Writing His Way into History


A few years ago, when I first began to think about writing  a book about Benjamin Disraeli, I knew only the outlines of his life—that he was the only Jewish prime minister of England, and that he was a novelist as well as a professional politician. The combination of novelist and politician was already intriguing to me: as a poet and literary critic, I was interested to see how Disraeli combined the very different personality types of the man of letters and the man of action. It was not until I plunged into his own books, however, that I came to realize that the bridge between those two identities was nothing other than Disraeli’s Jewishness. Being a Jew, being a writer, and being a leader were, for Disraeli, three ways of responding to his deepest passion—to impress his personality on history.

The best place to see this connection at work is in his most personal novel, Contarini Fleming, which he wrote in 1832 when he was 27 years old. In many ways, it is a fairly conventional example of the Bildungsroman, the novel of education that was a favorite genre among the Romantics. Like so many young writers before and since, Disraeli modeled his hero on himself, and told the story of his dawning recognition that he possessed extraordinary powers. The reader follows Contarini as he falls precociously in love, feels the rapture of inspiration, and travels to exotic cities.

But one feature of Disraeli’s novel is unique and helps to explain why I found Disraeli so fascinating to write and think about. Unlike almost any other young poet in fiction, Contarini Fleming is constantly being seduced away from poetry by political ambition. In an earlier era of British history, it was not uncommon for the same man to seek fame in literature and in politics: think of Milton, who threw himself into the English Civil War before writing Paradise Lost, or Joseph Addison, an accomplished essayist and adept Parliamentarian. But in the 1830s, when Disraeli was starting his career, the Romantic era in English literature was in full swing, and nothing could be more foreign to the Romantic spirit than the idea of combining sublime poetry with workaday politics. Byron, who was the young Disraeli’s idol, might enlist in the Greek War of Independence, but you could hardly imagine him going every day to the House of Lords, shepherding bills through committee, and intriguing for party leadership.

Yet Disraeli takes care to provide his hero with a professional politician for a father, thus allowing Contarini to experience practical politics at an early age. The key scene in the novel comes when the elder Fleming lectures Contarini on the inferiority of poetry to power:

What were all those great poets of whom we now talk so much, what were they in their lifetime? The most miserable of their species. Depressed, doubtful, obscure, or involved in petty quarrels and petty persecutions; often unappreciated, utterly uninfluential, beggars, flatterers of men unworthy even of their recognition; what a train of disgustful incidents, what a record of degrading circumstances, is the life of a great poet! A man of great energies aspires that they should be felt in his lifetime, that his existence should be rendered more intensely vital by the constant consciousness of his multiplied and multiplying power. Is posthumous fame a substitute for all this?...Would you rather have been Homer or Julius Caesar, Shakespeare or Napoleon? No one doubts.

Why does Disraeli betray the Romantic script in this way, placing the world above the soul, achievement above imagination? The reason is suggested by the other unique element in Contarini Fleming: Contarini’s veiled but still identifiable Jewishness. Disraeli does not come right out and say that his alter ego is Jewish; as his first name suggests, he is meant to be half Italian. But we are obviously listening to Disraeli’s own experience growing up as a Jew in England when the young Contarini, who lives in Scandinavia, complains about his Nordic half-brothers: “They were called my brothers, but Nature gave the lie to the reiterated assertion. There was no similitude between us. Their blue eyes, their flaxen hair, and their white visages claimed no kindred with my Venetian countenance. Wherever I moved I looked around me, and beheld a race different from myself.”

Here is another standard trope of Romantic literature, the myth of the ugly duckling. (Disraeli and Hans Christian Andersen were, in fact, almost exact contemporaries.)

But as the novel progresses, Contarini’s “Venetian” heritage intersects with his political ambitions in a remarkable way. He happens to read a history of Venice in which he learns that the Contarinis, his mother’s family, were a race of great noblemen, and he travels to the city to see its ancient grandeur. At the time Disraeli wrote, Venice was under Austrian occupation, but Contarini dreams of devoting his life to restoring its independence, thus vindicating his ancestry and turning his lifelong difference into a source of pride.

It is an allegory of Zionism, with Venice standing in for Palestine, and it offers a glimpse of Disraeli’s own youthful dreams of becoming a Jewish national leader. In the end, Disraeli sacrificed that ambition, choosing the more practical path of becoming an English statesman. But the link between Disraeli’s writerly imagination and his Jewish consciousness, so clear in Contarini Fleming, was never broken. Perhaps if Disraeli had not been born a Jew, he would have been content to be a writer. But his intense pride for himself and his people led him to see public glory as the highest achievement in life—all the more so because, for centuries, Jews had been barred from it. The chief irony of Disraeli’s life, among many, is that the Jewishness that made his rise to power so difficult was also what fueled his ascent.

Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma.