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September 30, 2010

Book Notes - Joseph Skibell ("A Curable Romantic")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

A Curable Romantic is yet another imaginative and compelling novel from author Joseph Skibell. Set in turn of the century Vienna, this is intellectual comedy of the highest order, filled with beautiful writing and unforgettable, larger than life characters.

The New Republic wrote of the book:

"It's a high-energy, wild performance, as ample as its protagonist's appetites; the postmodern Jewish novel as mash-up of genres: Yiddish folktale, sentimental education, Freudian case history, erotic confession, utopian parable, all wrapped up in an "alternative history" of Jewish emancipation, haunted by the figure of Dreyfus and intoxicated with the heady pleasures of the Esperanto tongue. And toward the end, the novel becomes a metaphysical jeu d'esprit that is perversely naturalistic, superbly comic, and in the bargain, heartrending. "

In his own words, here is Joseph Skibell's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, A Curable Romantic:

These days, I listen to music mostly when I run. That's also the time I tend to think through the problems and issues in my work. The music I listen to functions as a kind of reminder, an aural compass whose needle points magnetically to the truer north of the things I'm trying to attain in my work.

This was certainly the case when I was writing A Curable Romantic, my third novel.

A novelist, fumbling around with heavy and often inert words, can only envy the immediacy of music. In fact, it has always been my goal to write novels that work the way a great record album does – or did at least when I was a kid, before the return of the single and the iPod turned every listener into a deejay.

Back then, all you had to do was put the needle on the opening track. The anticipatory crackle and hum focused your attention, and the songs themselves pulled you through the album. That's the experience I'm trying to replicate as a writer: you open the book and begin to read, and the sound of the language pulls you into the story with the effortlessness and ease of a great record album.

Keith Jarrett's solo concerts work in the same way – the hours-long improvised concert seems to organically grow out of the opening notes – and two of these concerts were, in fact, my constant companions when I was writing my novel.

The Koln Concert, Part IIC by Keith Jarrett

The first part of A Curable Romantic takes place in Vienna around 1895. The protagonist, a young eye-doctor named Jakob Josef Sammelsohn, meets Sigmund Freud at the Carl Theater during a performance of Theodor Herzl's play The New Ghetto. Herzl, like Vaclav Havel in our own time, was a playwright before becoming a statesman.

I tried to listen to Mahler – it made sense, given the time and the place I was writing about – but somehow Keith Jarrett insisted upon my attention.

I'd long been a fan. I discovered the Koln Concert when I was an undergrad. I listened to it all the time, especially the fourth section, the encore (technically Part IIC) which, despite its racing pulse, has a light, romantic, lyrical feel to it. The 7-minute piece evokes, for me at least, the sense of being young and in love. There's an early morning quality to the music: you hear the cool breezes of daybreak, the thoughts of one's lover, the caressing warmth of a new sun, the heart opening. There's a moment of ecstatic joyfulness, when Jarrett's fantastically fast and dizzying runs careen around the keyboard, followed by a tender and melancholic restatement of the theme.

Jarrett has always been an artistic touchstone for me. I heard a radio interview with him years ago in which he spoke about how an understanding of the musical principles, which he called "sonic laws,"allowed him to throw himself into these long solo piano improvisations. The same sorts of principles animate narrative for me. If you have a deep understanding of the "laws of narrative,"you can begin a story and, through the same sense of improvisation, let its themes carry you through to its end.

The Vienna Concert by Keith Jarrett

When I realized Jarrett had recorded a solo concert in Vienna, I took it as a happy coincidence and bought the CD immediately. I downloaded it to my iPod and, although it wasn't really running music – the piece is sort of a ruminative conversation between silence and sound – it became my running music for at least a year or two.

And as I listen to it now, I can hear how it influenced the sound of my novel. Dr. Sammelsohn's voice has the same inward-turning, self-questioning, probing quality to it. The concert starts with a quiet, stirring, majestic string of chords, separated by a precise, sparkling silence. Eventually, these gentle tones evolve into a great rainstorm of sounds. By the opening of Part II, Jarrett makes the piano sound as though it were an orchestra of stringed instruments playing in an open tuning.

If the concert can be said to have a literary shape, I'd have to say it reminds me of one of those great collections of primary stories – the Ma'aseh Book or 1001 Nights or The Mahabharata – collections that starts out with a deceptive simplicity but end up embodying everything about the culture that gave birth to it.

Immodestly perhaps, I had the same hopes for A Curable Romantic. I wanted to use the force of simple, primary narrative – folk tales, love stories, psychoanalytical case histories – in order to construct a complex and sophisticated work with large and broad themes.

The Paris Concert by Keith Jarrett

In the second part of A Curable Romantic, Dr. Sammelsohn becomes involved with the Universal Language Movement and Esperanto. Esperanto's creator, Dr. L.L. Zamenhof, becomes, after Sigmund Freud, the second of Dr. Sammelsohn's father figures. As the society Dr. Sammelsohn travels in becomes more sophisticated, the setting of the novel moves from Vienna to Paris.

I took it as a good sign that Keith Jarrett had recorded a solo concert in Paris as well – at the Salle Pleyel on October 17, 1988, a day before my 29th birthday. I put away the Vienna Concert and began running to the Paris Concert. In its opening, the concert sounds a bit more modern and emotionally restrained than its Viennese twin, but it too soon turns into a brooding exploration. This, I thought, fit in perfectly with the novel's themes of a utopianism defeated by the tendency we all have to snarl everything up with an all-too-human cocktail of good intentions and personal ego-blindness.

About 17 minutes into the piece, Jarrett abandons the turbulent moodiness that's a major theme of the concert and offers up one of the most exquisite sections, a sorrowful 6-minute evocation of loveliness that I used as a sonic model for the love affair between Dr. Sammelsohn and Loë Bernfeld, the third of his seven wives.

The third great city of A Curable Romantic is Warsaw. Jarrett has yet to record a concert in Warsaw, and so I had to write the rest of the novel without his help.

Yiddish Songs by Chava Alberstein

If I have a secret crush – my wife won't be reading this, right? – it's Chava Alberstein, the beautiful Israeli singer who sometimes sings in Hebrew and sometimes in Yiddish. I love her Yiddish songs especially, and I used them as a sonic touchstone for the sections of the book in which Dr. Sammelsohn writes about his childhood, circa 1880, in the part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire then called Galicia.

Alberstein's musical rendition of the Itzik Manger poem, "Oifn Veg Sh'tait a Boim"– a stanza of which I used in the novel's dedication – brings tears to my eyes, as does the way she sings the line, "Oy, vi shnel bin ikh shoyn alt gevorn"– "Oh, how quickly I became old"-- in "Kinder Yorn (Childhood Years)."

Her songs brought the whole lost world of my grandparents' childhoods to life for me.

The Complete Works of Jackson Browne

I stopped listening to Jackson Browne somewhere between Lawyers in Love and World in Motion, during his fallow period in the late ‘80s, and I was unprepared for the essential and amazing work he produced in the years after that. Even those two albums seem fairly strong now, certainly much stronger than I remember them, and the work on Looking East and The Naked Ride Home is about as good as it gets.

Browne is probably the most literate and versatile and musical of his generation of singer-songwriters. You've got to take your hat off to a man who can put a line like "The years give way to uncertainty and the fear of living for nothing strangles the will"to a tune, or who, in a mind-altering near-haiku, can sing about Los Angeles as a place "where the ghostly specter of Howard Hughes hovers in the smoke of a thousand barbecues."

The protagonists of Browne's songs have a lot in common with Dr. Sammelsohn, principally: an undefended and often-disappointed heart, still hungry for love; a principled desire for a better world; and a tendency to romanticize childhood.

One of my favorite examples comes from a late song called "Don't You Want To Be There?"in which the singer asks, "Don't you want to be there? Don't you want to know where the grace and simple truth of childhood go?”

Listening to Browne's entire catalogue on shuffle while I ran was how I subverted my own default-settings towards cynicism and entered more fully into Sammelsohn's purer, gentler and sweeter worldview. In tribute, I studded the text of the book with little quotations from Browne's lyrics. There's a mention, if I'm remembering right, of the "barricades of heaven,"along with one or two others.

Also a quatrain from "Sky Blue and Black"--

And the heavens were rolling
Like a wheel on a track
And the sky was unfolding
And it'll never fold back

-- served as a kind of key signature to keep me in tune when it came time to write about the trip through Heaven Sammelsohn seems to take, at the end of the book, with the Piaseczno Rebbe.

One final thing: Browne is a bit underappreciated these days. All you've got to do is listen again to the song "Lawyers in Love,"with its weird mélange of ‘50s doo-wop, Phantom of the Opera organ riffs, horror-movie theremin and bits of "Please Please Me"thrown in, to appreciate how wild and original an artist he is.

"Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)" by Bob Dylan

The last song that really supported me while I worked on A Curable Romantic is Dylan's funky travelogue "Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)"from the album Street Legal. The parts that mean something to me are fairly personal, but anyone who has worked on a novel for over six years will understand why, during my run, at around mile seven, the lines …

If you don't believe there's a price
For this sweet paradise
Just remind me to show you the scars.
There's a new day at dawn
And I've finally arrived.
If I'm there in the morning, baby
You'll know I survived.
I can't believe it, I can't believe I'm alive

… never failed to fill me with a kind of manic ecstasy.

Joseph Skibell and A Curable Romantic links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Austin American-Statesman review
Barnes & Noble Review review
The Book Studio review
Dallas Morning News review
ecopunks review
Emory Report review
The House Next Door review
The New Republic review
O, the Oprah magazine review
Oregonian review
TC Jewfolk review

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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