The novel’s opening lines clarify the title, explaining that English people suffering from melancholy toured the ruins of ancient Greece and Italy to cure their depression, which in those days was called “the English disease.” The first-person narrator observes that these victims of melancholy must have believed that contemplating the splendor of actual ruins would help them to find beauty in the misery of their own ruined lives.
While Charles Belski, the voice in The English Disease, must settle for the United States’ less impressive ruins, such as Mesa Verde, he clearly discovers beauty in his own misery. In fact, Belski, as everyone calls him, revels in his personal anguish—at times in a comic way, at other points in a serious vein, and on occasion in an obnoxious manner. In a disjointed narrative, Belski records how he strives to handle his life’s challenges: a cheerless marriage, a disdain for contemporary American society, and a struggle to grasp his place as a Jew in the modern United States.
The novel’s structure comprises four loosely woven sections whose strands depict Belski’s and Isabelle’s marriage; the progress of their child, Franny; a trip to Poland, and Isabelle’s conversion to Judaism. These segments of experience, each one delineating Belski’s melancholy, resemble musings in a personal journal or diary. The accounts end abruptly without resolution, then drift into other experiences. This sequential device heightens and elucidates the turmoil simmering in Belski’s consciousness. He is an entertaining narrator, often clever and witty in spite of his gloomy state. The sharply etched prose abounds in striking metaphors, waggish observations, keen dialogue, and satire. While the varied situations are developed in an economic fashion, each one contains well-selected details that bring it to life.
The first recollection takes place in Arizona during a trip the couple takes, supposedly to visit the cliff dwellings of vanished Indian tribes but more realistically to save their faltering marriage. The venture fails miserably, both as an agreeable outing and as a solution to domestic problems. Everything goes wrong. First they endure scorching weather, then a torrential downpour drives them from their campsite. Their fellow sightseers they find tiresome, badly dressed, ill-mannered, and generally offensive. The oppressive weather, the tourist traps, and the company of substantial middle-Americans combine to intensify the uncertainty of their relationship. Along the way, the major conflict that torments the pair comes to the forefront: that is, Belski’s refusal to have children. This problem the resourceful Isabelle solves once they are settled in a motel. While Belski sleeps, she mounts him and brings him to a climax.
The second part expands on Belski’s troublesome engagement with family, fidelity, and faith. Isabelle’s sexual assault in the shabby hotel room proved successful, for a daughter named Franny appears on the scene. The narrative traces the precocious child’s development, in particular relating precise accounts of shared experiences between father and daughter in a day-care center. Although Isabelle believed that a child would save their marriage, Belski’s serious case of “the English disease” does not improve substantially. In some ways, he turns even more morose and difficult as he copes with the child and the increased demands of married life.
This part of the novel also lingers on Belski’s obsession with Gustav Mahler. As a musicologist, Belski specializes in the nineteenth century Bohemian composer’s work, but the relationship between the scholar and his scholarship has evolved into a personal one. A quotation from Mahler introduces the narrative: “I am thrice homeless: as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, as a Jew throughout the world.” Mahler’s declaration of rootlessness defines for Belski his own dilemma. He grew up in a small Texas town populated predominantly by Christians who considered the tiny Jewish community an oddity and ostracized its members. After encountering the larger world, he grew away from his religious background, even to the point of marrying a Gentile. As a consequence, Belski questions whether his assimilation into mainstream society has transformed him into a self-hating Jew.
The third part takes place in Poland. Here...
(The entire section is 1795 words.)