HERZL THE KING by Norman Kotker


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This fictional version of the life and work of Theodor Herzl, the patriarch of Zionism, is a somber, awkward book, unsuccessful as a novel; its chief interest is as a sort of posed sociological portrait-photo of an era. It charts the fortunes, not really of Herzl, but of the idea -- a Jewish state -- that was born in him and thus into a particular set of socio-temporal coordinates, an environment of historical forces and prejudices. The book barely sketches what its afternotes indicate could have been a fascinating study of Herzl the man: a cultured, cynical journalist transformed by an idea into a dyspeptic, charismatic obsessive, a persistent nuisance at the courts of Europe and Turkey, and a neglected father to his own family. Was he a Moses or a megalomaniac? Kotker shows only a dour, dreamy fellow making lists and holding conferences; for the lifelike touch, we get a faithful account of what everyone ate for dessert while they conferred. Only in his fantasies and his digestion does Herzl briefly come to life. His dilemmas as a state-maker and his own limitations as a bourgeois Jew are portrayed far more authoritatively. The opposition Herzl meets from other rich Jews ("" 'After all these centuries we have just begun to be accepted as Europeans' ""); his own distaste for the poor, fervent, pious Russian Jews, and his inclination to dream a Zion of flags, elegance, and diplomacy; the leverage of bribery and even anti-Semitism he must apply to the great courts in his bid for land -- all this is history, and it's history Kotker loves and should have written. He writes it both with non-committal irony and with an almost physical, fateful exhilaration: man, and especially the Jew, is a being flooded by history. But only a prior passion for Zionism, brought to this book, could imagine this wooden Herzl as anything more than history's puppet.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1972
Publisher: Scribners