Friday, 28 September 2012

The Jew in Literary Fiction

In most literary fiction prior to the Hitler war the stock characterisation of the Jew is the Jew as bounder. It’s ‘bizness’ as usual. I can think of only Rebecca West in her book The Fountain Overflows who portrays a Jew who helps the family that has lapsed into poverty due to a feckless Irish Father. A gross offender would be George Du Maurier in Trilby a frothy, sentimental, deft and witty book published around about the time of the Drefus case. Svengali. We are introduced to him in this manner:

First, a tall, bony individual of any age between thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well-featured but sinister. He was very shabby and dirty, and wore a red béret and a large velveteen cloak, with a big metal clasp at the collar. His thick, heavy, languid, lustreless black hair fell down behind his ears on to hisshoulders, in that musicianlike way that is so offensive to the normal Englishman. He had bold, brilliant black eyes, with long, heavy lids, a thin, sallow face, and a beard of burnt-up black which grew almost from his under eyelids; and over it his mustache, a shade lighter, fell in two long spiral twists. He went by the name of Svengali, and spoke fluent French with a German accent, and humorous German twists and idioms, and his voice was very thin and mean and harsh, and often broke into a disagreeable falsetto.

He is a marvelous pianist up to point of extreme facility but lacking the qualities of soul adequate to Beethoven. He has a poor singing voice but a great appreciation of the art and a desire to find a talented singer that he could train and accompany. He thinks he has found one:

Svengali had heard her sing at the Brasserie des Porcherons in the Rue du Crapaud-volant, and had volunteered to teach her; and she went to see him in his garret, and he played to her, and leered and ogled, and flashed his bold, black, beady Jew's eyes into hers, and she straightway mentally prostrated herself in reverence and adoration before this dazzling specimen of her race.
So that her sordid, mercenary little gutter-draggled soul was filled with the sight and the sound of him, as of a lordly, godlike, shawm-playing, cymbal-banging hero and prophet of the Lord God of Israel—David and Saul in one!

Svengali has entered the language as any mesmeric manipulator of his fascinated creature.

Graham Greene in his entertainment Stamboul Train (1932) draws on reserves of suburban prejudice in his portrayal of a Jewish currant merchant, Myatt on his way to a sharp and treacherous deal in the dried fruit trade. To quote would be to eviscerate the book. Greene’s entertainments mostly fail in my view, the usual doom and guilt that is his USP a faltering wistfulness and snobbery. I haven’t seen the film they made of it but I believe that Myatt is more sympathetically portrayed than in the book.

Now that the Jew is out of bounds the literary intelligentsia have only the Muslim to play with. It was ironic to see Netanyahu’s sinister clowning at the U.N. with a bomb that we last saw being held by a cartoon anarchist. Behind the anarchist, a simple goodhearted fellow, was a hook-nosed Svengali with a similarly shaped object, a bag of gold.

2 comments:

ktismatics said...

"in that musicianlike way" reminds me of Iain Sinclair's contention that the English regard knowledge about cuisine and art as the exclusive purview of foreigners. From DuMaurier's litany of Jewish failings a complementarily uncomplimentary caricature of Englishness could be constructed: short and chubby and ill-featured, conformist and concerned with appearances, philistine, dull-eyed, provincial, humorless, brutish, lacking charisma and libido and money.

"He is a marvelous pianist up to point of extreme facility but lacking the qualities of soul adequate to Beethoven."

That sounds like contemporary American judgment of the far-east Asians: smart, hard-working, and skilled but not Nobel material. Of course over recent decades the Jews have earned more than their "fair share" of Nobels.

ombhurbhuva said...

It began with Aristotle who said that a free man might learn to play the flute 'but not too well'. Technical facility was for slaves.

Gregory Bateson in an essay in Steps to an Ecology of Mind wrote that a salient difference between Americans and English was that the English viewed the spectator role as superior and Americans inclined to the opposite view, elevating the actor. This essay was written during the war years as an attempt to get over the tendency of the one to see the other as a show off or cold.

This ties in with the cult of the amateur, of being excellent without taking pains, the languid Etonian. David Cameron going on Letterman and making an ass of himself was playing against character, old chap. There was a certain degree of discomfort about Ed and David Milliband (Jewish) fighting over the leadership of the Labour Party. Too grabby, too thrusting though no one said it but the Guardian. One should have stood back like the comedy act with the two toffs - After you Claude - No, after you Cecil.

Fascinating document really, Trilby, quite readable. George Orwell liked it though he too was struck by the rabid anti-semitism. Du Maurier had a theory about the good Jew, the Sephardic, and that even a tincture of Jewish blood; Little Billee the hero looks like he might have some, was a good thing. Such theorising was not the result of the febrile lucubrations of the anti-semite but absolutely mainstream.