In Joseph Skibell’s new novel, Dr Jakob Sammelsohn, an impoverished ophthalmologist in Vienna with a non-existent sex life, falls in love with a woman he sees at the theatre. In the play’s interval, he engineers a conversation with her companion, who, it transpires, is Sigmund Freud.
Sammelsohn soon discovers that his inamorata is Emma Eckstein, one of Freud’s earliest patients who suffered from hysteria. In his inept way, Sammelsohn pursues Emma, despite Freud’s admonitions that doing so would endanger her health. Skibell’s Freud is autocratic, wilful, more concerned for his scientific reputation than his patients, and ostentatiously — indeed implausbily — Jewish (he refers to his Saturday-night card games as “our little malavah malkahs”).
Skibell depicts with gusto the intellectual excitement and crankiness of the early days of psychoanalysis. He is particularly brilliant when elucidating its religious nature. It was not merely the “Jewish Science” because its practitioners were Jewish. Psychoanalysis itself was a form of neurosis, the revenge of a minority that suffered from persistent antisemitism and the failure of emancipation to incorporate Jewry into the body politic. Freud showed the Germans that beneath their bourgeois complacency lurked torturous psychosexual traumas.
The story takes a fantastical turn when it transpires that Emma’s hysteria may actually be demonic possession by the soul of Ita, Jakob’s dead wife, to whom Jakob had been married off in punishment for his interest in the Jewish Enlightenment. As Sammelsohn negotiates the hostage situation, Freud’s scientific disbelief in the existence of dybbuks begins to fray.
This exhilarating episode ought to have been the core of this novel. But Sammelsohn, with the puppy-dog infatuation that he displays throughout the novel to vulnerable women and more intelligent men, pursues another master in the form of L L Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto. Like Freud, Zamenhof believed his discoveries would transform mankind.
The drama in this section, however, relies entirely on whether the Esperanto movement will split over the adoption of reforms governing certain accents and diacritics — which is exactly as interesting as it sounds.
As the novel inches painfully forward, Skibell’s stylistic flaws become harder to forgive. Everyone either booms or hyperventilates; little attempt is made to differentiate the voices; and Sammelsohn’s orotund narration veers to the monotonous.
It is a shame that A Curable Romantic sags so drastically, because Skibell is a watchful writer and sprightly thinker. It is especially gratifying to encounter a book that is unabashedly literate in the Jewish tradition.
One outstanding sequence involves Sammelsohn’s father, who refuses to speak in anything other than biblical verses and talmudic fragments, trying to explain the birds and the bees to his son.
Unfortunately, like most 600-page novels, this one is too long by half.