Surely one of the attractions of the historical novel, for readers and writers both, has got to be how smart it makes us feel. Even as the characters flounder and triumph, beaten about by the currents of time, we know what they cannot: how it will all turn out, what it will all come to signify. Their future, that great unknown, is already our past, ancient history we mine for edification and entertainment. It is, perhaps, a means of assuaging our fears about our own unknowns, seeking refuge in old news, the sortable and manageable—or what passes for that, anyhow. Or, maybe, it is a way of abiding that old maxim to heed the lessons of the past by periodically reviving and revising them, allowing ourselves to believe we are not doomed to repeat our mistakes. Or else it is a way of harnessing the powers of the uncanny, making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Brought back to life, the historically famous and infamous dance across the fictional stage, their old fates made newly relevant, newly exciting: We glean and glimpse the private inner sanctums of public lives while the authorial hand skillfully rewrites history. But, of course, the sense of triumph, of moral and intellectual superiority, is only illusory: In the tableau of the historical novel we come, more often than not, face to face with our own reflected visages. Yesterday is a metaphor of sorts for today; we till the past for present purposes.
A most apt, a most ingenious image for the historical novel is offered in Joseph Skibell’s A Curable Romantic, which follows the misadventures of Dr. Jakob “Yankl” Sammelsohn, a Galacian oculist, in fin de siècle Vienna, the international Esperanto Movement, and the Warsaw Ghetto. Having fallen in love-at-first-sight with Emma Eckstein (the “Irma” of the “Dream of Irma’s Injection,” the sample dream in Die Traumdeutung, the work that made Sigmund Freud famous), Sammelsohn is inadvertently (as is his way) drawn into Dr. Freud’s treatment of the young lady. Fräulein Eckstein, it seems, is possessed by a dybbuk, the punitive, malicious spirit of Ita, Yankl’s second wife, who committed suicide on their wedding night, Yankl having escaped the site of the nuptial ceremony through a window. (Ita, the village idiot, is forced upon the 12-year-old Yankl by his father as punishment for his spiritual transgressions in the form of the boy’s interest in secular, revolutionary literature. Yankl’s original punishment, an earlier marriage, also never consummated, is undone by his recruitment of his child-bride to the cause of the masses.) The dybbuk demands satisfaction, refusing to release Emma Eckstein’s body until that body is used for the purpose of achieving sexual union with her husband, and, though the thoroughly secular, medically trained Sammelsohn, guided by Dr. Freud’s firm rejection of any and all possibility of spiritual claptrap, cannot at first believe the possibility of Ita’s return, he must eventually accede to the story the spirit relates—of past lives, stretching back millennia, of kindred spirits perpetually thwarted in their drive towards each other.
The conversations between Yankl and Ita work in the manner of accomplished, even stunning, set pieces: They are funny, tender, revelatory, illuminating the history of Yankl and Ita and Szibotya, their hometown, as well as offering a master class in Jewish lore and tradition. (Much of the novel’s mode may be dubbed “folklore realism,” a particularly, peculiarly Yiddish offshoot of magical realism.) But Dr. Sammelsohn’s interaction with the dybbuk can also be taken as a poignant representation of the project of fictionalizing history: Just as Ita’s restless spirit haunts Emma Eckstein’s body, making use of Emma’s physicality to make her story heard, so too does Skibell harness well-known personages in the service of his own crafty plans. Ita’s connection to an unseen heavenly world that seemingly exists outside or beyond time allows her to hint at the future—she coyly, cruelly predicts the early death of Freud’s daughter Sophie—in much the same way our own awareness of the historical players’ fates allows us to nod knowingly, to wink back at the author’s knowing nods. Skibell, for example, gets a lot of mileage from Freud’s surreptitious cocaine use and the good doctor’s constant, comical denial of his addiction to cigars, the absurdity of Freud’s self-delusion leavened with tragic foreknowledge of his eventual demise.
This is not to say that A Curable Romantic is without surprises. In fact, Skibell consistently subverts expectations as he follows Dr. Sammelsohn in his pursuit of professional credibility and personal fulfillment, both repeatedly thwarted by Ita’s reappearance; to give away too much would be to spoil the fun of following the novel as it unfolds. As its title suggests, the book tells a love story, one that defies the constraints of time and place while remaining mysteriously recognizable. It is also a quest narrative of a kind, the story of Sammelsohn’s search for a father figure—his own father having cast him out, he seeks paternal refuge, first in Dr. Freud, then in Dr. Zamenhoff, the utopian dreamer-creator of Esperanto, and, finally, in Rav Kalonymos Kalmish Szapira, Grand Rabbi of Piaseczno, Poland—and a Father figure. As a historical novel, A Curable Romantic is finally concerned with a particular history, the attempt of the secular Jew to fit in, to find a home in a Europe that repeatedly rejects his assimilation, sometimes surreptitiously—the specter of Dreyfuss haunts Freud and his circle, for example—and, as the 20th century hurtles toward WWII, with increasing, and increasingly deadly, force. (Skibell’s otherwise inspired design necessitates that the first World War is covered, somewhat awkwardly, in a mere two pages).
It is only once he finds himself confined in the Warsaw Ghetto that Yankl truly rises to the demands of history, finally accepting that his future must be in accordance with his past and the past of his ancestors. Fortified by a spirituality with which he is finally comfortable, Sammelsohn ends the book poised on the brink of a foray into a brave new world, though this conclusion is necessarily haunted by our knowledge of what historically comes next. As the scrim descends on Skibell’s nearly virtuoso performance, the history he has harnessed throughout A Curable Romantic marches on, off stage, seeping into the present, ushering in what we do not yet know.
Joseph Skibell’s A Curable Romantic will be available on September 7 from Algonquin Books.