Zweig's Englishmen

Article excerpt

IN November 1932, Sigmund Freud received a complimentary copy of Arnold Zweig's latest novel, De Vriendt kehrt heim, the plot of which centres on a political murder within the Jewish community of Palestine. The work explores the precarious relations between Jews and Arabs in the territory, and it does so largely from the perspective of the English secret policeman who investigates the crime. Freud praised Zweig's narrative skills and his treatment of the historical circumstances, and - in line with the view he generally took of the relation between authors and their fictions - he saw the policeman Irmin as the character in whom Zweig had invested his 'ego'. He went on to say that he doubted whether there were many Englishmen in the Secret Service who so closely resembled Arnold Zweig.1 Given the relative detachment from which Irmin contemplates the cultural and political tensions of Palestine, Freud's remark prompts the question of what exactly the image of the English was that Zweig had been able to identify with so closely through the figure of Irmin.

As he is depicted in the opening chapter of the novel, Irmin is well aware of being out of his natural habitat in the oppressive summer heat and amid the political tensions of Jerusalem, but he is also fascinated by the complex cultural legacy of the city, and this very fascination prompts him to take an analytical and diplomatic approach to his role as policeman. He is explicitly associated with the image of Britain as a "steady hand" in its dealings with India and the Moslem world, and his previous military experience includes service with the inter-allied force sent to secure the neutrality of Vilnius (Lithuania) for a brief period at the end of the First World War, which has made him aware of the sensibilities of Jewish communities. Irmin' s personal qualities are made to stand out in contrast to two distinctly less urbane representatives of the British administration in Palestine: the bureaucrat Robinson, who is a stickler for regulations, and the strangely named army officer Mushroom, who is openly predisposed towards the Arabs.2 When he reflects, at the end of the novel, on the implications of the conflict between Jews and Arabs that he has been unable to circumvent, Irmin voices his long-term commitment to an ideal of global equality (the "großer Ausgleich"), and in his detective work he has meanwhile shown himself to be an extreme devotee of fair play: having confronted the young Jewish murderer of de Vriendt in a rowing-boat on the Dead Sea, Irmin substitutes trial by ordeal for legal prosecution and allows him to swim ashore. The assassin's life is saved by his own presence of mind and, as Irmin sees it, by the Zeitgeist.3

If this characterization of an Englishman appears caricatured, how had Zweig's perception of the English come about? Leaving aside the phase in Zweig's life when he sought to subvert the cliché of the 'sporting' Englishman in a spirit of wartime German patriotism,4 there are two dimensions to his experiences that evidently conditioned his image of the English - the literary and the political - and in what follows I shall attempt to sketch the development of his perceptions in the light of his writings before, during, and after his period of residence in Palestine from 1933 to 1948.

Given the nature of his early aspirations as an author, it is not surprising to find evidence that Zweig took an interest in English literature from an early age. Shakespeare, whom he frequently invokes as one of the world's great authors, naturally formed part of his education; but he also recalls having read "at least five" novels by Dickens in his youth, and throughout his life he would refer to Dickens as a standard by which to measure other novelists, just as he would also refer to Balzac, Zola, and Tolstoy.5 He recommended Samuel Butler's Erewhon to German readers in 1929,6 and the fiction of H.G. Wells provided him with a ready source of allusions from time to time. …