Highs and lows in Wiesel's 'Mad Desire'

By Kevin O'Kelly
Globe Correspondent / March 25, 2009
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Doriel Waldman is a Holocaust survivor. He spent much of his childhood in hiding in Nazi-occupied Poland. Now independently wealthy, he has spent his adult life immersed in Jewish service and study, founding Jewish aid organizations, pursuing yeshiva studies in Brooklyn and Jerusalem, and working as a private tutor of medieval Jewish history.

He's also on the brink of insanity. He sees angels and monsters. One night he wakes up screaming and covered in blood. One day he meets a woman he thinks is Lilith, the demon/seductress mentioned in the Talmud and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In desperation he becomes the patient of Thérèse Goldschmidt, a therapist who is herself the child of Holocaust survivors. She is adamant that Doriel talk about his parents, who died shortly after the war, a crushing loss that capped the traumas of his childhood.

Doriel sometimes thinks he is possessed by a dybbuk, one of those lost souls of the dead that take over a living body. Thérèse is openly mystified by his illness, but is convinced one of the keys to it lies in the loneliness of his life, almost devoid of close relationships. Yet one of Doriel's strongest convictions is that even though he is past 60, he will still fall in love. He will know her when he sees her: She will have "the smile of a frightened child."

All of this - the components of "A Mad Desire to Dance" - could have been the makings of a wonderful book, a beautiful story of recovery or a great religious novel in a league with Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer." What we have instead is a series of vivid episodes and passages of beautiful prose that do not pull together as a novel.

"A Mad Desire to Dance," by celebrated writer, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, would have benefited from the deletion of many scenes: for example, the passages in which Doriel is recruited to work for the Mossad (he turns them down) and the character Laurent's recollections of his experiences in the French Resistance.

But no number of judicious excisions could have saved this book from its central flaws: undeveloped characters, narrative disjointedness, and a staggering lack of plausibility.

The bulk of the book is taken up by Doriel's sessions with Thérèse, which serve as the vehicle for telling us about his past. But Thérèse herself - even though there are chapters narrated by her - remains a relatively shadowy persona. And although her husband appears repeatedly in the book, he barely seems a character at all. He's the prose equivalent of a stick figure. Eventually Thérèse, who has been with us virtually from the novel's beginning, rather abruptly ends her treatment of Doriel and we hear nothing more from her. It's a jarring narrative break.

Furthermore, the scene near the end in which Doriel does find the love of his life will strain the credulity of the most generous of readers.

It's a pity: This novel is filled with gorgeous prose. In his moments of madness Doriel speaks nonsense that is at times reminiscent of the riddling maxims of Shakespeare's clowns. In one perfectly beautiful passage Doriel recalls how when he was a teenager his cousin Ruth seduced him. When she says, "Heaven isn't up there; it is here, and I can create it, with your body and mine," the whole scene seemed so real I didn't want it to end.

It may be that European readers are more willing to forgive Wiesel's narrative clumsiness for the beauty of his writing. "A Mad Desire to Dance" owes a great deal to the Continental genre of the novel of ideas, in which character and narrative are secondary to theme. But I think American readers will be sorely disappointed. I know this one was.

Kevin O'Kelly is a regular reviewer for the Globe. He has a blog at


Knopf, 271 pp., $25

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