Genius and Anxiety: How Jews changed the world, 1847–1947
by Norman Lebrecht
Oneworld, $39.99 hb, 448 pp
My first encounter with Daniel Deronda (1876) was during a university undergraduate course in Victorian literature. The novel was almost shocking for its romanticised Jewish eponymous hero and its deep evocation of Judaism and modern Zionism’s stirrings. This was a singular experience when it came to reading Jewish characters by writers who were not themselves Jewish. Fictional Jews of this period were more likely to be permutations of vile stereotypes, Shylock or Fagin-like. They induced a feeling of shame, even when arguments could be made for the work’s nuance and literary brilliance. In Genius and Anxiety: How Jews changed the world, 1847–1947, we meet Daniel Deronda’s unlikely muse along with a profusion of other personalities, some famous, others whose legacies have been unnoticed or suppressed.
Prussian-born Emanuel Deutsch – Talmudist, polyglot, and genius – was George Eliot’s Hebrew teacher and friend. His death at the age of forty-three galvanised her to create the novel that may not be her finest but is nevertheless glorious. ‘Promise Lost’ might be an alternative title for Norman Lebrecht’s book. Loss through premature death, as in Deutsch’s case, or through the prevalence of suicide attests to the often intolerable political and social landscape, steeped as it is in virulent anti-Semitism.