailing takes the reader's attention away. 


Aside from these spooky set pieces, Skibell's long novel is remarkably short on atmosphere. It would be hard to identify a more opulent place and time—that glittering world of Klimt and the Vienna Secession, where innovation sparked in every corner of the arts and intellectual thought—yet we get only glimpses of what it all looked like, and rather impatient ones at that. At one point, Jakob muses about himself and Freud: "How absurd we seemed . . . with our late-empire beards, and comical pince-nez and other turn-of-the-century sartorial fripperies." Why so world-weary? Readers hoping to be secured firmly in this world need more such fripperies here, not fewer.


Do these flaws consistently distract readers from remaining absorbed in a complex story? They do. Should Skibell go on to write more historical fiction? Undoubtedly he should. Serious novelists who continue to learn from their imperfections are among the most curable romantics of us all.

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