As I Please
Tribune, 6 December 1946
great enjoyment I have just been rereading Trilby, George
du Maurier’s justly popular novel, one of the finest specimens of that
‘good bad’ literature which the English-speaking peoples seem to have
lost the secret of producing. Trilby is an imitation of Thackeray,
a very good imitation and immensely readable – Bernard
Shaw, if I remember rightly, considered it to be better than
Thackeray in many ways – but to me the most interesting thing about it is
the different impressions one derives from reading it first before and then
after the career of Hitler.
The thing that now hits one in the eye in reading Trilby is its antisemitism. I suppose, although few people actually read the book now, its central story is fairly widely known, the name of Svengali having become a by-word, like that of Sherlock Holmes. A Jewish musician – not a composer, but a brilliant pianist and music-teacher – gets into his power an orphaned Irish girl, a painters’ model, who has a magnificent voice but happens to be tone deaf. Having hypnotized her one day to cure an attack of neuralgia, he discovers that when she is in the hypnotic trance she can be taught to sing in tune.
Thereafter, for about two years, the pair of them travel from one European capital to another, the girl singing every night to enormous and ecstatic audiences, and never even knowing, in her waking life, that she is a singer. The end comes when Svengali dies suddenly in the middle of a concert and Trilby breaks down and is booed off the stage. That is the main story, though of course there is much else, including an unhappy love affair and three clean-living English painters who make a foil for Svengali’s villainy.
There is no question that the book is antisemitic. Apart from the fact that Svengali’s vanity, treacherousness, selfishness, personal uncleanliness and so forth are constantly connected with the fact that he is a Jew, there are the illustrations. Du Maurier, better known for his drawings in Punch than for his writings, illustrated his own book, and he made Svengali into a sinister caricature of the traditional type. But what is most interesting is the divergence of the antisemitism of that date – 1895, the period of the Dreyfus Case – and that of today.
To begin with, du Maurier evidently holds that there are two kinds of Jew, good ones and bad ones, and that there is a racial difference between them. There enters briefly into the story another Jew, Glorioli, who possesses all the virtues and qualities that Svengali lacks. Glorioli is ‘one of the Sephardim’ – of Spanish extraction, that is – whereas Svengali, who comes from German Poland, is ‘an oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew’. Secondly du Maurier considers that to have a dash of Jewish blood is an advantage. We are told that the hero, Little Billee, may have had some Jewish blood, of which there was a suggestion in his features, and ‘fortunately for the world, and especially for ourselves, most of us have in our veins at least a minimum of this precious fluid’. Clearly, this is not the Nazi form of antisemitism.
And yet the tone of all the references to Svengali is almost unconsciously contemptuous, and the fact that du Maurier chose a Jew to play such a part is significant. Svengali, who cannot sing himself and has to sing, as it were, through Trilby’s lungs, represents that well-known type, the clever underling who acts as the brains of some more impressive person.
It is queer how freely du Maurier admits that Svengali is more gifted than the three Englishmen, even than Little Billee, who is represented, unconvincingly, as a brilliant painter. Svengali has ‘genius’, but the others have ‘character’, and ‘character’ is what matters. It is the attitude of the rugger-playing prefect towards the spectacled ‘swot’, and it was probably the normal attitude towards Jews at that time. They were natural inferiors, but of course they were cleverer, more sensitive and more artistic than ourselves, because such qualities are of secondary importance. Nowadays the English are less sure of themselves, less confident that stupidity always wins in the end, and the prevailing form of antisemitism has changed, not altogether for the better.
last week’s Tribune Mr Julian Symons remarked – rightly, I think
– that Aldous Huxley’s
later novels are much inferior to his earlier ones. But he might have added
that this kind of falling-off is usual in imaginative writers, and that it
only goes unnoticed when a writer is, so to speak, carried forward by the
momentum of his earlier books. We value H.
G. Wells, for example, for Tono-Bungay, Mr Polly, The Time Machine,
etc. If he had stopped writing in 1920 his reputation would stand quite as
high as it does: if we knew him only by the books he wrote after that date,
we should have rather a low opinion of him. A novelist does not, any more
than a boxer or a ballet dancer, last for ever. He has an initial impulse
which is good for three or four books, perhaps even for a dozen, but which
must exhaust itself sooner or later. Obviously one cannot lay down any rigid
rule, but in many cases the creative impulse seems to last for about fifteen
years: in a prose writer these fifteen years would probably be between the
ages of thirty and forty-five, or thereabouts. A few writers, it is true,
have a much longer lease of life, and can go on developing when they are
middle-aged or even old. But these are usually writers (examples: Yeats,
Tolstoy) who make
a sudden, almost violent change in their style, or their subject-matter, or
both, and who may even tend to repudiate their earlier work.
this year I met an American publisher who told me that his firm had just had
a nine-months lawsuit from which it had emerged partially victorious, though
out of pocket. It concerned the printing of a four-letter word which most of
us use every day, generally in the present participle. The United States is
usually a few years ahead of Britain in these matters. You could print
‘b–’ in full in American books at a time when it had to appear in
English ones as B dash. Recently it has become possible in England to print
the word in full in a book, but in periodicals it still has to be B dash.
Only five or six years ago it was printed in a well-known monthly magazine,
but the last-minute panic was so great that a weary staff had to black the
word out by hand.
The Estate of Eric Blair
Reproduced here under educational Fair Use law