Reviews

Missed Connections


 A Curable Romantic
by Joseph Skibell 
Algonquin Books, 608 pp., $26.95

 

In fin-de-siècle Vienna, women took out ads in the local newspapers to send covert messages to prospective lovers, a precursor to Craigslist's "Missed Connections" section. Sigmund Freud, who lived in the city at the time, was enchanted with the theories and personality of Wilhelm Fleiss, an ENT who believed that the nose was the root of unhappiness, and cocaine could cure all maladies. The founder of Esperanto, L. L. Zamenhof, had a daughter who converted to the Baha'i Faith in the 1930s. During the Holocaust, sneaking into the Warsaw Ghetto's mikvah would lead to a sentence of ten years imprisonment.

Trubek SkibellJoseph Skibell's A Curable Romantic contains all of these historical nuggets and dozens more. The novel is nothing if not ambitious, and it covers such enormous thematic, formal, and historical ground—think Ragtime plus One Hundred Years of Solitude with a dash of Dara Horn's The World To Come—that it resists easy summary. It begins, via flashbacks, in the village in Galicia where the title character, Jakob Sammelsohn, was born and where he lived until age 13, when he ran away from his domineering, pious father. Jakob moves to Vienna, where he becomes an oculist, a good occupation for a descendent of the Hasidic master known as "the Seer of Lublin."

In Vienna, Sammelsohn befriends Freud and falls in love with his first patient, Emma Eckstein. Later, he meets Zamenhof and becomes a convert to the cause of Esperanto, traveling to Paris for international Esperanto meetings and falling for another ardent Esperantist, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. During World War I, he briefly hides out on his father's old property, then spends years in Warsaw, where, in 1940, he works as the amanuensis to the saintly Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Szapira and smuggles provisions over the ghetto wall.

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About the Author

Anne Trubek is a professor of Rhetoric and English at Oberlin College and the author of the forthcoming A Skeptic’s Guide To Writers’ Houses (University of Pennsylvania Press).

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