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This article first appeared in The Boston Globe and is reprinted with permission of the author. Visit www.boston.com.
Review of The English Disease by Joseph Skibell. Alonquin. 236pp. $23.95
Early in Joseph Skibell's satirical novel Charles Belski, the book's jaded narrator, notes that the heart of a human embryo is a "single pulsating organ, gradually separating into its articulated chambers as the fetus grows, its two halves partitioned permanently at the moment of birth, when the lungs begin to function and the hole between the halves, the ductus arteriosum closes."
What is presented as a "violent moment for a fetus," becomes an intense metaphor for Belski, a man who is angry and depressed over his ethnic and religious disaffection from all things Jewish. "It was thought that somehow the contemplation of actual ruins would make one's own ruined life seem less hateful, and that these dilapidated but still beautiful structures might suggest to the sensitive melancholiac the possibility of finding beauty in his own misery, indeed as essential to it." The ruin at hand is Belski's marriage to the gentile Isabelle. The attempt at an immediate cure is a tour of ruins in the western United States including Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.
To understand Charles Belski it is best to begin at the beginning in Karkel, Texas, a one-synagogue town. Belski's early Jewish education was directed by the small-minded Rabbi Kleinblatt, whose lessons consisted of learning to recognize and pronounce the Hebrew alphabet without benefit of meaning or context. The letters were empty shells. The metaphorical division of heart and mind brought about its own melancholia--a kind of Hebrew disease.
Belski's obsession with his assimilation and his bad luck with women infuses his work as a musicologist. He focuses on the music of Gustave Mahler and Richard Wagner, acutely aware of the former's apostasy and the latter's virulent anti-Semitism. But it's the women whom Belski claims "have always been the source of my greatest unhappiness, beginning with Alma Mahler..." Alma Mahler, Gustave Mahler's beautiful, passionate wife who at her husband's behest stopped composing her own music. "She stuck to the terms of this idiosyncratic agreement while flagrantly disregarding the weightier ones of her marriage vow." Skibell brilliantly conveys the same tension in Belski's marriage when Isabelle violates their own idiosyncratic agreement by pleading for a Christmas tree. Belski acquiesces a bit more each year and his spiritual alienation deepens.
". . . in each subsequent year the tree grew in shape and size so that every December, I felt further and further oppressed by it.
The pinnacle of this oppression or rather its nadir--tying a fir to the top of our car as though it were a deer carcass . . . was for me a complicated and disturbing act, at once theologically humiliating and socially conformist."
Again he experiences a violent moment as another part of his heart becomes partitioned permanently.
This is made painfully clear when the Jew from Karkel visits Auschwitz, which he comes to see as the tragic and ugly ruins of his Judaism. Belski's companion on the trip is only referred to as Leibowitz, a fellow musicologist whose buffoonish manner obscures the deeper truths that he often speaks. It is as difficult to see past Leibowitz's grotesqueness and gluttony as it is to be confronted with Kracow's kitschy memorialization of its murdered Jews. Memories of pre-Holocaust Jewish life are preserved on a tape loop and depicted in stereotypical cardboard figures displayed in what was once the city's main synagogue. Things are decidedly worse in Auschwitz, where a tour of the barracks and crematoria ends with a stop at a Disneyesque gift shop.
Skibell's observations are a sharp commentary that is punctuated by Leibowitz's far-fetched yet somehow coherent depiction of assimilation as represented by the Marx Brothers. According to Leibowitz the Marx brothers take on anti-Semitic caricatures "as a way of implicating and condemning not only themselves as Jews but also their anti-Semitic tormentors." In Leibowitz's model each of the four brothers represents various stages of assimilation. From the miming Harpo to the unassuming straight man Zeppo, the barometer of their defection from Judaism is measured in their facility with language. For example, Groucho wields English "with razor-sharp precision, as though it were a whip studied with multilingual puns and foreign phrases, insinuating double entendres and sly innuendos . . ." But it is Zeppo's representation of total assimilation with which Belski reluctantly and frighteningly identifies. "I am Zeppo, father and potential grandfather of goyim, an endless river of Gentile descendants who, due to the Talmudic laws of matrilineal descent, will wander the earth distinct from me in essence . . ."
It is for that reason that Belski considers leaving Isabelle again. Belski's dilemma manifests itself as a verse from Genesis describing Esau's Canaanite wives as a source of "bitterness" to his parents that Belski can't purge from his mind. But perhaps it is an alternate translation regarding Esau's choice of wives as a "spiritual rebellion" that resonates after Isabelle announces that she wants to seriously explore Judaism and perhaps even to convert.
What happens next is a witty subversion of Belski's own rebellion and doubts. Although the last quarter of the book rushes towards a conclusion, on the way it takes on New Age Judaism as well as its more traditional counterparts with equal measures of equanimity and parody. In Joseph Skibell's able hands, Belski's dour fixation eventually gives way to cautious joy. And what was torn asunder is united in the ancient ruins of Biblical Hebrew where heart and mind are one in the same word.