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Politician Disraeli's novels reflected inner struggles

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THIS locally written study of the 19th-century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli is not a conventional political biography.

Its author, University of Manitoba English professor Robert O'Kell, is equally concerned with Disraeli's parallel career as a novelist.

In this densely ambitious tome, he takes an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating not only biography and criticism, but also psychology and political science.

The result is an academic book intended for an academic audience, but which is nevertheless replete with insights into Disraeli and his public careers.

Disraeli (1804-1881) served as British prime minister twice -- in 1868, and again from 1874-1880.

In addition to his political career, he wrote numerous novels of varying quality. The best known of which are probably his trilogy of political novels, Coningsby or The New Generation (1844), Sybil or The Two Nations (1845) and Tancred or The New Crusade (1847).

O'Kell argues that Disraeli should not be seen as a politician who happened to write novels, or a novelist who happened to succeed in politics. (And, yes, by the way, Winnipeg's Disraeli Freeway is named after him.)

Rather, he writes, Disraeli's fictions and politics were profoundly interrelated; each were rooted in the deep-seated tensions of his personality.

Disraeli wrote novels for two reasons, according to O'Kell. First, they provided a sense of compensation for failure and defeat in his political vicissitudes. More significantly, O'Kell suggests, they enabled him to explore and work out imaginatively the tensions in his psyche.

Most of Disraeli's literary output was thus autobiographical -- not in a literal sense, but because it reflected his internal struggles.

Disraeli, O'Kell maintains, was driven by a "struggle for self-definition." Since at least his adolescence, he was informed by two conflicting senses of himself.

On the one hand, Disraeli believed that he had an innate nobility and superiority that he wanted to be effortlessly acknowledged by society.

On the other, he was aware that recognition of his pre-eminence could only be wrested from society through some success or achievement that would constitute incontestable proof of his genius.

But the pursuit of such success could involve him in expedients that would compromise his pure, innate nobility.

This tension between "purity" and "success," O'Kell argues, was the leitmotif of Disraeli's fiction, and was the psychological pattern that links his novels and his politics.

As O'Kell writes, "the fantasy structures of the successive fictions and the imaginative patterns of the developing political career are interlocked, each influencing the other."

The bulk of O'Kell's narrative is his reading of Disraeli's novels and tales in the light of his psychological understanding of the man.

O'Kell says that Disraeli's fiction may be unique in Victorian literature in that it envisions greater social mobility than is usually thought to characterize Victorian society.

Disraeli's achievements as politician and author in 19th-century Britain were remarkable, especially given his Jewish ethnicity, which made him an outsider in a predominantly Christian society (he did convert to Christianity as a youth).

O'Kell's interdisciplinary approach provides new insights and interpretations of Disraeli, showing how his conflicting senses of self shaped his fiction and politics.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2013 J7

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