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The English Disease
Algonquin Books, 2003
256 pp., $23.95
Alfred A. Knopf, 2003
257 pp., $25.00
Betty Smartt Carter
Imagine that you're a chronically unhappy Jewish man, the grandson of Holocaust victims, married to a Gentile woman who both enchants and confounds you. When an obnoxious colleague invites you to take a "dour pilgrimage" with him to Auschwitz, you accept because you think there'll be others on this journey—important scholars in your own field of musicology. Instead you find yourself alone in Poland with the most annoying man alive, retracing the steps of your dead relatives.
"Traveling with Leibowitz," says Charles Belski, hero of The English Disease,
is like traveling with a child whose mother has neglected to pack his Ritalin. I've been with him barely twelve minutes and already I'm exhausted. He has literally not stopped talking since I arrived, encyclopedically rehashing every detail of his trip from the minute he left his adoring wife on their doorstep in Sebastopol to the moment he met me at the gate, wearing a seersucker suit and a white straw hat identical to mine.
Belski's compassion runs as deep as his melancholy (the "English disease"). Few people could pity a blathering narcissist like Leibowitz, but Belski sees him as "a victim of his own unfortunate personality," and for quite a few pages tolerates Leibowitz's brilliantly weird discourses on Wagner and Jung, Herzl and Hitler, until finally even he has had enough and tries to escape. He ducks out of their hotel room while Leibowitz is in the bathroom, only to meet up with the inexorable idiot again in a synagogue in the old Warsaw Ghetto: "Aha! I thought I'd find you here," says Leibowitz. "I do so apologize. I hadn't realized how very long I was taking."
At dinner that night as "bits of kielbasa entangle in his beard or land on the serving platters," Leibowitz launches into another grand lecture, tracing Jewish man's "path towards assimilation" by way of the Marx brothers and their linguistic prowess. He labels silent Harpo "the ultimate alien," the Hasidic Jew in his big coat and hat "denied a language of ...