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the prince of india

11 november 2010

The Prince of India, or, Why Constantinople Fell explains why the Ottoman Turks under the young Sultan Mahommed were able to conquer the capital of their Greek Orthodox rivals in the year 1453.

To adequately punish a people for the debasement and perversions of his revelations, God, in righteous anger, tolerated their destruction. (II: 571)
It takes Wallace 1,073 pages to set up that explanation, and twenty words to deliver it.

The Prince of India runs 1,080 pages in all; it took me three months to read it. I can't help the suspicion that I'm one of the few people ever to read it, certainly one of the few in the last century. The novel remains just barely in print, but I have the feeling that it's defeated a lot of its readers over the years.

After the insane success of Ben-Hur (1880), Lew Wallace could have sold his publishers just about anything: the memoirs of a toothbrush, snide opinions about the best way to saddle a horse, the history of Crawfordsville, Indiana. He chose to write about the end of the Greek Christian empire, an indirect result of the success of his great best-seller. The story goes that President-elect James A. Garfield stayed up nights to finish reading Ben-Hur. Upon finishing it, and realizing that his Civil War acquaintance Wallace had never been to what they would have called "the Levant," Garfield took a look at his patronage lists and decided that Wallace ought to be posted to the Sublime Porte: that is, made minister to Turkey, the dominant power in the Middle East. Wallace made the most of his appointment, visiting the scenes of Ben-Hur and gathering a sheaf of materials for a new historical novel about the Turkish capital: the novel that, 13 years later, would become The Prince of India.

I read The Prince of India intently, taking copious notes, as part of my academic "work," and I hope someday to write an essay about it that will fade graciously into scholarly obscurity. I'm certainly not about to revive interest in the novel as a neglected literary masterpiece or even a compelling example of 19th-century rhetoric. Frankly, the book is flawed in preposterous ways, and protracted to a length that only the most doughty late-Victorian reader could withstand.

But for all that, Wallace personally and his lesser literary works fascinate me. Here's someone who had the bulliest of pulpits: the most successful fiction writer in America, by most reckoning, in the latter half of the 19th century. He could have become a prolific writer of mild religious fare. Instead he embarked on a chronicle of literally Byzantine complexity, taking 13 years to compose a book that sprawled wildly across a fanciful landscape. The Prince of India is largely bereft of the religious and political energies that fueled Ben-Hur, and at times is, frankly, confused. But its themes obsessed its writer, a great amateur capable of intense single-mindedness about his projects.

The title character in The Prince of India is actually the Wandering Jew himself. Wallace's biographers Robert and Katharine Morsberger trace the inspiration for the character to George Croly's 1827 novel Salathiel, considered by Wallace as one of the greatest works of English fiction (Lew Wallace: Militant Romantic, NY: 1980, 384). The Wanderer taunted Jesus during the Passion, and was cursed to live until the Second Coming. In Wallace's version of the story, the Wanderer undergoes a kind of rebirth every hundred years, into a fresh body. I'm kind of split on whether that's a curse or a good fortune. You'd outlive your friends, and lose your identity every hundred years. But you'd get a complete reboot into the prime of youth every so often. And eventually, you'd get to see the Cubs win another World Series, right?

Our particular Wandering Jew, though, is simply cranky. He wants the whole world to conform to his religious creed: "belief in God!" Uh-huh. When they don't (responding with the 15th-century equivalent of "whatever"), he decides to foment a war and have the Muslims who've derided him conquer the Christians who've derided him.

This deeply makes no sense, and is complicated by fluctuating characters who can't seem to establish a "through-line" to motivate them across the novel's thousand-plus pages. Some appear only to vanish; others go through successive identities, like the Emir Mirza who somehow becomes the Count Corti and gets to fight on both sides during the climactic war. At times religion motivates everybody; at other times love; at other times, sheer bloody-mindedness. We don't get to the final battle for Constantinople until over 1,000 pages in; it's pretty exciting when it transpires, but up to then there have been scores of pages at a time of arid theological disputation, and hundreds of pages of fastidious love-making. (In the "may I be your gallant knight?" sense, obviously.)

Meanwhile, the best action scene in the book is one where a couple of Christians – the monk Sergius and the Princess Irené – are fixing to be fed to a lion in the arena. The problem with this is that the authorities doing the feeding are Christians too. The victims' offense? Heresy, in the form of promulgating a creed hateful to the Orthodox Christians. That creed? "I believe in God, and Jesus Christ, his Son" (II: 332). Well, clearly that merits tearing by wild beasts.

In fact, saying something like that, even in the more polemic-minded of Byzantine synods, would probably draw more yawns than calls for your dismemberment. But somehow, Lew Wallace imagined a world so perverse that a simple statement of a basic creed would be a capital crime. That's the kind of exuberant, if deeply illogical, idea that draws me to Wallace's books. Like Robert Frost, Wallace "had a lover's quarrel with the world," though he expressed it in convoluted fiction rather than crystalline lyric. And he got the world to listen for the span of one novel, before losing its attention definitively with his next.

Wallace, Lew. The Prince of India, or, Why Constantinople Fell. 1893. 2 vols. New York: Harper, 1921.