Frank Campenni on My Glorious Brothers
in Citizen Howard Fast (1971)
For the setting for his next novel, Fast turned outside the United States for the first time in ten novels, and also for the first time went back beyond modern times. My Glorious Brothers tells about the freeing of Israel from the Syrians and Greeks in the second century before Christ. The story is narrated by Simon ben Mattathias, oldest of the five Maccabeean brothers, and confines itself to the half dozen years
(approximately 166 to 160 B.C.), covered in "Maccabees I" of the Apocrypha. The well-shaped tale culminates in the cleansing of the regained Temple and rounds off with the death of Judas, "the Hammer." Much of the dramatic chronicle is presented as heroic pageantry a pageant based on the work was acted in Israel in 1950 before enormous audiences and there are scenes in abundance of the type Fast did so well: thousands of arrows arcing whitely into the air, armies clashing in merciless combat, bloody executions, mountain views of sunstruck plains and the glinting shields of brown-limbed warriors. There are cameo-sized vignettes as well as panoramas: worried Jewish elders and peaceful rabbis counseling in war; Simon and his beloved Ruth in the star-filled desert night; the towering patriarch Mattathias calling his magnificent sons to battle; the effeminate Syrian overlord Appeles skipping in his dainty skirt.
Once again, Fast employs the mannered, cadenced rhetoric of the reminiscent narrator feasting on memories. Althougn the rhapsodic tone sometimes seems appropriate in this Biblical tale and, indeed, results in some passages of great beauty, there is often a theatrical note of false piety and a straining for effects not brought out by the events and the characterization. To Fast's credit, he varies his key, so that Simon is sometimes quite factual, occasionally brooding or wistful or repentant or jealous or bitter or weary and then surges to a chant of battle or song of praise at high moments.
A fine balance to Simon's voice is added in an epilogue, "The Report of the Legate Lentulus Silanus," in which the Roman legate tries to explain to the Senate what manner of people these Jews seem to be. As Edmund Fuller pointed out in The Saturday Review,
This is positively brilliant and well worth the price of the book. In style, characterization and its searching presentation of one theory of the sources of anti-Semitism, I think it outstrips anything Fast has ever done. I have felt him to be guilty, usually, of oversimplification, but the report of Lentulus has complexity and penetration.
The selections of point-of-view and narrative incident are indicative of the judgments made by a skilled or wary artist. Just as the narration by Alan Hale in Conceived in Liberty not only gave authority and immediacy but also Justified simplification, so Simon's narrative voice lends these qualities to these events. Simon concentrates almost entirely on the foreground, with the perspective he would plausibly have, and thereader does not object to the absent background of the clash of Roman, Egyptian, Greek and Syrian empires. If Judea seems too large it is not merely that Fast takes advantage of historical hindsight but rather that Simon is a deeply involved spokesman for a cohesive, proud people. But a more international viewpoint is supplied by the worldly legate's coda near the end. If Simon has only the perspective of temporal distance, the legate adds a physical and moral distance that provides a more complete context.
The non-scholar cannot evaluate the accuracy of the events described here or the plausibility of interpretation. Did Rome actually send a legate to Jerusalem to beg a treaty, as Fast indicates, or did the Jews seek the help of the Romans, as seems more likely? Does Fast concentrate too much upon the religious fervor of the Maccabees and the Jewish sense of being a people chosen by God; or does he focus overmuch on the political desire to be free, or on the corrupt merchants, priests and westernized aristocracy who trade their heritage for pottage? Probably a fair answer to such questions is
that Fast's skill makes us ask them, for he weaves a complex and colorful tapestry around a meagre framework and with limited materials. As history, as pageant and drama, and as a lively novel (there are many interesting invented characters and relationships), MX Glorious Brothers is as successful as any of his ventures against an American backdrop.