Abrahams, “A Masterpiece for the Week: Disraeli’s ‘Alroy’”

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Alroy, Edited by Sheila A. Spector

Criticism

Israel Abrahams. “A Masterpiece for the Week: Disraeli’s ‘Alroy.’” The Jewish World. No. 3005 (11 Tamuz 5673/16 July 1913), 9-10. Rpt. Beaconsfield Quarterly, no. 3. 41-3.
  1. Benjamin Disraeli was one of the most truthful authors of the nineteenth century. To confuse his bombast with pose, is to misunderstand him. When, therefore, he said of “Alroy” that it expressed his “ideal ambition,” there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. Mr. Monypenny,* whose judgment cannot be trusted in general, was right when he fully accepted Disraeli’s statement on this point. Mr. Lucien Wolf had previously shown (in the splendid preface to his centenary edition of “Vivian Grey”)* that “from start to finish, Lord Beaconsfield’s novels are so many echoes and glimpses of the Greater Romance of his own life.” Would that Mr. Wolf would give us an equally fine edition of “Alroy.”

  2. For “Alroy” is a novel that deserves to live and probably will live. From the first it has been better liked by the public than by the professional critics. Soon after the book first appeared in 1833, Disraeli wrote to his sister that he heard good reports as to the popularity of “Alroy,” and with characteristic “conceit” some may term it, though to others it appears more like “insight,” he added: “I hear no complaints of its style, except from the critics.” Mr. Monypenny repeated the same critical objections to the style. But such objections have no real basis. “Alroy” often falls into rhythms and even into rhymes. Why is this a defect in a prose work? Dickens frequently followed the same method, and in sundry impressive passages his sentences scan faultlessly. Are prose and verse so absoulutely [sic.] divided from one another? If Molière’s bourgeois gentleman found that he had been speaking prose all of his life without knowing it, so do we sometimes speak verse without being conscious of the fact. Do we not all “drop into poetry” on occasion, in our ordinary speech in moments of elevation? Moreover, the Oriental writers had created a form in which prose and verse merge; and Disraeli, treating an Eastern theme, might easily have justified his choice of this very form, beloved first of the medieval Arabs, and then perfected by Hebrew contemporaries.

  3. Then, as to the character of Alroy himself, Disraeli’s latest biographer says: “The real David Alroy appears to have been little better than a vulgar impostor, but Disraeli has idealised him into a figure worthy to be compared with Judas Maccabæus.” Mr. Monypenny borrowed this judgment (without acknowledgment) from the Rev. Michael Adler’s able article in the Jewish Encyclopedia.* I cannot myself assent to this verdict, though I appreciate the grounds on which it was reached. The whole thing turns on the application of the term “Pseudo-Messiah” to such characters. Why call them false? There would be sufficient reason for applying the epithet if we had the clearest evidence that they were conscious rogues, exploiting their people’s faith, and using their hope as a ladder towards personal ambition. We do not know enough of Alroy to assert this of him. Was Disraeli himself an impostor, because he thought of himself as another redeemer of Israel? There is little doubt that Alroy is drawn from Disraeli himself, just as the Miriam of the story is modelled on the author’s own sister. It is bad psychology to dub men of the Alroy type as impostors. Mr. Zangwill, in his “Dreamers of the Ghetto”*—to my mind his most wonderful book—refuses to explain Sabbatai Zevi* in this easy fashion. Graetz* naturally so explained him, but it was precisely in such matters that Graetz was an unsafe guide. Are we to judge Messianic claims on the same principles as men judge treason?
    Treason never prospers, and for this reason:
    That when it prospers no one calls it treason?
  4. Is an enthusiastic believer in himself, as the instrument of a great emancipation, “pseudo” because he fails? Such explanations explain nothing.

  5. Whatever be the truth as to the original Alroy—and I repeat that the historical sources give us inadequate information as to his inner personality—there is no room for doubting the character of Disraeli’s fictitious hero. Alroy is thoroughly sincere portraiture. Mr. Monypenny thought that the story “never really grips us.” It depends on who the “us” are. A good many readers find George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda” uninteresting. Yet “Daniel Deronda” in Hebrew had a considerable success. Despite its queer mixture of ill-digested lore and of genuine material derived from what Disraeli termed the “erratic” Talmud, “Alroy” has a good deal of Jewish spirit in it. In the many references to the poetical elements of Jewish life, the sentiment rings true. This fact works backward. Whence did the novelist derive this feeling for the beautiful in Judaism except from his father? Isaac Disraeli presents himself to us as a rather unsympathetic student of Judaism. In his books he shows knowledge, but no feeling for the synagogue. It almost seems as though we do not see the real man in his books, and yet, after all, it may be doubted whether Benjamin inherited his Jewish idealism from his father. The latter did not at all approve of his son’s Eastern journey. But Benjamin was consumed with the desire to visit Jerusalem, and he realised this passionate longing in 1830-1. In later life he said that he had begun “Alroy” before he left England. In the preface to “Alroy” he writes: “Being at Jerusalem in the year 1831, and visiting the traditionary tombs of the Kings of Israel, my thoughts recurred to a personage whose marvellous career had, even in boyhood, attracted my attention, as one fraught with the richest materials of poetic fiction. And I then commenced these pages that should commemorate the name of ‘Alroy.’” I do not think that this statement contradicts his later assertion. When he says “I then commenced,” he may well be referring to his boyhood.

  6. Disraeli thoroughly enjoyed his stay in the Holy Land. He refused to admit that Athens was more impressive than Jerusalem. “I will not place this spectacle,” he exclaims of the site of the ancient Temple, “below the city of Minerva.” Perhaps the most arresting detail in “Alroy” is the thirty-fifth note—the notes to the book, after the manner of Sir Walter Scott, are full of curious learning. He discusses the origin of coffee, the habits of the marten-cat, the art and furniture of the Orient, the sunset songs of Eastern maidens, the “Daughter of the Voice,” the Persian hurling of the jerreeds (javelins) into the air, the practice of the bastinado, the “golden wine” of Mount Lebanon, the alleged playing of chess before the date of the Trojan War, screens and fans made of the feathers of the roc, and the “tremulous aigrettes of brilliants” worn by persons of the highest rank. In all these directions Disraeli’s learning and fancy run riot, and the result, sometimes as grotesque as a nightmare, is often successful in producing the required effect. But this thirty-fifth entry strikes a more personal note. Let us read it in his own words: “The finest view of Jerusalem is from the Mount of Olives. It is little altered since the period when David Alroy is supposed to have gazed upon it; but it is enriched by the splendid Mosque of Omar, built by the Moslem conquerors on the supposed site of the Temple, and which, with its gardens, and arcades, and courts, and fountains, may fairly be described as the most imposing of Moslem fanes. I endeavoured to enter it at the hazard of my life. I was detected and surrounded by a crowd of turbaned fanatics, and escaped with difficulty; but I saw enough to feel that minute inspection would not belie the general character I formed from it from the Mount of Olives. I caught a glorious glimpse of splendid courts, and light airy gates of Saracenic triumph, flights of noble steps, long arcades, and interior gardens, where silver fountains spouted their tall streams amid the taller cypresses.”

  7. Here we, too, have a “glorious glimpse” into one half of the real Disraeli—here and in “Tancred”; for the other half we must study his political novels. “Vivian Grey,” so Disraeli himself said, expressed his “practical” as “Alroy” expressed his “ideal” ambition. And one final word. I have said nothing of the plot of “Alroy.” I assume it to be familiar to my readers. If it be not, they can easily make good the omission. I have no fear that this story of a twelfth century—shall I call him “hero” or “impostor”?—will fail to grip. For it is more than a story, it is—to use that over-worked phrase—also a “human document.”

Published @ RC

January 2005

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