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The English Disease

The English Disease

4.0 4
by Joseph Skibell, Ann Winslow (Designed by)

THE ENGLISH DISEASE is a remarkable feat, a story that mixes the Marx brothers and Maimonides, pornographic yoga with Polish paranoia, and the brutality of kindergarten with the beauty of the Kiddush. It's the tale of Charles Belski, an expert in the works of Gustav Mahler, who, like Mahler himself, is talented and neurotic, and a nonpracticing Jew.



THE ENGLISH DISEASE is a remarkable feat, a story that mixes the Marx brothers and Maimonides, pornographic yoga with Polish paranoia, and the brutality of kindergarten with the beauty of the Kiddush. It's the tale of Charles Belski, an expert in the works of Gustav Mahler, who, like Mahler himself, is talented and neurotic, and a nonpracticing Jew.

Belski suffers guilt over his own contribution to the decline of the Jewish religion, especially since he married a gentile and now has a gentile daughter. As if he can't conjure up enough angst on his own, his great-grandfather appears before him in a dream to admonish him for neglecting the obligations of his faith.

For Belski, the dilemma is how an assimilated intellectual can connect with an ancient and irrational (to him) religion without losing his sense of self. Is he the self-hating Jew that his obstreperous colleague pegs him for? Can his wife and daughter bully him into opening up his heart and letting in a little joy? Belski tries to come to grips with the meaninglessness of modern life, the demands of tradition, the nature of love and fidelity, and the true significance of the lyrics to Goodnight Irene.

Joseph Skibell has written a novel that is sad, funny, daring, and ultimately redemptive.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The sophisticated interplay of conflicted faith and prosaic everyday life, and the clashes between inborn heritage and constructed love, are at the heart of this second novel by the author of the memorable A Blessing on the Moon. A middle-aged secular Jew raised in Texas, Charles Belski is a musicologist who searches for the secret to theology through the works and lives of various historical personalities: Wagner, Mahler, and Zeppo and Groucho Marx. A reluctant husband and father, Belski is also the first of his family to marry outside his religion. The Catholic background of his beautiful wife, Isabelle, is only one of a series of seemingly irreconcilable differences; underlying their marital tension is the disparity between their upbringings and their ways of looking at the world, including their disagreements regarding their daughter Franny's religious upbringing. Belski travels through the canyons of the Southwest with Isabelle to try and save their marriage and to Auschwitz to save his faith, when the key to both might lie closer to their California home. They seem the ultimate mismatched couple: Charles is brooding and neurotic; his wife businesslike and practical. Positively laden with references to the icons of Western culture, and infused with irony and satire, the narrative drags at points when Skibell uses his fictional setting to reflect on the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust and to argue that Wagner contributed to the rise of anti-Semitism. About the quest for both spiritual satisfaction and marital contentment, the story moves to a surprisingly rich denouement in which Charles's dour intellectualism takes second place to his emotional fulfillment. 10-city author tour. (June 6) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Melancholia was once known as the English disease, and touring the ruins of antiquity was seen as a cure, since, as the author notes, "contemplation of actual ruins would make one's own ruined life seem less hateful." This new novel by Skibell (A Blessing on the Moon) begins with Charles Belski and his wife, Isabelle, pitching a tent in the American Southwest and arguing about Mahler. If Alma couldn't be faithful to the genius Mahler, how can any marriage stand a chance? And if she could clandestinely have affairs, why couldn't she clandestinely compose? Belski spends the whole of this novel trying to save (or end) his marriage and coming to terms with what it means to be a Jew in contemporary times. Later, on a trip to Poland with a musicologist colleague, he muses about the insanity of paying to see the sites where his ancestors were slaughtered; visiting ruins doesn't seem to cure this patient. Despite the subject matter, this is a widely entertaining story-particularly because of the absurdist juxtapositions. The exposition on the Marx Brothers as a model of "the Ascent of the Assimilating Jewish Man" is priceless. Highly recommended for literary fiction collections.-Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical & Community Coll. Lib. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A skimpy narrative and redundant emphases on the burdens and mysteries of Judaism drain the life out of Skibell's initially promising second (after A Blessing on the Moon, 1997). The story begins smartly, in the American Southwest, where academic and musicologist Charles Belski is dragged into vacationing by his very blond and Waspish wife Isabelle. Charles, who narrates, is a petulant perfectionist whose morose wit-compounded of his culture's and his family's generational sufferings, and also his own innate fatalism-often makes him sound like Humbert Humbert inveighing against American trash culture. He's "a typical male epithalamiophobe" nevertheless essentially happily married; a reluctant father; and a theoretical atheist who logically asserts that "one needn't believe in God in order to feel abandoned by Him." As long as Skibell is winging it back and forth between Charles's state of suspended bilious animation and flashbacks showing us how he got to be that way, The English Disease (which malady, incidentally, is reputedly melancholy) is enormously winning. Then Charles travels to Krakow to attend a Wagner conference, thence to the Auschwitz Museum, accompanied by his obese, stentorian colleague Leibowitz-and the novel devolves into a series of declamations and meditations on anti-Semitism, the ordeal of the European Jews, and the absurdity of embracing ideologies. Skibell tries to keep it moving, but the poisonously gregarious Leibowitz bores us almost as much as he annoys Belski, and things grow awfully static. Skibell recovers somewhat by returning Charles to the terrors of domesticity, and concludes with an interesting (if overlong) account of the energetic, ever suggestibleIsabelle's passionate conversion. It's a shame she wasn't around in Poland, for Isabelle is easily the most engaging character here. Insufficient plot here, and the argument is overinsistent and oppressive.

Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.72(w) x 8.68(h) x 0.88(d)

Meet the Author

Possessing “a gifted, committed imagination” (New York Times), Joseph Skibell is the author of three novels, A Blessing on the Moon, The English Disease, and A Curable Romantic; the forthcoming collection of nonfiction stories My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things; and another forthcoming nonfiction work, Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud. He has received numerous awards, including the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Sami Rohr Award in Jewish Literature, Story magazine’s Short Short-Story Prize, and the Turner Prize for First Fiction.

As director of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature from 2008 to 2015, he sang and played guitar onstage with both Margaret Atwood and Paul Simon. A professor at Emory University, Skibell has also taught at the University of Wisconsin and the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. Recently a Senior Fellow at the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, he is the Winship Distinguished Research Professor in the Humanities at Emory University. A native Texan, he lives mostly in his head.

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The English Disease 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The English Disease is well-written, and has a combination of humor and warmth that makes it a very enjoyable read. Some of the tangents don't work as well as others, but overall they give the book a great depth. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pity it is not available for Nook from Barnes & Noble.. I will buy it in an alternative electronic format, from Amazon, iTunes, etc.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While this is the least successful of Skibell's novels, it's probably the most enjoyable. Very funny, very fluent, very witty.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The story centers around a man named Belski, a depressed, non-practicing Jew,who is filled with guilt over the fact that he married out of his faith. The dilemmas in his life seem to stem from him, often self-imposed, along with his depression, and his manipulative tactics, while interacting with those around him. He really has no character or depth to speak of, yet he seems to feel he does, but it is a facade. He can't see the joy in anything, is devoid of emotion, and seems to thoroughly enjoy his state of melancholia, as it gives him power over others, the only form of power he has. It was slow reading, filled with a bit of humor here and there, but overall, I couldn't wait to finish the book, which, for me, is unusual.