High Life

Sympathy for the Murdochs

July 20, 2011

In “The Alien Corn,” Ferdy Rabenstein is a dandy, invited to all the grand parties, a lover of a grand duchess, popular and sought-after by grand people because of his wit, money, and great taste. He does not hide his Jewishness. In fact, he is known for his ability to tell the best Jewish jokes in the most perfect accent. The narrator eventually meets his family, one that has been ennobled after having changed their name from Bleikogel to a more suitably goyish Bland and having acquired a grand country house. Viscount Bland is an MP, his wife Muriel claims to have been brought up in a convent, and their two sons are the most perfect English upper-class gents one can imagine. I will not spoil it for you, but it’s such a good story, it made me look back at my past forty years in England and reflect.

The Bland son, the one that looks English and is adored by his parents, does not want to shoot, he does not want to hunt, he does not want to be an MP, and he does not want to be a millionaire. He does not want to be a baronet nor a peer. Here he is speaking to the narrator once he’s broken away and gone to Munich to study music:

You know, I don’t like the English people. I never really know where I am with you. You’re so dull and conventional. You never let yourselves go. There is no freedom of the soul, and you’re such funks. There’s nothing in the world you’re so frightened of as doing the wrong thing. I don’t want to be English. I want to be a Jew. I am a Jew and you know it, and a German Jew in the bargain. You don’t know how much more easy I feel with them….

The story ends tragically, but the beauty is that Maugham knows all about life and people. It was obviously written between the wars—hence George’s love for Germany and his people—but when I finished it I thought of the Murdochs—wandering cosmopolites seeking power and wealth—and of the Blands frightened of doing the wrong thing, and of George wanting to be Jewish. I once knew a family just like the Blands, and they’re still with us, and how sorry I felt for them once I read “The Alien Corn.” I know it sounds phony, but I actually feel sorry for the Murdochs.

 

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