THE MAN WHO THOUGHT HE WAS MESSIAH by Curt Leviant (Jewish Publication Society: $18.95; 222 pp.) . In the year 1800, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, great-grandson of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, suffers a crisis. He lusts after a peasant girl and, in punishment, loses his ability to read Hebrew scriptures. He journeys from Poland to Vienna and makes friends with Beethoven, who teaches him that he has perfect musical pitch. Still striving to recover his moral pitch, Nachman travels on to Istanbul and the Holy Land, wondering: Is his desire for the girl the fatal flaw that prevents him from becoming the Messiah, as "God's whisper" once seemed to promise him? Or is it evidence of his humanity, saving him from delusions of grandeur?
This novel of pre-Holocaust Jewish life by Curt Leviant ("The Yemenite Girl," "Passion in the Desert") is a modest echo of Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer and the first half of Andre Schwarz-Bart's "The Last of the Just." Leviant's strategy--which will charm some readers and irritate others--is to hide his sophistication behind a seeming naivete. His prose is simple enough for a children's book. Nachman's adventures, even in Vienna, unroll with the swift certainty of parables, despite a gloss of "realistic" treatment. The supernatural is frankly accepted. Even the ironies--Nachman sees himself as a sinner; his followers revere him as a saint and record his every word--reinforce rather than disturb the warm, nostalgic mood.