A Messiah in the Family

Walter Nash

  • Kingdom come by Bernice Rubens
    Hamish Hamilton, 312 pp, £12.99, February 1990, ISBN 0 241 12481 6
  • The Other Side by Mary Gordon
    Bloomsbury, 337 pp, £13.99, January 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0473 3
  • The Alchemist by Mark Illis
    Bloomsbury, 244 pp, £13.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0468 7
  • The way you tell them: A Yarn of the Nineties by Alan Brownjohn
    Deutsch, 145 pp, £11.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 233 98496 8

Of the extraordinary life and activities of Shabbetai Tzevi, or Sabbatai Zebi (1626-76), sage, scholar, mystic, apostate and self-proclaimed Messiah, an important figure in the history of Judaism, I must confess to knowing nothing until Bernice Rubens captured my interest in the remarkable existence and rum doings of one Sabbatai Zvi, holy roller, profligate, manic-depressive, loving son, passionate friend, a light never quite to lighten the gentiles, but certainly a light of a fitful and most garish kind. Ms Rubens obviously knows the difference between historical identity and fictional personage, and would not expect her readers – give or take the odd reviewer – to get up into the high bookstacks for a short unguided seminar on Shabbetaianism before settling down on the sofa to enjoy Kingdom come. History has concerns that fiction need not share. Nevertheless, writers of historical fiction are constrained by the very facts that inspire them: if your story tells the life of a real person, real life has written half of your plot for you.

I am tempted – with the zeal of the newly informed – to introduce here a brief account of the career of the historical Tzevi, a Kabbalistic scholar of international fame and following who thought himself the Messiah destined to pull down the Sultan from his seat, until, brought before the Ottoman authority and given the alternative of apostasy or death, he ‘took the turban’, became an official in the Turkish service, and ended his days not uncomfortably in an exile’s residence at Dulcigno (Ulcinj) on the eastern shore of the Adriatic. I find, however, that as soon as I attempt to write the story down, in bare summary, it begins to lose its strict encyclopedic credentials and to acquire the shiftiness of fiction. Simply to endow the telling with epithets and inferences, to decide what must be mentioned and what might be omitted, is to impose a reading: in that sense, every writer is an impostor. Rubens accordingly imposes on us a reading that conjures from the ostensible facts of Shabbetai Tsevi the immanent fiction of Sabbatai Zvi. Her imposition, her implicit frame of interpretative reference, is the Messianic myth with its successive elements: a lowly yet portentous birth, a precocious childhood, the wilderness years, the gathering of disciples, the hostility of the orthodox, the betrayal by an apostle, the imprisonment and trial by civil authority, the fulfilment of a martyrdom. Some of these elements are realised in ironically unpredictable ways – it is a strange ‘martyrdom’ that transforms the ecstatic saviour into a minor civil servant – but the pattern is worked out in the story, and the reader is not allowed to overlook it. Among the authorial prompts there is at least one reference to the life of Jesus, and indeed there will be very few readers, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or mere Nothingarian, who will fail to perceive in the fable of Sabbatai Zvi the haunting shape of an older legend.

The personnel of the Sabbataian story invite comparison (or contrast) with Christian counterparts: Sabbatai’s father and mother, Mordecai and Clara, with Joseph and Mary; his harlot-wife, Sarah, with Mary Magdalen; his homosexual lover and 12th apostle, Saul, with Judas; the Vizier and Sultan with Pilate. For the reader, the recurrent awareness of one story slumbering inside another curiously disturbs the temporal sense that should be shared with the writer. The action is set in the 17th century, yet again and again I found myself mentally placing Sabbatai and his friends in the first century AD. Ms Rubens, on the other hand, is apparently determined to throw off all antiquarian guises and be thoroughly modern. This is most evident in her style: she avoids or mocks any suggestion of scripturebabble and yea-veriliness, and opts almost defiantly for our own ever-so-common tongue. Of the Messianic enthusiasms that were sweeping through Europe, it is said that ‘everyone was getting in on the act.’ Sarah (described by Sabbatai as a ‘live-in symbol of his own depravity’) reflects that ‘no Messiah could get off the ground without an impresario.’ Consequently, Sabbatai’s own prophet and promotion manager, Nathan of Gaza, is employed to ‘get the show on the road’ and organise its ‘razzmatazz’. Wherever the narrative is concerned with getting its own show on the road, it makes no special concession to notions of stylistic decorum. Equally, the narrator is sometimes careless with minor matters of fact, and almost pointedly allows an anachronism or anatopism. Seventeenth-century tailors did not have sewing-machines; and 17th-century sailors on passage from Smyrna to Dulcigno might have been surprised to find that ‘the ship skirted Dubrovnik’ – Dubrovnik (or Ragusa as it then was) being some seventy or eighty miles to the north of Ulcinj. These blunders are hardly culpable: on the contrary, they perhaps suggest a steadfast intent on the author’s part to set her fiction free from hindrances of actual time and place.

What matters to the story is the feeling wrapped up in the fable, the motives that make universal sense out of fragments of localised fact. In this respect, Kingdom come is a book that raises almost too many questions for its own good. How does it feel to feel that you are – and then again that you may not be – except that you know you must be – you are – it is expected of you – a Messiah? How does it feel to have a Messiah in the family – as your son – when you devoutly wish to have your Messiah somewhere else, preferably in the next world? How does it feel to forsake everything – for God’s sake – and then to be God-forsaken? What is betrayal? What is fulfilment? What is the nature of authority, and what obedience do we owe to rabbis and sultans and such? Can we come to terms with the world and the flesh without accommodating the devil? The questions rise out of the tale and pleasurably engage the reader.

The character of Sabbatai is a complex enigma which Rubens invites us to consider principally in the light of two inventions. (I take it that they are indeed inventions and not historical attributes.) One of these is to make the Messiah a homosexual. He has other physical appetites, but this is the strongest, and it is this that draws him fatefully to Saul, the guilt-stricken survivor of a Polish pogrom, the beautiful boy he rescues from the Smyrna slave market, his lover, the apostle who betrays him, in a fury of jealousy, after he has contracted his religious-profane marriage with Sarah. Sabbatai’s sexuality, the drive that informs his power to command and charm, thus becomes a fatal endowment. He is further afflicted with episodes of mania followed by bouts of abysmal depression. (This is the second invention.) Rubens does not burden her character with the easy label of ‘manic-depressive’, but the symptoms are apparent to anyone who has ever observed the condition. At times Sabbatai is possessed by what his English contemporaries would have called ‘enthusiasm’: replete with the divine spirit, he knows that all things are possible, that he is the Messiah, that he can sway all things to his will – that he can pull down the Sultan from his seat. At other times he is cast down into a wretched, sweating state of self-doubt, self-hatred, inertia, terror, a state in which he is capable of nothing except the agony of being incapable. Then he takes refuge in the postures of the merely human child, holding and rocking himself as his mother once held and rocked him, swaddling himself in the protection of his father’s prayer-shawl. Pathos redeems a character the reader is at times inclined to censure. Papa, Mama, it is so hard to be a Messiah. But the shrewdest comment on the spiritually tormented man is made by Sabbatai’s father, Mordecai (an admirable character), in a ringing rebuke to the time-serving rabbis:

You know all the rules. You know all the transgressions. But do you know about dreams? Do you know about the glory of the imagination? ... You dwell in the sole and banal dimension of logic. You have no visions, for your eyes are not open. You read the Law, but you do not divine the space between the words.

Well, amen to that, one of many fine passages that identify Bernice Rubens as a writer who can certainly divine the space between words.

Making sure that nothing slips into the crevices between sentences appears to be the obsessive purpose of Mary Gordon’s family saga, The Other Side. This is the story of Ellen MacNamara, implacable, combative, Irish, tender nurse of grudges and rancours, mother and grandmother to sundry Americans who act their intricate parts around her sickbed while she lies dreaming of her life and waiting for her husband to fulfil a promise so that she can unclench her fists and die. It has already been published on the other side, in the USA, where it has been warmly praised, and I imagine there will be readers on this side who will give it an equally sympathetic reception. I hope so, because I could hardly wait to put it down. Since I obviously have difficulties with the book, arguably of my own making, let me record at least one positive response: a respect for the sedulous craftsmanship which informs the conduct of the narrative, at times giving this reader the impression that each and every sentence has been scrupulously considered, framed, hefted, trimmed and finally slotted into an exact fit with its neighbours. I realise that this awareness of the book as a demonstration of style and narrative technique is a consequence of my indifference to its characters and their destinies. I do not mean dislike: I mean indifference – to their persons, to their multifarious histories, to the blessings or curses visited upon them, to the fine messes they have gotten themselves into.

A reason for my hard-heartedness may be that the actors themselves are overburdened with sensibility. Here is an extract chosen at random:

He knows he has to make something move in Cam. Cam’s anger is like a foreign power that can colonise their lives. When she’s angry (she is never angry at him), the look of the world changes for him, as if a war had happened. The peaceful streets where you could live a modest, public life have been demolished; where there were cafés, churches, simple houses there is rubble: you sit on the bombed-out site searching in the wreck for familiar things.

This is so carefully written – look at that fastidious colon after ‘rubble’ – but doesn’t the imagery monstrously inflate the mood it supposedly represents? For heaven’s sake, if Cam’s crotchets afflict the poor chap with the psychic equivalent of a Coventry or a Dresden, what Hiroshimas of figurative desolation must be expected from a spot of real bother? The text in general thrives on such elaborations of ordinary experience and common thoughts, and so claims for the characters, major and minor, a profound scrutiny which their deeds and predicaments do not always warrant. Rambling among narrative tenses, enacting a few things in the realm of ‘does’, more in the remoter domain of ‘did’, perhaps still more in the far cry of ‘had done’, they fade garrulously on the page, unmysteried and unmissed.

Mysterious persons are all the rage in Mark Illis’s The Alchemist, which the publisher’s blurb not untruthfully describes as ‘a subtle and richly-layered tale of a child’s nightmarish quest for truth’. Accepting ‘subtle’ (for which Grumpy might read ‘clever’) and ‘richly-layered’ (Dopey says ‘confusing’), I, Doc, would only add that the child’s nightmarish search for truth may be a projection of the adult’s retrospective quest for a creditable lie. The blurb puts it far too simply: it apparently encourages readers to step into the Odeon and enjoy the movie, but once inside they find themselves in a hallucinatory hall of mirrors. This is a consequence of the chosen method of storytelling, which involves an author imagining a narrator, who in turn purportedly imagines a narrative perceived by yet another narrator, his boyhood self. Confused? You won’t be, if you don’t keep asking yourself, as I did, whose eyes are looking out of the mirror and whose lips are mouthing the tale. It may be best, after all, to take the whole thing for a cinematic romp – in which respect it is freely enjoyable, smart, wry-humoured, even poetic. But if truth is your object, remember that the author’s adult narrator is a tabloid journalist who says of himself: ‘It is an odd world I inhabit, from which human beings are for the most part absent. I thought I was escaping from this world, or limiting it at least within safe boundaries, instead I think I am broadening it to include earlier years, my childhood, all my past.’ Reader, keep an open mind about this narrator’s trustworthiness, and keep a beady eye on an author who delays these words of warning until the end of his 27th chapter.

The story presents realities mirrored in memory and imagination – or, to adapt its own metaphor, it deals in base facts and in transmutations, alchemies, creations of glittering illusion out of leaden ordinariness. Literally, it is about the childhood of young Bill Gunn, whose dad sells books and considers himself no end of a businessman, whose mum frets over the waste of her life, whose girlfriend Kim is slim and sassy, whose particular pal Charlie is a right little wrong’un with a deft hand for the toffee or the till. (Most likely lads have known Charlie; it is no thanks to him that we are not all doing bird.) Billy’s adult acquaintances include Mr Melody, confectioner and toymaker, the sort of slippery old nunky who plies little poppets with sweets, and Mr J. Archer, an urbane and dastardly dentist. This is a world in which he is happy enough until his father dies and his mother decamps, leaving him in the care of a friend who, for all her kindness, can hardly assuage Billy’s feelings of desolation and insecurity, or arrest the paranoiac imaginings that begin to possess him. From this point the story becomes increasingly alchemical and mirror-mazed (Sleepy murmurs ‘dream-like’) and therefore not easy for the reader – abandoned by the author and left at the mercy of the narrator – to decode.

It appears that Billy sees himself as the victim of a deadly plot, the originator of which is the smirking J. Archer (can this be an authorial joke?), who has somehow encompassed the death of Billy’s dad and now – between inlays and fillings and a spot of chairbound fumbling – is masterminding a sleazy underworld enterprise involving videos and petty villains. J. Archer assumes power over people by capturing them on video. J. Archer, furthermore, can transform himself, melding and mutating into the shape of Mr Melody as well as migrating into the form of one Jerome the Evangelist, a showman whose theological doctrines are strikingly similar to those professed by Mrs Thatcher. Billy decides that this damned metamorphic magus must be exposed – and expose him he does, by locking him in a garden shed where he is burned alive among his video collection. I confess that I did not altogether approve of the burning in the garden shed (‘cruel,’ says Happy) and looked vainly for the author to tell me whether this was a literal or an alchemical burning and to explain its moral and metaphysical implications – but by that time the story was over, dismissing young Billy to a lonely and loveless adulthood ‘where I write mindless headlines and jokes about topless women for a living’. (‘Aw,’ says Bashful.)

Every tall tale perhaps incurs some shiftiness in the telling – as a kind of bonus in bafflement for readers who like to go on worrying after they have closed the book. In the case of Alan Brownjohn’s socio-political fable, ambiguity begins with the title, The way you tell them. Tell what? Tell whom? Why, tell jokes, of course (never mind the gags, it’s the way you tell ’em), but also tell the lords of life – tell them off, tell them what you think, tell them where they stand or where you fall, as the case may be (that’s telling ’em). ‘Telling them’ in this latter sense could be a task for the orator or the journalist or the priest, but one way of telling them is to assume the traditional privilege of the clown: make them laugh, and make them acknowledge their own folly and corruption. This is the way chosen by Chris Lexham, the dubious hero of Brownjohn’s tale. Lexham is a successful writer whose satirical cabaret theatre, The End of the World, has been wrecked at the instigation of certain powers to whom he has given offence. Seeking to re-establish himself as a social critic of the nasty Nineties (inner-city squalor, security forces, embattled unions), he grasps the opportunity offered to him by Sir Clive Deanley, a tycoon who enjoys owning people and watching them squirm, eating excessively, looking at home movies of the adult sort, and being made to laugh. Lexham is appointed resident clown in Sir Clive’s retinue, which includes a resident academic, a resident politician and a resident union boss, and in return for making the monster cackle is rewarded with opportunities for sensational sex and vague promises of getting his theatre back. His aim is to enter Deanley’s contemptible realm as a spy and a subversive, but he fails, having neglected those prudent old saws that warn us about dining with the devil and touching pitch. His confused attempts to serve the cause of truth by behaving badly bring him at length to a fatal confusion, when in the course of a mass protest against the inauguration of an unmanned cross-channel train service – one of Deanley’s projects – he is ruthlessly gunned down by the SAS. This yarn (which is all it is) augurs very murkily for the Nineties. It reminds me, by the way, of the Shabbetaian belief that the Scriptures might be fulfilled through acts ostensibly calculated to subvert their moral authority; but then they were wrong too, thank God.