Although the protagonist in A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell is, indeed, a romantic in the usual sense of the word—his three marriages engender multiple tales of heartache and lust—he is also a romantic in his attitude toward the world in general: nave and searching for meaning.
The novel takes on a witty and curious combination of history and facts with tradition and spirituality. Romantic takes place in Vienna from the 1890s through the beginning of WWII, a time of transition from superstition to a new world of science and logic.
Although the main character, Jakob Sammelsohn, is fictional, many of those whom he meets on his way through life will be quite familiar to readers. In a sort of Forrest Gump-like fashion, Sammelsohn unknowingly gets involved with soon-to-be-famous individuals such as Dr. Sigmund Freud, his patient Emma Eckstein, and Dr. Zamenhof and his attempted universal language of Esperanto.
Through it all, his romantic desires—for a woman’s love and for a way to make sense of the world—drive him forward.
The novel begins with the personable Jakob spying Emma at an opera in Vienna and instantly falling in love. He soon meets Dr. Freud, who is treating Emma’s supposed hysteria, and under the impression that Freud is willing to introduce the two youngsters, he attempts to befriend the man.
As any hope of a relationship with the young woman falls apart because of “neuroses,” the reader learns more about Jakob’s small-town past through the appearance of a dybbuk, the spirit of one of Jakob’s ex-wives who has taken over Emma’s body (hence her supposed hysteria).
This past is marked primarily by Jakob’s highly devout father, who speaks only in Hebrew quotes from the Scripture. One of the most memorable parts of the novel is when he gives preteen Jakob the birds-and-the-bees talk, beginning “‘A virgin girl will lie in your bosom (I Kings 1:2).’”
As a way of distracting Jakob from reading forbidden books and smoking cigarettes, his father ultimately ends up arranging two marriages for his son.
The second, to the local “village idiot,” proves too much for the young boy, who responds by running away to Vienna. It is his second wife, Ita, whose spirit comes back to haunt him. Even as Jakob is faced with progressive thinkers and contemporary movements, and even while he claims not to be religious, he incurably holds on to his strict Jewish upbringing.
Mysticism and superstition weave in and out of the novel. Jakob is unable to forget Ita and the two angels who present themselves to him and who ultimately serve as spiritual guides. Furthermore, when he finds himself in the Warsaw Ghetto under Nazi control, he ends up helping a rabbi secretly transcribe his views.
One of the most impressive aspects of Romantic is the careful research that clearly went into it. In the first section of the book, concerned with Freud and Eckstein, Skibell meticulously describes Freud’s friendship with Dr. Wilhelm Fliess (the nose specialist whose surgery proves almost fatal for Emma in the novel as in real life) and his addiction to cocaine. He also cleverly riddles the text with references to Freudian slips and the Oedipal complex.
In the second part, it is clear that Skibell carefully researched Dr. Zamenhof as well as the development of Esperanto from a fledging language into a movement that drew the attention of French intellectuals and even Nazi Germany.
At one point near the end of the novel, Jakob asks himself, “Had nothing in my life changed or progressed since that night?” referring to the night he first saw Emma in the first scene. Finishing A Curable Romantic is kind of like asking yourself that same question. Its 593 pages tell a moving story, but ultimately its conclusion is hard to fully comprehend.
The protagonist’s encounter with Freud leads to his discovery of a lost spirit and angels, yet his quest for utopia through a universal language leaves him heartbroken. Faced with the desperation and cruelty of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, the fantastyonly becomes more extreme through the increasing presence of angels and a trip to Heaven.
But, as Sammelsohn continues to ask himself, are these visions real or only hallucinations? Is Romantic arguing for or against religion? Is Romantic simply a portrait of Eastern Europe at the turn of the century, or is it a cry to look past the brilliant minds, look past the scholarly works of invention, and find your own romanticized meaning in life?
It is difficult to recommend a novel one does not completely understand, but A Curable Romantic is clever, intelligent, emotional, and thought-provoking. Skibell is undeniably talented, and even if it’s difficult to comprehend the author’s intent, any novel that sticks around in one’s head this long after reading it is worth the time spent.