Thursday, November 02, 2006

The horror, the horror

I was over on Harry's Place today and there was a discussion of the play Perdition and its major historical source, Lenni Brenner's Zionism in the Age of the Dictators.

Rather than add to a debate perfectly covered in the post it made me think of a series for this blog. This would be on the worst books I have read. Not just the toe-curlingly, embarrassing novel from the library that you abandon after the first few paragraphs, nor the turgid academic prose that brings you to a deep sense of existential despair, but something worse. I mean the books that you have bought. The ones you have parted with cash for, carried home intrigued at what may lie between the covers, turned over in your hands relishing the tactile pleasure of reading, eagerly sat down with, before the slow realisation dawns that it is all complete bollocks.

Then, and this is the mark of a truly awful book, you continue reading not with any hope that it might get better but out of a combination of horror and exhilaration that you are reading something so terrible that you are enjoying the revulsion and anger it causes. You vigorously scribble insulting marginal notes in pencil, curse and swear, throw the book aside and mentally trample on it. But you have to finish, it drives you on to the last page. Then you set it down and think, "That wasn't as bad as I first thought … it was far worse". And so dear readers (if, in fact there are any), I have to confess. I once bought a book by Lenni Brenner.

I took it from my shelf, still with a sense of grievance at the £5.95 I parted with in 1984. It was as I remembered it. The Iron Wall purports to be a history of "Zionist Revisionism from Jabotinsky to Shamir". In fact it is a sustained rant with the usual targets – Zionism as racism, a tool of imperialism, and counter-revolutionary simultaneously. It contains sentences like, "Zionism was the utopian exponential of a beleaguered caste of chrematistic religious fanatics". It is unable to make up its mind whether Revisionist Zionism is a form of messianic revivalism or fascism. Its conclusion describes the leaders of Peace Now as "incurable racists". It also posits a fantastical Leninist solution to the conflict in that Israeli refusenik soldier will come to a "correct" (a favourite word of his) analysis and join with Palestinian guerrillas to create a revolutionary secular state of Palestine! Its prose is breathless, full of judgements without empirical foundation. Take these, all drawn from just one page about the First World War (p.52): "The Republican and Democratic Parties in America, the Tories and Liberals in Britain, all social democratic parties … marked themselves for ever as betrayers of civilization. … not a single one … has redeemed themselves in the succeeding years" (so the defeat of the Nazis doesn't count as even a little redemption?); " … these factions represent classes fundamentally antiquated and antagonistic to the interests of humanity"; " … Zionism …, through Jabotinsky's Legion, harnessed itself to the juggernaut of imperial carnage"; "there is only one word to describe Jabotinsky during the War; a traitor". And so it continues - endlessly, angry rhetoric without any coherent analysis.

So far so bad. However, there is a crowning glory that makes this book special. Brenner knows the root of this perfidy. It can be understood through "the universal formula later laid down by Freud". Zionism "derived from the religious baggage of the Jewish male's super-ego". As for Jabotinsky, his determination to revive Hebrew is a clear indicator of his failure to develop beyond the oral stage. His treason was rooted in his oral fixation. What more can I say? A classic.

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