The Defrocked Romantic

Heine’s Jewish Comedy: A Study of His Portraits of Jews and Judaism

by S.S. Prawer
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 841 pp., $69.00

The Complete Poems of Heinrich Heine: A Modern English Version

translated by Hal Draper
Suhrkamp/Insel (Boston), 1,032 pp., $29.95

Heine’s Jewish Comedy is 841 pages long. To call it scholarly would be an understatement. It feels drenched in the anxiety of the scholar for having overlooked some relevant fact or opinion. It is certainly no Heinrich Heine joke book for the bedside table: the word “comedy” in the title is used, the author explains, in the sense that Dante and Balzac used it for their divine and human comedies. What he has chosen to do is to pick out every Jewish personage, real or fictional, in Heine’s life and work; every reference to the Old Testament, the Talmud, Herodotus, or any other Jewish piece of history or literature; every Jewish (or anti-Jewish) thought, opinion, feeling, taste, overtone, and gut reaction that Heine experienced in himself or in his environment.

Besides being among Germany’s greatest poets, Heine was a journalist—the father, according to the critic Ludwig Rosenthal, of modern feature writing. After he exiled himself to Paris in 1831 he reported on the French scene for German papers, and for French papers on Germany. He liked to think that he was interpreting the two countries to each other. He collected these articles and published them in book form with many tactful omissions, additions, and alterations. These discursive, witty, and sometimes impudent pieces are among his best-known prose works. Professor Prawer examines the original as well as the final version of each; he also pays attention to all Heine’s rejected or unpublished output in verse and prose. These labors enable him to chart every change in Heine’s perpetually vacillating attitude to Jewishness, and to come to some very interesting conclusions which are to be found in his Conclusion: they would make a splendid essay on their own.

Heine wrote the most beautiful and enjoyable German prose. He knew what his feelings were and could express what he felt. Besides, he was a student of history, always conscious of its course carrying him and his generation along; he always connected the present with the past; he was, as Professor Prawer says, a poet-historian.

Nietzsche admired his writing so much that he declared that he himself and Heine would come to be acknowledged as the greatest virtuosos in the language. And so they have been—though often in company with Goethe and sometimes with Thomas Mann. So for anyone interested in the psychology of Jewish emancipation it is very fortunate that Heine was there when it was in its first flush in Central and Western Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century.

Born in 1797, he was five years younger than James de Rothschild, the youngest of the five brothers whose eruption into international finance and society can serve as a symbol for the outbreak from the ghetto. Not that Heine was born in a ghetto; in fact, the Frankfurt ghetto, the home of the Rothschilds, struck him as unbearably disagreeable and constricting when he came to visit it. His family lived in Düsseldorf and later …

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