Likeness of a Jew
A dispute between novelist Alan Hollinghurst and author Daniel Mendelsohn revives a history of sensitivity to British stereotypes about Jews
In our age of promiscuous communication, an old-fashioned war of words in the New York Review of Books reminds us that even language at its most civilized can bear a sting. In November, author Daniel Mendelsohn, a classics scholar and, increasingly, a public intellectual, published a 5,000-word essay on the oeuvre of English novelist Alan Hollinghurst, winner of the prestigious Man Booker prize for The Line of Beauty (2004), a portrayal of Thatcher-era England. Hollinghurst’s current book, The Stranger’s Child, was the occasion for Mendelsohn’s assessment of the novelist’s career. It did not go down well.
The Mendelsohn-Hollinghurst dispute will not make Page Six (as Gore Vidal v. Norman Mailer might have), but it retains a potential for damage in the world of Anglo-American letters. At the center of the dispute is the imputation by Mendelsohn that Hollinghurst has the “unconscious inclination” to “lapse into an old British literary habit”—using Jewish characters as markers of un-Englishness and social decline. Let’s be clear: Nowhere does Mendelsohn overtly accuse Hollinghurst of anti-Semitism or intentional anti-Jewish bias. Instead, he asks, “What, exactly, are we being asked to conclude about the crass ‘new’ England [in Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty] when we learn, of one member of [protagonist] Nick Guest’s new circle, that the grand Duchess of Flintshire was once ‘plain Sharon Feingold’?” Mendelsohn raises a question and lets the reader ruminate on its implications.
That said, Mendelsohn’s overall assessment of Hollinghurst’s career is often generous and complimentary, as when he discusses the author’s debut success from 1988, The Swimming-Pool Library, “in which a plush style, a formidable culture, and a self-confident avoidance of then-fashionable formal tricks were put in the service of a startling direct and unembarrassed treatment of gay desire.” But that Mendelsohn saw fit to raise this Jewish issue at all—late in the review and in no more than a few hundred words—has proven small comfort to Hollinghurst. In the subsequent Dec. 8 issue, Princeton’s Galen Strawson, the British philosopher and literary critic, lodged a vigorous defense, in which he chastised “a usually intelligent critic like Daniel Mendelsohn” for using as evidence against Hollinghurst a series of minor characters with Jewish surnames “to indicate any trace of anti-Semitism” and for “a failure of ear, a narrowness of mind, an ignorance of the world, a capacity for unwarranted insult.” Strawson ended his missive with the stirring prescription that “Mendelsohn should apologize unconditionally for a slur that is as serious as he himself takes it to be.”
In fact, there was no stated slur, yet in Mendelsohn’s original critique there is reference to several Jewish personae in Hollinghurst’s fiction—used, he believes, to symbolize a decline in the halcyon British brand. Thus, Mendelsohn writes “not without dismay” that in The Stranger’s Child “the irritating photographer who plagues the Valances—he represents the distressingly crass ‘modern’ world of publicity and celebrity—is called Jerry Goldblatt.” This, in a footnote. It would wait for the Jan. 12 issue of the New York Review for Hollinghurst himself to weigh in on what he calls Mendelsohn’s “poisonous atmosphere of suggestion.”
Certainly, to understand this fracas, we need to understand what “old British literary habit” Mendelsohn is talking about—a habit I expand to include American examples, since English traditions served ours. We are tempted to reach as far back as Shakespeare’s Shylock, the original avaricious Jew, but while the embittered Venetian money-lender makes an indelible impression seeking his “pound of flesh,” at least the Bard allows the old man to voice his grievance against the abusive Christian world in which he is fated to play his part. Still, abusive Shylock became red meat for English actors and audiences over centuries. In Charles Dickens’ early success, Oliver Twist, Fagin the Jew is introduced from the start as a version of the Devil, with his “matted red hair,” a “toasting fork in his hand,” and a “villainous-looking and repulsive face.” He leads adolescent boys down a dirty primrose path toward the rankest thievery. Cunning mixed with a measure of seduction infuses Fagin with a vaguely pedophilic quality—a twist on medieval notions of Jews drinking the blood of Christian children.
After Oliver Twist was published serially from 1837 to 1839, it would take 25 years for Dickens to be called out by a woman of his acquaintance, Mrs. Eliza Davies, for the “great wrong” he had done to a “scattered nation.” Fagin, she fears, “admits of only one interpretation.” Dickens, she proposes, has the opportunity to atone for this great wrong.
Although a Victorian of social sympathies, Dickens could not immediately see her objection; he was portraying a particular criminal type who was “invariably … a Jew.” Yet Dickens made amends in Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) with the character of Riah, described by critic John Gross as a “wholly innocent scapegoat … an involuntary front man for his non-Jewish employer, the odious Fledgeby.” More significantly, when Dickens revised Oliver Twist in 1867, he eliminated many references to “the Jew” Fagin, instead using the character’s name or a simple pronoun. Alas, Dickens felt forced to make a non-literary point: Not all Jews were Fagins.
Then there is the opposite case: George Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), admired now as a failed masterpiece. Eliot sees Jews not as a “type,” but as people with a complex interior and spiritual life, distinct customs, and, at least in the character of Mordecai, aspirations for nationhood. The novel is divided between Deronda’s attraction to Gwendolen Harleth, the society beauty who ultimately gets trapped into marriage with a loathsome upper-class sadist, Henleigh Grandcourt, and Deronda’s affiliation with a group of London Jews, one of whom, Mirah Lapidoth, he has saved from suicide. The common complaint is that the novel’s Jewish sections are too didactic by half, while the Jewish characters—Mirah and Mordecai especially—are too good by at least as much. Indeed, Mirah is so sentimentally good she is nearly a Christian martyr, an ideal of Victorian feminine virtue. Bad-girl Gwendolen has vastly more energy and psychological depth. From a literary standpoint, Eliot’s Jews haven’t the vitality that could ever replace the fascinating evil energy of the all-too-vivid Fagin. Philo-Semitic in sensibility, Deronda remains the exception to the rule.
But from the high Victorian era onward, the literary Jewish presence is carved from a similar mold by even the most trenchant writers. Anthony Trollope’s Ferdinand Lopez, in The Prime Minister of 1876—the penultimate volume of Trollope’s Palliser series—is a financial adventurer who wins the heart of a proper English girl whose conservative family refers to him as a “foreign cad” and a “greasy Jew adventurer out of the gutter.” In his favor, he is handsome (although swarthy), well-educated, multilingual, and has the external manners of a gentleman. But the narrator refers to Lopez as a “man without a father, a foreigner, a black Portuguese nameless Jew,” which may or may not express Trollope’s own view—especially since the narration begins with the claim: “It is certainly of service to a man to know who were his grandfathers … and grandmothers if he entertain an ambition to move in the upper circles of society.” Trollope introduces social climbing as a major theme, yet perhaps doing so with critical irony—an irony that could well escape Jewish readers already sensitive but not inured to continuous insult.
Herman Wouk wrote a foundational text for American postwar Modern Orthodoxy, and for the emancipated Jewish literature in its wake