A Mad Desire To Dance: A Novel, by Elie Wiesel
When a novelist writes Nathanish characters in multiple novels, one wonders if they are writing characters at least somewhat like themselves as well. At this point of reading books by Elie Wiesel, I have an idea that all of his novels are going to include some commentary about Jewish religious thinkers, some sort of person who is tormented by the past in some dramatic way and in which writing is involved. Knowing this, there is still a great deal to enjoy about such a novel, even if Wiesel has a particular wheelhouse as a writer. If you don’t enjoy reflections on the Holocaust and the damage it wrought, you’re probably not going to be a fan. If you don’t appreciate deeply religious meditations, struggles with mental health and the repercussions of traumatic events, and the way that wounded souls have a hard time finding intimacy, you’re probably not going to appreciate these novels very much. But if you do relate to these things, whether from compassion on others or painful personal experience, these novels remind us of the characteristic way that wounded people seek healing and to tell their story through writing, and that is something worth cheering on even for an odd novel like this one.
The title of this novel does not make sense until one gets to the very end of the novel, so if you read books in the way I do, from start to finish, this novel is going to take a long time to make sense. In a way, though, that is a very good thing, as this novel is mostly about the relationship between a tormented soul who seeks therapy for his demons (literally speaking, he thinks himself possessed by a dybbuk) and a not particularly competent therapist, and the protagonist, named Dariel, the lone survivor of a family wrecked by World War II, finds his sanity threatened by the burden of secrets from his parents and a religious background that strikes even this reader as overly strict. Through the course of his own neurotic ramblings and the notes of his secularist therapist, the book makes its way to a surprising conclusion that allows Dariel to come to terms with the past and to choose intimacy and life rather than isolation and sterility and death. And that choice is made in a way that seems particularly Nathanish, which makes this book a very bittersweet one.
There are a few very worthwhile matters that this novel wrestles with. To what extent does a therapist need to better understand what is going on with a patient rather than to hold on to their own (almost always mistaken) theories and mindsets about psychology? To what extent do people have to make sense of what is going on and wrestle with the tragedy and absurdity of this existence? What influences people to choose life over death, blessing over cursing, a wife and a family over solitude and isolation? Perhaps not everyone has a personal understanding of the sort of difficulties that are faced even by the children of those who have suffered horrors, but as there are many people who can relate to the sort of secrets and traumas are discussed and alluded to in this book, the protagonist of the story is certainly one that can be identified with. The ending of the book is certainly surprising, but it makes sense within a certain logic, in that the happiness of the protagonist only required that despair over isolation be replaced with a willingness to extend himself to someone he could intuitively sense would have some understanding of where he has been, and his stepping out is rewarded by a beneficent authorial providence. May we all hope for the same in our own lives.