Thursday, November 4, 2010

Joseph Skibell's "A Curable Romantic"

Joseph Skibell is the author of the novels A Blessing on the Moon, The English Disease, and the recently released A Curable Romantic. He has received a Halls Fiction Fellowship, a Michener Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, among other awards. He teaches at Emory University and is the director of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature.

Here he shares some ideas for writer, director and principal cast for an adaptation of  A Curable Romantic:
A public confession: recently a colleague showed me a letter he’d received from Tom Stoppard. Knowing my publisher would soon be mailing out galleys of my novel, A Curable Romantic, I committed the address on the letterhead to memory and put Mr. Stoppard name at the top of the recipient list.

I was wrong. I know it was wrong. But I was already thinking about a movie. The first thing you need is a good script, and Stoppard’s witty erudition as a dramatist would be perfect for bringing the book to the screen.

There are even Stoppardian puns in the text. My favorite: renouncing his fees from the patients he couldn’t cure as a general practitioner on the Russian Steppes, Dr. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, tells the novel’s protagonist Dr. Sammelsohn that he didn’t feel right taking a patient’s “ruble without a cause.”

Stoppard is a longtime collaborator of Steven Spielberg, and I hoped he might mention the book to him. Spielberg’s ability to work on an epic canvas, his preoccupation with innocence as a theme, his understanding of the thin membrane between imagination and reality, are in tune with the novel’s concerns. My wife Barbara worked as a dietitian in LA, and she treated Spielberg’s stepfather once. That’s the only connection I have, so it’s probably better if Tom Stoppard serves as the go-between.

Meanwhile, the visual and literary playfulness of Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson recommend these men for the job as well, and I’m sorry that Francois Truffaut is dead.

For actors? Though they’re probably too old to play him at 39, both Robert Downey Jr. and George Clooney would make perfect Sigmund Freuds. I think they’d have fun with the smugness and moral obtuseness of my version of the man. My brother, Steven Skybell, a Broadway actor, is also perfect for the part. According to family lore, we’re actually related to Freud, so perhaps there’d be a family resemblance in his portrayal.

For Dr. L.L. Zamenhof, the gentle, utopian creator of Esperanto? A younger Wally Shawn is physically close, but Shawn’s performances are always propelled by a wonderful mania. I doubt he could compellingly portray Dr. Zamenhof’s gentleness and humility. Were he of the right age, Dustin Hoffman could play either of these men, as well as Dr. Sammelsohn’s third father figure: Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Szapira, the so-called Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. Rabbi Szapira is a heroic, if little-known figure of the 20th Century, and Hoffman would know exactly how to portray the smallness of the person and the greatness of the man.

Ita, Dr. Sammelsohn’s second wife and the tragic heroine of A Curable Romantic, never really appears “onstage.” We see her, as a child, in Sammelsohn’s memories, then as a dybbuk living inside Freud’s patient Emma Eckstein, then as a spirit speaking through an Esperantist named Fraŭlino Zinger, then reincarnated as a small boy and finally as a young doctor in the Warsaw Ghetto. The only actress I know who could portray Emma as Emma, and Ita as Emma, ad infinitum, is of course Meryl Streep.

(I’m beginning to wonder when I last saw a movie? These are mostly the great actors from my childhood!)

For my protagonist, Dr. Jakob Josef Sammelsohn?

I don’t know if he has the acting chops, but I’d recommend Justin Rice, the sometime film actor and guitarist for the Indie band Bishop Allen. He’s funny, charming and endearing onscreen, and he looks exactly like I did when I was his age. It’s almost eerie, in fact. Barbara and I were watching the two Andrew Bujalski movies he appears in recently, and I kept saying to her, “Remind when I made these films again? It’s weird, but I don’t remember being a rock star.”
Read more about A Curable Romantic and visit Joseph Skibell's website.

The Page 69 Test: A Curable Romantic.

--Marshal Zeringue