The English Disease, by Joseph Skibell, is a story revolving around Charles Belski, a learned man who is a musicologist (one who studies the history and science of music). He has what is known as English Disease, which in today’s environment is known as depression or melancholia. The dilemmas in his life seem to stem inwardly from within himself, and are often self-imposed. He is a difficult, obnoxious, middle-aged man, with depression, and is extremely manipulative when interacting with those around him. He is a protagonist unlike any I have read, filled with a cynical perspective, yet wickedly funny. He is a depressed, non-practicing Jew, and is filled with guilt over the fact that he married a Catholic, a Gentile.
The differences between Belski and his wife, interplay throughout the novel. There is disagreement on how to raise their daughter, Franny. His wife and daughter try to open his eyes to the joy around him. He is a man in crisis, lost in faith, relying on medication to get him through the hours and days. Belski’s life appears to be a series of reluctant events, which do not include one small spark of happiness. Belski is schlepping through life struggling with his emotional being and his academic side. He is fixated with the past, yet at the same time it eventually evolves into a healing element for him.
““English melancholiacs used to tour the ruins of Antiquity as a cure for their depression, which was, in fact, at the time called the English Disease. 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 melancholic the possibility of finding beauty in his own misery, indeed as essential to it.”
He travels to Poland on a conference with a colleague named Liebowitz, a person, who is almost like a sidekick of Belski’s. They visit Auschwitz. Belski’s constant reflections on the Holocaust, anti-semitism, the current social climate in Poland, and on his life overtake his thoughts. They feed his melancholic state.
Skibell is brilliant in his writing and assessment of Jews, assimilated Jews, Jews marrying Gentiles, the Holocaust, Poland, and depression and melancholia. Skibell’s amazing descriptive observations make it seem as if he is inside the heads of others. He does it all with a dry wit, and you find yourself laughing out loud while reading the book. Who could perceive that writing a novel about a depressed person could be so humorous, and so poignant at the same time. Who knew?
He writes comically, on the neurotic struggle for assimilation, which really isn’t a struggle unique to Jews, but a struggle for all immigrants and first-generation Americans. Skibell incorporates those struggles and burdens within Belski’s journey to self-discovery. Skibell’s book is an excellent psychological character study. The English Disease is bizarrely funny with quirky characters, yet has strong serious undertones, and at times is heart-breaking. It is a metaphor for redemption, and for spiritual and marital contentment in an ever changing world.