The Spinoza Problem: A Novel

Irvin D. Yalom

The Spinoza Problem: A Novel
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The Spinoza Problem: A Novel

Irvin D. Yalom

In 1909, sixteen-year-old Alfred Rosenberg is called into his headmaster’s office for making anti-Semitic remarks. He is punished by having to memorise passages from the autobiography of Goethe - and is stunned to discover that his idol was a great admirer of the seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza himself was no stranger to punishment: accused of heresy, he was excommunicated from the Jewish community and banished from the only world he had ever known. Nevertheless, he became one of the most influential philosophers of his age. Long after graduation, Rosenberg is possessed by the ‘Spinoza problem’: how could Goethe, the great German poet, have been inspired by a member of a race that Rosenberg considers inferior to his own? A race, that as he develops from anti-Semitic schoolboy to Nazi propagandist, he becomes determined to destroy? In this brilliant re-creation of the inner worlds of two men separated by 300 years - one dedicated to fashioning a moral philosophy, the other obsessed with the superiority of the Aryan race - internationally bestselling novelist Irvin D. Yalom explores the thin psychological line that separates genius and evil, and the lives of two men who changed the course of history.

Review

Set in Amsterdam of the 1600s and in Estonia and Germany in the early 20th century as WWI ended and the Nazis came to power, The Spinoza Problem follows the lives of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza and the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg.

In Spinoza’s Amsterdam, his outspoken questioning of the holy books leads to him being excommunicated from the close-knit Jewish community. He is taken in by friends, and goes on to write some of the most important works of philosophy in the Western world.

Rosenberg, on the other hand, nurtures a fierce anti-Semitism throughout his school years in Estonia, as well as a fanatical admiration for Germany and its people. When his headmaster hears of this, he sets him a task: to read Spinoza, and understand how Rosenberg’s hero Goethe could have held Spinoza, a Jew, in such reverence. This, the ‘Spinoza Problem’, haunts Rosenberg all his life, until eventually, at the height of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, he makes a personal visit to the Spinoza Association in Amsterdam to confiscate all the books in the library. By doing so, by holding Spinoza’s own books in his own hands and studying them, he hopes to learn about the man, and thus solve the ‘Spinoza Problem’.

This is a book that is fascinating in its detail, as it is in its reimagining of such iconic moments in Western history. Yalom recreates the atmosphere of 17th century Amsterdam beautifully, and he depicts Rosenberg’s psychological state and the Nazi rise to power with incredible insight. If you like your historical fiction to be peopled with vividly drawn characters, do read this.

Kabita Dhara is editor of Readings Monthly

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