Posts Tagged ‘Emmanuel Litvinoff’

A Literary A-Z

July 18, 2011

J

 

J surely boils down to a battle of two great Jameses – Henry James and James Joyce. I have soft spots for both.

My tutor at university was a Joyce expert, and I remember the experience of reading Ulysses very clearly indeed. I was sitting on one of my Mum’s quite smart cream sofas, with a cup of tea nearby – perpetually  nervous that I might spill it – holding the thick paperback with both hands, amazed that my tutor understood this incredibly dense book so well that she had actually edited it. I was on that sofa for several hours every day for a week. I couldn’t believe that I was going to have a tutorial with her about it. I was so unnerved at the thought of having to write an essay, which she would then read, or, worse still, that I would read it aloud to her, that in the end I wrote about a character who only appears in about six pages – a man in a macintosh.

One of my favourite lines of all literature is the final line of The Dead, the novella at the close of Dubliners:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Incidentally, I mentioned this in a post about Orhan Pamuk a while ago, only to overhear Andrew O’Hagan tell someone – just the following day – that it was his favourite line. Strange coincidence. He definitely thought I was a bit peculiar when I rushed up to him and told him it was one of mine too, and I’d just written about it on my blog.

As for the other James, Henry, well he has an Oxford-related story too. During my entrance interview, I was asked which writers I liked, whose work I hadn’t studied at school. At the time I was obsessed with Milan Kundera. My future tutor (the Joyce expert) was unimpressed. She said she didn’t want to talk about him and asked me for something else. My brain went spectacularly blank. For a moment it felt as though I’d never read anything at all. At last I remembered something. ‘I liked Atonement by Ian McEwan,’ I ventured.

We discussed Ian McEwan for a while. I said I’d liked the way Atonement was told from a child’s perspective, but yet there seemed to be an adult’s sensibility behind it. The Joyce expert introduced me to the word ‘focalised’. Then the other tutor in the room – who was to become my Middle English tutor – piped up for the first time.

‘But then,’ she said, ‘he just does what Henry James did. Only Henry James did it so much better.’

‘Really?’ I asked, remembering that I’d read Portrait of a Lady and struggling to see the similarity.

‘Of course. It’s just like What Maisie Knew. But James was a real master.’

I left the interview feeling that it had gone quite well. I thought I might try to track down a copy of What Maisie Knew so that when it came to my second interview with them I’d be able to say something about it.

At what seemed like an ungodly hour the following morning, someone knocked on my door. I was informed that I was wanted for an interview at another college, in half an hour.

I felt sick and confused. I hurriedly got dressed and gobbled my emergency Kit Kat Chunky. I was escorted to this other college, which was about five times the size of little Exeter. On the way, while crossing one of the quads of this grand college, the heel of one of my stupid shoes, which I wasn’t used to wearing, got lodged in between two paving stones and I was momentarily stuck in the mud. It was a sign of things to come…

With most of these interviews, you’re given a piece of writing to look at for half an hour beforehand. For this one, I was given a piece of poetry. I began to read it.

‘Oh no, I’m so sorry,’ the lady said. ‘You wrote about poetry in one of your essays. John Donne. There’s no need to test you on that. Here’s some prose instead.’

And she handed me a page of prose. I looked down at the bottom, where it said, ‘taken from What Maisie Knew by Henry James’.

I then suffered the most appalling interview you could imagine. Everything I said was twisted around and thrown back at me. I felt as though we were playing some weird game, in which I had to say why I loved English Literature and then they had to show me that actually I’d just said why I didn’t. It was terrible.

Until it came to the questions about the unseen extract. I talked about it for a while. They didn’t appear to be listening to me. Then, at last, I ventured, ‘It reminds me a bit of Atonement by Ian McEwan.’

They both sat up. ‘Do go on,’ said the one who had been marginally less nasty to me than the other one.

I went on for a little while. I used the word ‘focalised’. It was the only three minutes of the interview that weren’t horrific. And then, I’m not sure how, but I found myself talking about John Fowles and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

At this point the nastier tutor cut in. ‘Given that the course at Oxford is very traditional. Do you not think that your taste in literature is rather too modern?’

Back to the ridiculous game then. I struggled through the rest of the interview, left it in tears, sat on the train back down to London, steely with determination never ever to study under such a horrible man.

In the end, luckily, I was offered a place at Exeter, and only once came across the horrid man in a lecture, out of which I swiftly walked.

Well, I suppose it’s actually not a particularly nice story, that one. But then I did end up reading What Maisie Knew and I thought it was incredibly brilliant. So brilliant that it inspired me to start my own writing. I wrote a few chapters of a book, focalised through a little girl who had quite a peculiar imagination, who was staying in a house with her mother and grandmother, while terrible grown-up things were going on. I didn’t get particularly far with it, but it was a start. And if it weren’t for that, well then I probably wouldn’t still be trying.

I suppose that means Henry James has to win.

K

 

There seem to be several Ks who I like. Kafka, Kapucinski, Kapur, Keats, Kipling, Kunzru, in alphabetical order.

But I’m going – surprisingly decisively – to opt in favour of Keats. There’s a great deal about his poetry that should be praised. Not least, that it’s exceptionally beautiful. But I’ve always felt particularly fond of his poetic use of medical and scientific language:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk

Keats mingles hemlock and opiates with the river Lethe. (The Lethe was one of the rivers of the Underworld; drinking from it led to complete forgetfulness.) Poetry is always full of mythical references like this. They make it seem magical and old and mysterious. But the precision of the medical language, of naming these two substances – hemlock and opiates – that would achieve the same effect as drinking from the river Lethe, creates something unique and quite extraordinary.

During A-Levels, I was the only person in my English class who was also studying Science. And I was the only person in my Chemistry class who was also studying English. The Science block was a seven-minute walk from the main School building, where English – and other Arts – lessons took place, which meant that I was always slightly late for everything. Unfortunately, in English, as everyone knew that it was because I’d come from the Science block, it meant that my being late wasn’t remotely cool or rebellious. It just showed that I was a Science geek. And when I turned up late for Chemistry, having come all the way from English, everyone thought I was a wishy-washy arts student.

It felt as though the combination of English and Science couldn’t possibly be resolved. Until I found Keats. And then I saw that really, if the two very different disciplines could be brought together, they could create something that really transcended either one of them alone.

L

 

D.H. Lawrence, Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, or Emmanuel Litvinoff.

The man who managed to get the C word into literature must be given due credit. And everybody loves The Leopard. Plus those two are double-Ls: Lawrence with Lady C; Lampedusa with The Leopard.

But I’m going to go for the one who’s usually overlooked, Emmanuel Litvinoff.

I discovered Emmanuel Litvinoff thanks to Iain Sinclair in his Hackney book. He was mentioned a few times as a writer of the Jewish East End. But then I could never remember his name when I went into a bookshop. Indeed I’d almost forgotten about him, by the time I started actually working in a bookshop.

And then, a couple of weeks in, as I was shelving some books in the London section, I saw it: Emmanuel Litvinoff Journey Through a Small Planet. The book looked rather smart – a Penguin Modern Classic. The cover shows an eccentric-looking man wearing big specs, light shining full onto his broad forehead, in contrast with the dark stairs on which he’s standing. Intriguing.

I bought it, read it and loved it. Litvinoff’s memoir is about growing up around Brick Lane at the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was filled with Jewish immigrants.

People spoke of Warsaw, Kishinev, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa as if they were neighbouring suburbs

It is rather a subtle portrait of a time and a place – rather than always feeling proud and part of his community, at times he feels ashamed:

The Kosher signs and Yiddish lettering were embarrassing advertisements of alienation

And yet, it was Litvinoff who stood up at the ICA in the 1950s, to recite his poem accusing T.S. Eliot of antisemitism, even though T.S. himself had just joined the audience.

A great man, and his book is a great story. L is undoubtedly for Litvinoff.

My Top Ten London Books … part two

February 13, 2010

On to non-fiction.

6. Journey Through a Small Planet, Emmanuel Litvinoff

I came across Litvinoff in Ian Sinclair’s book, Hackney, That Rose-red Empire, where he was mentioned, alongside Pinter and other ‘East-End’ writers. The name stuck in my head and a few weeks later, when walking past a bookshop window, Journey Through a Small Planet caught my eye, in its glorious Penguin Modern Classics livery.

In Journey Through a Small Planet, Litvinoff revisits his Whitechapel childhood at the beginning of the twentieth century, when ‘the salty vigorous Yiddish tongue filled the streets’ and  Brick Lane was the haunt of ‘herring-women … plunging their chapped and swollen fingers into the open barrels of pickled fish.’ In what must be the ultimate Jewish East-End book, Litvinoff brings the area pungently back to life, with women chattering to each other in the tenements, telling tales from the ‘old country’, and the community’s excitement when the Yiddish theatre troupe arrives. But Litvinoff manages to avoid the trap of saccharine nostalgia. Poverty is ever-present, such as when he scavenges for unwanted vegetables from Spitalfields Market, and he emphasises how important it was to study hard, how much he wanted to escape the drudgery of sweat-shop and factory, the ghettoed existence.

And there is no doubt that it was a ghetto, ‘people spoke of Warsaw, Kishinev, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa as if they were neighbouring suburbs’. Litvinoff suggests it was more akin to the shtetls of Poland and Russia than London, Britain’s cosmopolitan capital. The Jewishness of the East End, of Litvinoff himself, cannot stray far from the foreground of Journey Through a Small Planet, but Litvinoff does not have a straightforward relationship with his religion. Patrick Wright (author of A Journey Through Ruins among other excellent books) looks at this complicated relationship in his engaging introduction. In A Jew in England (also included in this Penguin edition), Litvinoff finds the Jewish names on shops ‘grotesque and provocative; the Kosher signs and Yiddish lettering were embarrassing advertisements of alienation’, but yet he stood up at the ICA, in front of an audience which included T.S. Eliot, to read out his poem, ‘To T.S. Eliot’, accusing Eliot of anti-semitism:

I am not one accepted in your parish.

Bleistein is my relative and I share

the protozoic slime of Shylock …

… So shall I say it is not eminence chills

but the snigger from behind the covers of history,

the sly words and the cold heart

and footprints made with blood upon a continent?

Let your words

tread lightly on this earth of Europe

lest my people’s bones protest.

T.S. Eliot, the rest of London’s literati, and, indeed, even London’s Jewish community, were not amused. The poem was slated and Litvinoff’s reputation sunk.

In the years of the Second World War, as Hitler attempted to exterminate the Jewish race, so the bombing of London destroyed the Jewish East End. Reading Journey through a Small Planet makes me feel that this decimation was indeed a mini-holocaust, given the exuberant life in that community, held in its buildings and the Yiddish chattering of neighbours in its tenements. Litvinoff, such a skilled resuscitator, has perfectly recreated that lost world, warts and all.

7. Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

Towards the end of Journey through a Small Planet, Litvinoff writes about a time when he was crushingly poor, with nothing to eat, no work, sleeping in dosshouses. The ‘down and out’ existence was one shared by Orwell, chronicled in his autobiographical work, Down and Out in Paris and London.

A great deal of the book is set in Paris, where Orwell’s penniless existence begins after a short spell as a plongeur in a restaurant. But it is London it that matters for this list, ‘the land of the tea urn and the Labour Exchange’. And, like Paris, it is described in brilliant, illuminating detail.

Orwell discovers ‘tea-and-two-slices’, the miserable sustenance of all tramps in cafes across the capital. He becomes friendly with an Irish tramp, who gets all his tobacco from fag-ends dropped on the street. He describes the clusters of tramps who go to tiny church services in order to be given a cup of tea and a bun, and the OAPs who are forced into a tramp-like existence by their miserly pension of ten shillings a week (he is impressed by one managing to eke enough out of it to afford a weekly shave, when consuming nothing but bread and tea). It is an overlooked community, in which stories are told while waiting for the ‘spike’ to open, keeping them going for the miles they have to walk to reach the next spike.

Orwell writes about tramps with great sympathy, urging us to stop believing in a falsely-imagined ‘tramp-monster’ – ‘they are ordinary human beings, and that if they are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of their way of life’. But his true feat is in keeping his sense of humour, including details that occasionally cause a smile, rather than a patronising look of sorrow. In the ultimate mark of respect for the tramps and their tough way of life, Orwell never indulges in an ounce of sentimentality.

8. Derelict London, Paul Talling

From tramps, often-overlooked, to derelict buildings, also often-overlooked. This collection of photographs of disused, crumbling, forgotten London buildings, many of which appear on the website derelictlondon.com. It’s a poignant book, showing how the city has changed and the casualties that occured along the way. The Seven Stars, for instance, Brick Lane’s last pub; Poplar Baths, originally opened back in 1852, following the Baths and Wash Houses Act; the Stockwell bomb shelter from the Second World War; Hackney Marshes and Pudding Mill river – victims to the upcoming Olympics; plus a few forlorn images of those dying but quintessentially British symbols: an estranged milk float and a row of red post boxes. This review from the New Statesman really gets to the heart of it.

Yes, most of the photos can be seen on the website, but the book is a sweet pocket-sized companion, and has interesting facts and stories alongside. The pictures are neatly arranged by type, from ‘working – houses and flats to ‘resting – cemeteries and chapels of rest’. It is definitely not your average book of London photography.

9. Lost London, Philip Davies

And neither is this. Lost London brings together a host of stunning black-and-white images of the capital from 1870–1945. The places have all vanished now, as the photos came into being when the LCC decided to create a historical record of buildings that were going to be demolished. The book combines miserable poverty, as it tours the destitution of slums before the clearances from the East End to Westminster (via Bermondsey and Holborn, with a sense of excitement, as change is brought to the city. It is marvellous to see Tower Bridge, for instance, in construction, its bundles of girders stretching out over the Thames.

Published only last year, we sold vast numbers of Lost London at the bookshop in the run-up to Christmas. So many, in fact, that we had completely sold out by early December. The publishers had, rather short-sightedly, only printed relatively few copies, and, as the printing is done in the Far East, we’re still waiting to get more in stock. The legend of the book lives on, however: at least two or three times a week somebody asks about it. All I can advise is to order one – it’s the most magnificent book, and if you don’t get one of the precious copies to be delivered later this month, you’ll have another few months to wait until the next batch is shipped over.

10. The Secret History of Georgian London, Dan Cruickshank

Dan Cruickshank is a bit of a hero. The New Georgian who campaigned to save Spitalfields from destruction, who presents television programmes waving his hands enthusiastically in the air, who knows everything there is to know about Georgian architecture. But, and here’s the best bit, he’s written a book which isn’t really about architecture. It’s a book about the sex industry.

Cruickshank shows through meticulously detailed research that prostitution was huge in Georgian London. He works out that in London, one in six women were prostitutes and he points out quite how unusual this was, quoting from letters and accounts by various astonished contemporary foreign visitors.

He details the wages of prostitutes, where they lived, where they worked – illustrated by a charmingly titled map of ‘the sexual highway’. He looks at different types of prostitutes, high-class, low-class, and not forgetting ‘molly-houses’ (centres for gay prostitution). But The Secret History of Georgian London is much more than just a documentary about prostitutes. Cruickshank’s real skill lies in showing how this huge industry was intertwined with the art of the day. He goes into eye-opening detail with Hogarth’s drawings, and tells the stories of the prostitutes in Reynolds’ stunning paintings. And, being Dan Cruickshank, he doesn’t forget the buildings. He gives a grand architectural tour of London’s sordid side, from Covent Garden’s ‘bagnios’ (or bath houses) and coffee-houses, to the Foundling Hospital – where mothers would deposit unwanted babies, and Whitechapel’s Magdalen House for penitent prostitutes.

Cruickshank makes the point that prostitution was vital to the Georgian economy, key to the development of London and the flourishing of its art and architecture. It’s a unique angle to take, and one that makes Georgian art and architecture glitter in a fascinating, albeit somewhat seedy, new light.