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A Curable Romance by Joseph Skibell
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A Curable Romance (2010)

by Joseph Skibell

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Mr Skibell thinks his writing is funnier and more profound than it really is. Tedious is the first word that comes to my mind, with contrived being a very close second. ( )
  Doey | Oct 22, 2012 |
(Warning, this review has spoilers.)

This book started off slow and dry and almost unreadable, but got better, and better, so that by the end I found it so stunning in its entirety that I hardly remember how pained I was at first. I can see now how a slow start was justified, because -- given that Freud is one of the main characters -- it's suitable that the key event of the protagonist's life remains hidden from the reader the same way the protagonist avoids it himself. Morevoer, when the key event of his life is revealed, you see that the man you understood to be a worthless nebbish actually has pretty strong survival skills and a decent moral compass, which is an eye-opener. He's not isolated because he's a nebbish -- he's isolated because he's -- a rebel -- or an outcast? -- who hasn't yet made a new life.

Nevertheless, I don't see how the book would have been harmed by the deletion of the marriage to Hindele. Ita could have been the boy's initial punishment. In addition to shortening the first section I think that would have made a stronger story. I also would have deleted the recounting of his parents' courtship, and one of the two Eckstein seduction/nosebleed scenes.

So what did I like so much about this book? I think it's the way the protoganist's character is slowly revealed, so you don't understand the meaning of his life until you are close to its end. Dr. Sammelsohn seems like such a nebbishy twit, at first, but he's an old man telling a story, so perhaps he exaggerates his own deficiencies? Perhaps he's deliberately engaging in a certain type of self-deprecating storytelling? After all, why would Loe have fallen in love with him if he didn't have something to give? Why would men such as Dr. Zamenhof and Reb Kalonymous trust him? He overlooks the many heroic episodes of his life and completely avoids what must have been the worst -- the time from age 13 to the start of the book.

As an old man, he chooses to tell his life story as if everything was determined by what his father did to him at age 13 -- and surely it was -- but perhaps not because his father's action literally let loose a dybbuk. Perhaps, in the tradition of folk tales (or psychoanalysis?) he invents a dybbuk as the manifestation of the impact his father's actions had upon his life? Maybe I'm just making excuses for sloppy writing, but it certainly seems to me that he wouldn't have found out about Ita's suicide in a telegram a decade later signed individually by each of his seven sisters. Isn't it more likely that this is how he chooses to tell the story a lifetime later? He spends his life haunted by Ita's suicide and so keeps looking for her in the people he meets? (But not, after all, in the people he loves the best?) As the story of his life continues -- as he gets closer to recent times, he seems less and less of a caricature, and more and more an unusually strong and giving person; yet like many older people he dwells with self-indulgent nostalgia on the details of his early life. As an old man, he's starving to death in the Warsaw Ghetto of WWII, and yet mentions his efforts to support the resistance only because they lead him to run into someone who makes him think of Ita.

I read this book directly after finishing The Invisible Bridge, and it was a relief to be reminded that some of the people killed in the Holocaust lived full lives before those dark times: the Holocaust ended their lives but didn't define them. Dr. Sammelsohn's life ran from Freud to Esperanto through WWI to the Warsaw Ghetto. Like The Invisible Bridge, this book shows the Jewish society that existed before the Holocaust, but for Dr. Sammelsohn the Holocaust is just a coda to a full life.

In summary, I enjoyed this book, and I would happily read a companion novel that told the parts Dr. Sammelsohn left out (perhaps from Loe's perspective). ( )
  read.to.live | Jun 19, 2011 |
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Epigraph
And the Holy One, what did He do? He buried the truth in the ground. - Genesis Rabbah
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For my mother and for her mother, for my daughter and for her mother. And in memory of my father.
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I fell in love with Emma Eckstein the moment I saw her from the fourth gallery of the Carl Theater, and this was also the night I met Sigmund Freud.
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Book description
Skibell’s sweeping, imaginative epic chronicles the tumultuous life of an endearing protagonist, Dr. Jakob Sammelsohn, which includes a unique relationship with Sigmund Freud, the universal language movement, and WWII. In 1895 Vienna, Sammelsohn, an oculist, is love-struck by Emma Eckstein, one of Freud’s best-known patients. Sammelsohn’s pursuit of Eckstein becomes complicated when she is possessed by the spirit of Sammelsohn’s childhood bride, Ita, who committed suicide after being abandoned the day of their wedding. While Freud and Sammelsohn argue over the best treatment for Eckstein, Ita and Sammelsohn’s relationship deepens, culminating in a mystical scene. Later, Sammelsohn meets Dr. Ludovik Leyzer Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto, and becomes immersed in the language and its ideals of worldwide peace. One of Esperanto’s outspoken proponents is the wealthy Loë Bernfeld, with whom Sammelsohn quickly falls in love. Though the two marry, Ita continues to pursue Sammelsohn, making an inopportune appearance at a crucial delegation meeting. Finally, Sammelsohn’s journey brings him to the terrors of 1940 Warsaw, where, with the help of a rebbe, he embarks on an otherworldly voyage. Skibell (The English Disease, 2003) crafts a vivid, artfully clever tale grounded in turn-of-the century Europe.
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When Dr. Jakob Josef Sammelsohn arrives in Vienna in the 1890s, he happens to meet Sigmund Freud, has a series of affairs, is haunted by the ghost of his abandoned wife, and eventually ends up in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940. His Candide-like adventures illuminate a Europe moving between a new scientific age and age-old superstitions and beliefs.… (more)

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HighBridge Audio

An edition of this book was published by HighBridge Audio.

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HighBridge

An edition of this book was published by HighBridge.

» Publisher information page

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