Dr. Jakob Sammelsohn, an oculist, falls in love with two different women at two different periods in 20th-century history—and along the way prominent figures, most notably Sigmund Freud, get caught up in his relationships.
At first Sammelsohn has the misfortune to become smitten with Emma Eckstein, one of Freud’s most famous patients. While love is always a complicated affair, the complications become more extraordinary when the object of your affection is herself in love with Freud and displaces this relationship onto you. Sammelsohn finds that Emma is more than he can handle when she begins to channel Ita, Sammelsohn’s young wife, who had died by suicide on their wedding night, when her husband was only 12. When Emma is committed to a hospital for symptoms of hysteria, Sammelsohn consults Freud to try to figure out how to deal with her strong desire to consummate the relationship—and, ironically, Freud is technically brilliant in his diagnosis but flustered by the reality of this woman. The narrative then shifts to a lengthy discussion of Dr. Ludovik Leyzer Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto and motivated by the universal language movement to seek peace and harmony. One of his followers is Fräulein Loë Bernfeld, with whom Sammelsohn falls desperately in love. Unlike his relationship with Emma, this relationship is consummated (in a scene that manages to be simultaneously both comic and erotic) and eventually leads to their marriage (destined, alas, not to last). Finally, the narrative shifts to the Warsaw Ghetto in the late 1930s, where Sammelsohn becomes involved in a bizarre scheme with an outré rabbi, but he emerges triumphant, eventually heading to the promised land of Palestine, thanks to the ghostly and angelic visitations of the late Ita.
A leisurely paced novel from master stylist Skibell (The English Disease, 2003, etc.), who does a fine job of acquainting the reader with 20th-century European intellectual culture.