Vincent, Disraeli

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Alroy, Edited by Sheila A. Spector

Criticism

John Vincent. Disraeli. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. 67-70.
  1. Most modem critics, writes Lord Blake, would attribute no merit whatever to The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833), ‘which is written in a deplorable sort of prose-poetry and is perhaps the most unreadable of his romances’ (Disraeli, 108). Schwarz calls Alroy ‘Disraeli’s ultimate heroic fantasy’ (42; rpt. pp. 415-27); important for the author, though less so for his readers, because the book was not as unsuccessful as its predecessor Contarini Fleming, earning Disraeli £300 against Fleming’s £18. It proved, however, that Disraeli was never likely to be a popular success again so long as he said what he thought or wrote in the way he wanted. The public did not want Disraeli neat; Alroy was a landmark in the retreat towards the conventional story-telling of Henrietta Temple and Venetia.

  2. At first sight, Alroy is poor man’s Sir Walter Scott, with a touch of poor man’s Byron. It is a historical novel, in full period costume. David Alroy, a medieval prince of the Jewish captivity, overthrows his Muslim masters and sets up a Jewish empire of Asia, based on Baghdad, before he is then overthrown. He dies a Jewish martyr, preferring death to apostasy. Its stage effects require no comment. There is much cleaving of skulls, flashing of scimitars, and use of magic talismans. The din of battles resounds. If tales of adventure are unreadable, then Alroy is unreadable. The psychology is equally predictable. Alroy is the standard Byronic hero, ‘a mind to whose supreme volition the fortunes of the world would bow like fate’ (Pt8Ch1). Subjectively, he has a troubled mind: ‘I know not what I feel, yet what I feel is madness’ (p. 51). He cannot sleep, yet seeks ‘glory, eternal glory’, and finds the necessary therapy for his mal du siècle in action. ‘Say what they like, man is made for action,’ is his doctrine (Pt7Ch14)—and perhaps the author’s too, for Disraeli later wrote that Alroy represented his ‘ideal ambition.’ The connection between mental disturbance, even weakness, and human greatness is just beneath the surface.

  3. Alroy is important because of its Jewishness. Of Disraeli’s first seventeen or so titles (those before Coningsby, with its Jewish sage Sidonia), it is the only one with significant Jewish content. To Disraeli its merit lay in its being ‘the celebration of a gorgeous incident in the annals of that sacred and romantic people from whom I derive my blood.’ He conveyed a true sense of Jewish lowliness: ‘in Jerusalem, our people speak only in a whisper’ (Pt6Ch2). Do not blame Muslim oppression, he adds; Christian (or Jewish) intolerance, Disraeli makes clear, would have been worse: ‘A Turk is a brute, but a Christian is a demon’ (Pt6Ch2). There was nothing anti-Muslim in Disraeli’s revivalism.

  4. Hope unfulfilled is at the heart of Disraeli's Judaism, as it was also of his personal affairs when, as a young man at a loose end, he produced Alroy. When he wrote: ‘if thou were greeted only with the cuff and the curse; if thou didst rise each morning only to feel existence to be dishonour, and to find thyself marked out among surrounding men as something foul and fatal; if it were thy lot . . . at best to drag on a mean and dull career, hopeless and aimless . . . and this all too with a keen sense of thy intrinsic worth, and a deep conviction of superior race’ (Pt5Ch4), Disraeli could be speaking either of his youthful débâcles or of the lot of the Jew everywhere. The two experiences, psychological and social, merge.

  5. Disraeli’s Jews are ‘a proud and stiff-necked race, ever prone to rebellion’ (Pt7Ch4). They are warlike. They scoff at long rabbinical treatises. Disraeli’s ideal of Jewish regeneration is decidedly military and is assisted by ‘agents in every court, and camp, and cabinet’ (Pt7Ch11). (Would Disraeli have been so drawn to Jewishness had he not seen it as a vehicle for his beloved talent for conspiracy?) The drama of Alroy lies in the struggle of Jew against Jew. The victorious Alroy is a multiculturalist, as it were. He wishes to found a powerful Middle Eastern state in which Arab and Jew can live at ease with each other. To this end, he marries a Muslim princess, swears four Muslim nobles into his Council, and generally sets himself up as a liberal figure. ‘Universal empire’, he declares, ‘must not be founded on sectarian prejudices and exclusive rights’ (Pt8Ch1).

  6. Such rationalism, however magnanimous, hardly pleases the Jewish fundamentalists. Alroy wishes ‘Baghdad to be my Sion’; he sneers at the thought of being ‘the decent patriarch of a pastoral horde’ (Pt8Ch1) in impoverished Palestine. Theocracy in Israel, or empire in Baghdad; the rebuilding of the Temple, or military rejuvenation—these were not difficult alternatives on which to decide.

  7. But Alroy fails, because he is no fanatic. He represents power unsupported by imagination. Against Alroy’s imperial dream, his opponent the High Priest urges: ‘You ask me what I wish: my answer is, a national existence’ (Pt8Ch6). Alroy is Disraeli’s anti-imperialist novel.

  8. Which side was Disraeli on? It is hard to know, perhaps because he changed his mind half-way through. At first there seems no doubt. Alroy’s secular realism is good; the High Priest’s brooding intensity is sinister. Alroy is a boyish hero, a knight in shining armour. Yet by the end of the book the dying Alroy speaks in traditionalist, not latitudinarian, terms of Jewish destiny: ‘My people stand apart from other nations, and ever will’ (Pt10Ch22). Here, surely, it is Alroy, the liberal figure, who has come round to the High Priest’s unshakeable belief: ‘We cannot mingle with them and yet be true to Him. We must exist alone. To preserve that loneliness, is the great end and essence of our law’ (Pt8Ch6). Besides struggle and spiritual purity, Disraeli offered, not without approval, a third form of Jewish redemption: upward social mobility based on uncompromising accommodation with existing power: ‘Take my experience, child, and save yourself much sorrow . . . Freedom and honour are mine, but I was my own messiah’ (Pt5Ch4). So says the apostate court physician, confidant of the mighty, a calmly wise forerunner of Sidonia. Apostasy can be more than a Jewish vocation; it can itself be Messianic.

  9. In Alroy Disraeli stated three predicaments: that of an oppressed race; that of a frustrated ambitious young man; and that of Jewish exclusiveness and the accommodation of Arabs (or indeed, political reality of any kind). All such questions are still with us. Disraeli had no solutions; but to find the West Bank in a light romance of 1833 is certainly curious.

  10. Disraeli's prose poetry does not work, they say. Be that as it may, Disraeli wrote Alroy as a modernist in revolt against literary convention, and in the belief that he was a literary genius. His attempt to break the bounds of the customary language of fiction was ahead of its time. It would never do to forget that Disraeli was as ambitious in literature as he was in politics.

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January 2005

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