BOOK REVIEW / Taking liberties with the J-word: The spirit of the age: An Account of Our Times - David Selbourne: Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 20

Click to follow
ACCORDING to the author's note, David Selbourne has written 'an alternative, Jewish history of our times'. It is, as it were, a Talmudical addendum to his earlier book, Death of the Dark Hero: Eastern Europe, 1987-90.

In what way is his new book Jewish? Well, instead of referring to 1989 as the annus mirabilis, he calls it a 'jubilee' year. The word 'jubilee', Selbourne informs us, 'is Hebrew in origin'. He then proceeds to provide its etymology. Naturally, I double-checked in the OED, and came to the conclusion that I had stumbled upon Selbourne's source in doing so. It seems that his Jewish erudition is partly derived from an English dictionary.

In fact, his book is founded not on Jewish scholarship but on Greek philosophy and an exhaustive (from the reader's point of view) knowledge of contemporary newspapers. Nor is it necessary to be Jewish in order to feel trepidation as well as jubilation at the collapse of communism. Even atheists, I'm sure, tremble in their boots at the approach of Selbourne's arch-villains, the plebeians.

Reaching the end of the dictionary, I found this quotation from Matthew Arnold under the entry for Zeitgeist: 'It is what we call the Time-Spirit that is sapping the proof from miracles - it is the 'Zeit-Geist' itself.' In his later years, the author of Culture and Anarchy rediscovered his Christian faith. He is, I think, Selbourne's true role model, and his image of ignorant armies clashing by night provides the book with its leitmotif. A former socialist, Selbourne has not, however, fully entered capitalism's camp. He is a pseudo-religious dissenter, like Arnold (like Orwell, too), whose final prescription for social living is 'civic obligation' - an idea that is more Greek than Hebrew.

In the end, all that makes the book Jewish is its shadowy hero: a composite figure, a sort of Every-Jew. He is a communist and a capitalist, ruthless but sentimental, a rootless cosmopolitan and a devoted suburbanite, an iconoclast and a Tory, a Messiah and a sceptic; he is George Steiner and Mrs Portnoy, Marx and Rothschild, Jesus and Disraeli. Above all he has the features of David Selbourne (who resembles Sigmund Freud, though I suspect he rather fancies himself as the priestly author of Ecclesiastes).

Unfortunately, it is not enough to reaffirm your own Jewishness and use the word 'Judaic' on every other page to make a book kosher. I knew this obsession reminded me of something. Then I remembered this famous exchange from Annie Hall. Alvy (aka Woody Allen) is complaining that his tennis partner uttered the word 'Jew' under his breath. His friend calls him paranoid, whereupon Alvy says: 'Well, I pick up on those kind o' things. You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said . . . 'Uh, did you eat yet or what?' And Tom Christie said, 'No, didchoo?' Not, did you, didchoo eat? Jew? No, not did you eat, but jew eat? You get it? Jew eat?'

It seems to me that Selbourne is performing similiar verbal gymnastics to accommodate the J-word. Except that his aren't funny. I know the Zeitgeist is no laughing matter, but a few jokes or even witticisms would have been appreciated (more Groucho and less Karl). As far as I can tell the following is a unique example of Selbourne's humour: 'Vietnam, in its Lewis Carroll-like currency reform, floated the dong.' I hate to be a spoilsport, but wasn't it Edward Lear who wrote 'The Dong with the Luminous Nose'? Since Selbourne is something of a pedant, he might also like to know that Joseph Brodsky is a poet, not a novelist.

The Spirit of the Age is a worthy book, and its author looks like a nice man. Perhaps he is too nice. Our age requires a pen that flows with vitriol, not ink.