The English Disease

Front Cover
Algonquin Books, Sep 15, 2012 - Fiction - 256 pages
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.


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User Review  - Kirkus

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 ... Read full review

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User Review  - mbergman - LibraryThing

Obsessed to a fault with the interior life of an unlikeable character, far more self-absorbed than the gold miner in The Colour, embedded in a nearly plotless narrative preoccupied with the plight of ... Read full review


Among dripping cacti
A momentary break in the rain
Hole n the rock
Myth of the eternal return
Giving false information to the registrar
A complicated gesture of displeasure
As round and circular as a bowl of fruit
Kindertotenlieder or day care among the pasteeaters
Ineluctably metaphorical
Miniature hasidic men in tiny fur streimels
This dour pilgrimage or zeppo in auschwitz
An evening of chopin
Return to glueeaters island
Stacks of sticky lunch mats
Into the primordial womb
Dozens of attempted reschedulings

Thousands of now confused druids
I cant help thinking of laura mankiewitz
Traveling with leibowitz or jewish figures in the dreams of richard wagner
We return to marszalkowska street
In the lobby of the palace of culture
The ultimatum
Por qué llorax la blanca nińa

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About the author (2012)

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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