Posts Tagged ‘Jewish’

Earth and High Heaven

May 17, 2017

If life has its ups and downs, then life with two children has its UPS and DOWNS. I was going to begin with some of the laughably low points, but I found myself repeatedly pressing delete as I realised what grim reading they make – revolving around various combinations of poo, sick, boobs, and tantrums. And then the ups are all so saccharine – they make for even grimmer reading! So instead, here’s an UP which has nothing to do with children.

Many of you will know how much I adore and admire Persephone Books. Their smart, secretive dove grey covers hide a multitude of delights, and I’ve written about many of them here.

So what an up it is to have my name inside those very dear grey covers!

Earth and High Heaven 1

I was beyond honoured to write the Preface to Persephone Books’ newly republished Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham, a little-known Canadian writer. It’s about a love affair between a Jew and a Gentile during the Second World War in Montreal. It interrogates how we treat migrants, misogyny and anti-semitism while being an unputdownable story of love against the odds. I urge you to read the book; and to further the cause, here is my Preface in full:

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Earth and High Heaven 2The first time I read Earth and High Heaven, I kept on turning back to the beginning; I must have read the opening sentence at least a dozen times. As Marc and Erica’s story of love against the odds grew increasingly desperate, I was ever keener to clutch at a tiny piece of hope in the phrasing of the first line:

One of the questions they were sometimes asked was where and how they had met …

Surely, I pleaded, the ease with which Graham uses the plural ‘they’ and the casual turn of phrase imply a well-established couple, fondly looking back to when they first met. This was my shard of hope, and yet, as soon as Graham offers it, she withdraws it:

… for Marc Reiser was a Jew, originally from a small town in northern Ontario, and from 1933 until he went overseas in September, 1942, a junior partner in the law firm of Maresch and Aaronson in Montreal, and Erica Drake was a Gentile, one of the Westmount Drakes.

The hopeful ‘they’ swiftly unravels. Moreover, we are given Marc’s potted biography in sharp contrast to the concise description of Erica – ‘one of the Westmount Drakes’ – and we cannot help but fear the improbability of two people from such different worlds ending up together.

From the first sentence, Graham sets up a will-they-won’t-they tension that hooks her readers in agonising uncertainty until the very end of the book. A contemporary reviewer described it as ‘Romeo and Juliet in Westmount’, a parallel which isn’t lost on the novel’s protagonists. When Marc and Erica hear birdsong during their first weekend away together, Marc says: ‘Romeo and Juliet had a nightingale but all we get is a whippoorwill.’ Erica corrects him:

“Incidentally, it was a lark, not a nightingale – remember?”

She repeated softly,

“‘It is the lark that sings so out of tune,

Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.’”

 Shakespeare’s lark is ‘so out of tune’ because, unlike the nightingale, he heralds the coming morning. Romeo and Juliet’s first night together will also be their last, so it’s no wonder the birdsong is full of ‘harsh discords and unpleasing sharps’. With this doom-laden omen called into play, we can’t help but worry that Marc and Erica’s time together will be similarly snatched away all too soon.

Graham’s choice of clans for her star-crossed lovers – Reisers and Drakes, Jews and Gentiles – is especially potent given the book’s timing. Written in 1944 and set two years’ earlier, rarely has the plight of the Jews at the hands of the Gentiles been so keenly felt.

Her decision to write so overtly about Canadian anti-Semitism was, however, both brave and unusual in the contemporary political climate. In the Canadian academic Max Beer’s study of Montreal’s response to the Holocaust, he argues that in order to avoid charges of anti-Semitism, which was becoming associated with Hitler, ‘the plight of European Jewry was camouflaged, hidden in a language that did not specifically mention the Jew’. So, for instance, Canadians argued against ‘refugees of Europe’ emigrating to Canada, rather than calling them Jews. Beer points out that the Canadian Jewish Community helped with this camouflage. They worried that ‘too much emphasis on Jewish suffering in Europe would lead not to sympathy but to an anti-Semitic backlash’, so the specifically Jewish nature of Hitler’s target was ‘sublimated to a theme that spoke of universal suffering under the Nazis’. After Kristallnacht, the editorial in the Montreal-based Canadian Jewish Chronicle argued:

To-day it is the Jews who have been reduced to serfdom, decreed into helotry, made lower than the worm. But to-morrow? … To-morrow it will be the Catholics, the Protestants, all Christians whose doctrine of love is anathema to the savages who have sprung up upon the seats of the mighty in Germany.

The international press was also complicit in masking the specifically Jewish nature of the Holocaust. During the War, the front page of The New York Times mentioned Hitler’s targeting of the Jews only six times, and the discoveries of gas chambers in 1942 were confined to the back pages.

In Earth and High Heaven, Gwethalyn Graham defies this oblique treatment of the Holocaust. Marc tells Erica about his cousin, ‘shot trying to escape from a concentration camp’, and Graham has a habit of ominously referring to the ‘pre-war’ figure of sixteen million Jews, implying the devastating decimation which was ensuing. She also shows the appalling extent of anti-Semitism in Canada, listing the various Montreal establishments that ‘don’t take Jews’, and even compares it to Nazi Germany, when Erica challenges her father with:

“We Canadians don’t really disagree fundamentally with the Nazis about the Jews – we just think they go a bit too far.”

Why, in a climate of reticence, and in what is ostensibly a romance novel, was Gwethalyn Graham bold enough to confront the plight of the Jews head on?

Graham believed that writers ought to engage with contemporary politics. In 1945, when an interviewer asked about her taste in reading, she declared that Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a searing critique of Soviet Communism, was ‘the greatest novel of the last ten years’. From her first published article in 1936, “Women, Are They Human?”, which argued for the rights of married women to work outside the home, to her letter to the Montreal Gazette in 1960, protesting at the Canadian Prime Minister’s support of South Africa’s readmission to the Commonwealth, Graham’s writing reflects her life-long concern with social injustice.

Her biographer, Barbara Meadowcroft, describes Graham’s childhood ‘in a home where international events and social issues were discussed round the dining-room table’. Graham’s mother, Isabel Erichsen-Brown, helped to organise the Equal Franchise League to campaign for votes for women in Canada, then joined the League of Women Voters, which educated women on public questions. In the 1930s, Graham and her mother helped Jewish refugees and welcomed them into their home in spite of widespread anti-Semitism. Her father, Frank Erichsen-Brown, was a barrister who supported his wife’s causes; once, when an all-male audience was heckling a suffragist speaker, he silenced them then urged them to listen to her ‘extremely important message’.

Clearly, Gwethalyn Graham grew up with an awareness of social issues, and a sense of moral justice, for which she knew how to fight. She had also spent some time in Europe, when she attended a Swiss finishing school, and again in 1938, when she went to England, France and Switzerland following publication of her first novel Swiss Sonata, which drew on her experience at the finishing school. Swiss Sonata is set in January 1935, at the time of the Saar plebiscite; the school acts as a miniature League of Nations, with tensions rife between pupils from many countries and of different religions.

So Graham was more attuned to the problem of anti-Semitism than many of her fellow Canadians, but perhaps the reason for such a passionate argument against it can be found within the pages of Earth and High Heaven itself.

When Erica first meets Marc at her mother’s cocktail party, they immediately have an ease with each other, a feeling of connection. In the course of their conversation, Erica asks Marc where he lives and he tells her about his ‘awful’ rooming house. Erica suggests an alternative, but Marc dismisses it because, he says, ‘the janitor told me they don’t take Jews.’ This has a profound effect on Erica, as she realises how often she’s heard casually anti-Semitic remarks and seen signs against Jews ‘in newspaper advertisements, on hotels, beaches, golf courses, apartment houses, clubs, and the little restaurants for skiers in the Laurentians’. She reflects that ‘until now she had never bothered to read them’ because, as she explains to Marc:

‘You see, the trouble with me is that I’m just like everybody else – I don’t realize what something really means until it suddenly walks up and hits me between the eyes. I can be quite convinced intellectually that a situation is wrong, but it’s still an academic question which doesn’t really affect me personally, until, for some reason or other, it starts coming at me through my emotions as well. It isn’t enough to think, you have to feel …’

This is the great moment of awakening to injustice for which Graham prepares us in her epigraph from A.E. Housman’s collection of poems A Shropshire Lad. She quotes the moment when the speaker goes from ‘I slept and saw not’ to becoming aware of:

Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation –

Oh why did I awake?

The words could just as easily be voiced by Erica, and also by Graham herself. Following a short and disastrous first marriage, Graham – like Erica – had an affair with a Jewish lawyer. Like Erica, she wanted to introduce this Jewish lawyer to her father, and, as in the novel, her father refused to meet him. Graham’s affair didn’t last, but her friend Joyce Tedman Austin described it as an ‘overriding passion’; her sister argued, however, that Marc Reiser wasn’t based on any particular affair, rather that ‘every man Gwen dated seemed to be a Jew’. Whoever is right, at some point a love affair with a Jewish man induced a similar moment of awakening in Graham, directing her passion for social justice towards Canadian anti-Semitism in this novel.

earth and high heaven

Gwethalyn Graham does not, however, confine herself to the Jewish cause. As soon as she has set up her opposition of Jews versus Gentiles, she complicates it. She shows that Montreal’s Gentiles are split into English and French Canadians – a divide to which Graham would return in Dear Enemies, her published dialogue with Liberal politician Solange Rolland, in which they sought a greater harmony between the two groups. Graham shows how English Canadians are further split along class lines:

[Erica] got a job as a reporter on the society page of the Montreal Post and dropped, overnight, from the class which is written about to the class which does the writing … she had ceased to be one of the Drakes of Westmount and was simply Erica Drake of the Post’.

She also stages the perennially complex power play between men and women – noted in details, such as Erica’s irritation when her friend René orders lunch for her in a restaurant, and explored more deliberately, as when her father tries to persuade Erica to leave the Post in favour of the family company:

As a woman you can just go so far, and then you’re stuck in a job where you spend your life taking orders from some fathead with half your brains, whose only advantage over you is the fact that he happens to wear trousers.

Graham’s Montreal is not just a city divided between Jews and Gentiles, but one split by numerous, complex, jostling rifts. As Vicky, the thoughtful Canadian heroine of Swiss Sonata, reflects, ‘Isn’t it funny how people will subdivide themselves, no matter how little space they have?’

Graham sets up so many divisions in order to point out the paradox of how they are at once utterly meaningless, and devastatingly meaningful. At one of the novel’s crisis points, Erica’s mother – who, in a show of solidarity with her husband, refuses to meet Marc – asks Miriam, Erica’s sister, what she thinks of him. Miriam replies:

I can’t tell you what Marc’s like, except that he’s the same kind of person as Erica, he’s the other side of the same medal. They just seem to belong together, that’s all.

It is an intriguing image. Marc can be ‘the other side’ of a division to Erica, and yet they remain part ‘of the same’ thing. It encapsulates Graham’s urging us to look at the greater unity beyond petty divisions. Crucially, Miriam refuses to describe Marc: ‘I can’t tell you what Marc’s like’. Instead of the wealth of prejudiced generalisations with which Marc is burdened, and which cause these divisions within society, Miriam lets him speak for himself.

In Swiss Sonata, the headmistress reflects on her own shortcoming when it comes to understanding the girls:

One’s theories remain intact only so long as one generalizes from ignorance, and avoids particularising from knowledge.

In Earth and High Heaven, time and again, Erica attempts to persuade her father to stop generalising so that he might see Marc as an individual, not as a Jew:

‘But we’re not talking about “Jewish lawyers”,’ said Erica. ‘We’re talking about Marc Reiser.’

Erica is sensitive enough to realise that she too suffers from this affliction. When Marc tells her about his brother David:

She kept trying to dismiss the feeling that something about Dr. David Reiser did not seem to fit, and then, suddenly angry at her own evasiveness, she swung around and deliberately faced it. Her surprise was due to the fact that Dr. Reiser did not sound like a Jew.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect about our habit of seeing individuals through generalisations is that the person suffering from the discrimination can become complicit with it. Towards the end of the novel, Marc’s brother David tells him that when he was passing through Montreal, he decided to look up the Drakes to ‘see what it was all about’. After months of not being allowed to meet Erica’s parents or even set foot inside her home, Marc is astonished as David describes how he called for Erica and had a drink with her father. David tells him:

The point is that it takes two to play the game Drake was playing, and he couldn’t have got away with it at all if you’d behaved like an ordinary, intelligent human being, instead of like a Jew with an inferiority complex.

The critic Michèle Rackham calls this suggestion that Marc is partly to blame ‘unsettling’. It is, but it is also empowering. For if Marc is partly to blame, then he is also partly able to put it right. Rackham draws our attention to Marc’s lack of agency in the book, from when he stands around like a piece of furniture at the opening cocktail party, to when he tells Erica that, in spite of being a lawyer, in Montreal he feels he ‘can’t change anything’. Rackham argues that Marc is cast as the helpless Romantic heroine, whereas Erica – or ‘Eric’ as she is often called – is the hero, in her androgynous clothes, with her job at the Post, and her role as something of a ‘surrogate son’ to Charles. In that case, the great turning point of the novel is when Marc finally understands that he is in part to blame, that his actions aren’t meaningless, and so he can in fact be an agent of change. Gwethalyn Graham urges us not just to see other people as individuals but moreover for us all to act as individuals, rather than carrying on along the ‘particular groove’ society carves out for us.

earth and high heaven

The timing of Erica and Marc’s affair is precise: the four months from June 1942, when they first meet at a cocktail party, to September, when Marc is drafted abroad. Throughout the novel, Graham draws our attention to time passing, noting, for instance, that Marc and Erica talk to each other for half an hour at the opening cocktail party, and repeatedly highlighting the clock in Erica’s father’s office. This sense of time ticking is heightened by the War, which we hear rumbling relentlessly in the background, imbuing each moment with added urgency.

Yet Graham also shows us how time can be seized and stretched into something quite different. Each moment Marc and Erica spend together pushes against the boundaries of time as meted out by Erica’s father’s clock, and, conversely, every moment apart feels insufferably long. After their second meeting, they arrange to meet on the Wednesday for dinner, only for Marc to phone and ask to see Erica that very night instead. In showing us a love which refuses to be bound by time, Graham also gives us a love which is timeless.

It oughtn’t be a surprise to find that the novel retains its power. For how many of us reading Earth and High Heaven today, in a different continent, in a different century, feel that we know an Erica and a Marc, or indeed that there is an echo of Erica and Marc’s situation in our own? When it was first published, the novel was a hit not just in Canada, but it topped the American bestseller lists, was translated into eighteen languages, and sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide. Its international success is testament to the story’s universal appeal, which is what Samuel Goldwyn must have seen when he bought the film rights for $100,000, planning to cast Gregory Peck and Katherine Hepburn as Marc and Erica (though, alas, the film was never made).

Since the Second World War, societies have grown infinitely more diverse, and yet we still all know people from different backgrounds who, like Marc and Erica, have struggled to be together in the face of prejudice – whether they practice different religions, are from different classes, or have different shades of skin. Gwethalyn Graham wrote Earth and High Heaven to confront the divisive prejudices that were all too prolific in Montreal in 1944, but – sadly – her call to arms resounds just as urgently in Britain today.

Gwethalyn Graham

Hanns and Rudolf

August 12, 2015

You’ll be pleased to hear that life at Emilybooks has improved since the last post-disastrous-holiday post. Much time has been spent making the most of Britain’s lovely sights and cooler climes. While the husband was away at a stag weekend, Vita and I summoned a few pals for a trip to Eastbourne for fish and chips on the beach and a squizz at the Towner Gallery, where there’s an excellent William Gear exhibition – you can read Rachel Cooke’s intriguing review of it in the Observer here. (We were all ready to fight any menacing seagulls who so much looked at Vita.) Another weekend, Vita resided with her doting grandparents while the husband and I disappeared off to a wedding in Scotland, and nearly reeled ourselves sick (at least I think it was the reeling, I suppose it could have been the whisky), and then, last week, another doting grandparent took us all off to a sunny spot in Gloucestershire, where we had a glorious time, not least when we attempted to inspire Vita to live up to her name by looking around the beautiful gardens at Highgrove. I had to restrain her from tugging the heads off the flowers, which I take to be a sign of great promise.

Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas HardingIt was on the train up to Scotland, luxuriating in the heaven of not having to entertain a baby for the four and a half hour journey, that I read most of Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding. This book did terribly well when it was published a couple of years ago and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, in part because he has a new book coming out this autumn.

Thomas Harding traces the stories of his great-uncle Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who fled Berlin for London in the 1930s, and Rudolf Höss, who became the Kommandant of Auschwitz. Harding explains why he was so drawn to the story:

In my comfortable north London upbringing, Jews – and I am one – were cast as the victims of the Holocaust, not its avengers. I had never really questioned that stereotype until I fell into this story. Or, to be more accurate, it fell to me. This is a Jew-fighting-back story

Although a great deal of the book is taken up with a trajectory with which we are familiar – Aryan German from humble beginnings flourishes under the Nazi regime and acquires a great deal of wealth as he persecutes the Jews versus rich Jew managing to escape to London just in time even though this means losing most of his money and having to start again – Harding continues the story and shows what happens when the tables turn. Hanns Alexander joins the British Army and then works for the War Crimes Investigation Team; Rudolf Höss flees Auschwitz, separates from his family and goes into hiding while his family suffers acute poverty. Before long, Hanns is tasked with finding Rudolf, so we see the hunter become the hunted and vice versa. As Harding says, we see the Jew fighting back … and winning.

Hanns and Rudolf is exciting. Harding tells his story using alternate chapters – one focussing on Hanns, the next on Rudolf – and it is fascinating, sickening and gripping in equal measure to watch their lives spin out in such different directions while being pulled along by the knowledge that they will come together at the climax. It is, as it says in the puffs on the cover, ‘a thriller’.

Except, of course, it isn’t. It’s a true story; the true story of a terrible episode in our history. Hanns and Rudolf is not a novel based on, or inspired by, real events, it is the raw truth itself. Throughout his book, Harding reminds us of his tale’s truth – the prose is thick with facts, heavily illustrated with photographs, and there are many notes detailing his research at the back – but he tells it with a keen eye for the tale itself. He presents the facts in thriller form, and thereby renders history as story.

This certainly makes Hanns and Rudolf a good read. The problem is I think that, morally, this story ought to be a terrible read: a grim heavy book that makes you feel the full horror of the six million Jewish lives lost during the Holocaust. Perhaps Harding has hit on something when he talks about how rare it is to find a ‘Jew-fighting-back’ story rather than a Jew as victim story, and no doubt it is this which lends the narrative this element of a thriller, earning cover puffs from John le Carré and Frederick Forsyth. Also quoted on the cover is Max Hastings in The Sunday Times, saying the book ‘deserves a wide readership even among those who think they are bored with the Holocaust’. I think it is not OK to give being ‘bored with the Holocaust’ as an option, but perhaps there is something in this … If people really are bored with the Holocaust as presented in appropriately grim heavy books, then maybe this is why this book – a thriller – did so well. It is a very troubling idea to get one’s head around.

Even more troubling is the extent to which Harding’s storytelling prowess makes the reader empathise with one of his main characters. Rudolf.

Take this, for instance. Rudolf has just met Himmler, who’s told him it is time to implement ‘the Final Solution of the Jewish question’ at Auschwitz and that millions of people will be sent there to be killed:

Rudolf returned to Upper Silesia with mission in hand, but no clear idea how to achieve its objective. He knew he would not be able to kill enough prisoners using Phenol injections, and shooting them would not work either. Not only were bullets expensive but, from his time overseeing the executions in Sachsenhausen, Rudolf learned that executions have an emotional impact on firing squads – resulting in excessive drinking and increased suicide rates – and therefore could not be scaled up to any large degree.

Part of the solution was found two months later when Rudolf’s thirty-nine-year-old deputy, Karl Fritzsch, told him about an experiment which he had recently completed. Fritzsch had thrown some Zyklon B granules – used at the time to exterminate the camp’s vermin – into a small cell in Block II holding a group of Russian prisoners. After waiting only a few minutes, he had observed that all the prisoners had died. There were two problems, he said. First, only a few prisoners could be killed at a time; and second, they had to carry the bodies out by wheelbarrow, which caused shock and anxiety among the other prisoners. Rudolf suggested that if they used the old crematorium on the other side of the block buildings, and adjacent to the villa where he lived, they would be able to kill more prisoners. There would also be an on-site solution to the problem of disposing of the bodies.

Reading this as I type it makes me feel sick. Here is Rudolf coldly discussing the most efficient means of implementing systematic mass murder. It is hard to admit to this, but when I read this terrible passage in the course of reading the book, part of me felt: how is Rudolf going to find a solution to this problem that Himmler’s set him? And, therefore, part of me felt: clever Rudolf for working it out. This is a terrible thing to say; I hasten to add that it is all the more terrible for me to say as a Jew, whose great-grandfather was killed in the camps. But such is the power of Harding’s storytelling, that in following Rudolf’s story, I couldn’t help but see his perspective, and feel partly on his side in spite of myself. I was similarly conflicted when Hanns got closer and closer to finding Rudolf in hiding: part of me instinctively sympathised with the underdog and wanted Rudolf to find a means of escape.

I never thought I would find myself seeing the world through a Nazi’s eyes, certainly not the Kommandant of Auschwitz, and yet I did. As Harding detailed the atrocities Rudolf committed, presenting them in the way that Rudolf would have seen them, it was a real effort to force myself out of Rudolf’s head.

Perhaps this is testament to the power of the book and of Harding’s writing, but I hate to think of other people reading the book and feeling a similar empathy towards Rudolf.

In his author’s note, Harding says:

By calling Hanns and Rudolf by their first names I do not mean to equate them. Indeed, it is important to me that there be no moral equivalence. Yet both of these men were, self-evidently, human beings, and as such, if I am to tell their tales, I should begin with their first names. If this offends, and I understand why it might, I ask for your forgiveness.

Here is the real knot of the book: Rudolf is a human being, and Harding enables us to see this. And this is what is so deeply uncomfortable about the book – in encouraging us to see things from Rudolf’s perspective, you can glimpse how the atrocities happened, how it isn’t completely inconceivable for a human to oversee the genocide of his fellow humans.

There is much more to say about Hanns and Rudolf, but I shall restrict myself to just a couple more points.

Firstly, it was fascinating the way that Harding showed the significance of Rudolf’s capture and testimony. During the Nuremberg Trials, many of the Nazis were on the brink of being found not guilty because in spite of the evidence of the genocide taking place, the men denied their knowledge of it. Soon after Rudolf was arrested, he was called as a witness and confessed that at Auschwitz:

At least two and half million victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half-million succumbed to starvation and disease making a total dead of about three million.

He admitted that he ‘personally supervised executions’ and gave further details of the deaths. The following day, Hans Frank, head of the government in occupied Poland, took the stand and for the first time confessed to his role in the atrocities. When asked, ‘Did you ever participate in the destruction of the Jews?’, he replied:

I say Yes. And the reason I say yes is because I have been burdened by guilt for the five months of this trial, and particularly burdened by the statement made by Rudolf Höss.

Rudolf’s testimony was key to getting the other Nazi war criminals to admit to their guilt – in capturing him, Hanns captured many others too.

And the final point to note is that Harding informs us that when so many Nazi war criminals were held in Nuremberg for the trials, ‘the Americans had instructed a panel of psychologists to conduct extensive interviews and tests with the defendants.’ Harding tells us who interviewed Rudolf: Gustave Gilbert ‘a New Yorker born to Jewish-Austrian immigrants’, and Major Leon Goldensohn, ‘a Jew who had been born and raised in New York’.

It makes me wonder, who were the other American psychologists, and what proportion of them were Jewish? Isn’t it extraordinary – and quite ironic – to think of a bunch of Jewish New Yorker shrinks interviewing this haul of Nazi war criminals? Please could someone write a book about this!

Hanns and Rudolf

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

February 27, 2015

Talk about best-laid plans … I had Tuesday set aside to write this, with Vita’s granny coming to look after the terrorbot for a few hours to give me a bit of time and space to think about the finer points of Italian fiction, when what happens? The lurgi strikes! And so most of Tuesday was spent asleep and the days since have been semi-asleep and semi-entertaining Vita, who is sleeping rather less than we’d like. Still, it has not been unpleasant – the husband has stepped in and taken her with him on errands (who needs Gymboree when there’s Leylands?), and even when I’ve been feeling grotty, it is terribly sweet listening to her gurgle. She is busy mastering ‘vvvvvvv’ and ‘fffffff’ and ‘boof’ sounds at the moment. If it weren’t for all the raspberries that intersperse said noises, I would have thought she might be composing her first poem.

So I hope you will excuse yet another belated post.

The Garden of the Finzi-ContinisLast Sunday, the walking book club strode across a windy and weather-worsening Hampstead Heath discussing Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

The book is rather more taxing than my usual picks and there were stirrings of dissent as many walkers complained about Bassani’s never-ending, clause-upon-clause-upon-clause sentences, and how hard it had been to ‘get into’ the book. My heart sank somewhat as I listened to the grumbles for I could only agree – whilst re-reading the novel in preparation for the meeting, I’d spent the first fifty pages or so wondering how I’d managed to misremember this plodding dull novel as being poignant and wonderful.

Luckily, everyone agreed that the book gets much better, and by the time the narrator and Micol are playing tennis, they were all thoroughly engrossed. In fact, they were grateful that the book club had provided an incentive to stick with it, thereby discovering a brilliant, very moving novel that would stick with them forever. I am all for giving up on a book if you’re not enjoying it, but perhaps this is a useful reminder of the importance of giving it a good shot – 100 pages is usually a safe bet – before deciding whether or not to put it aside.

Key to the The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is its structure. It begins with a Prologue and ends with an Epilogue; the main chunk is set further back in the past and feels neatly contained within these formal boundaries. In the Prologue, the narrator visits some Etruscan tombs, which prompts him to remember the monumental tomb of the Finzi-Continis:

And my heartstrings tightened as never before at the thought that in that tomb, established, it seemed, to guarantee the perpetual repose of its first occupant – of him, and his descendants – only one, of all the Finzi-Continis I had known and loved, had actually achieved this repose. Only Alberto had been buried there, the oldest, who died in 1942 of a lymphogranuloma, whilst Micol, the daughter, born second, and their father Ermanno, and their mother Signora Olga, and Signora Regina, her ancient paralytic mother, were all deported to Germany in the autumn of 1943, and no one knows whether they have any grave at all.

Well, you can see why there were complaints about the lengthy sentences …

You can also see that in one sense, Bassani tells us the end right at the beginning, and the grim fate of the Finzi-Contini family falls over the whole book. So this makes us suspect, then, that it’s not going to be so much about the terrible things that history has in store for them – unless Bassani means to totally ruin the suspense – but rather what happens first, what can be salvaged from the precious years before their untimely death, the private story that would otherwise be brushed aside by history’s grand sweep.

The narrator takes us back to his youth, and after a while spent on his early encounters with the Finzi-Contini family, we hit the moment when their acquaintanceship turns to profound friendship. (This is when the book starts to pick up.) The Italian Racial Laws of 1938 prevented Jews from doing all sorts of things, and this is felt in Ferrara not least in Jews being forced to stop using the country club. So the (Jewish) Finzi-Continis invite the city’s young Jews to use their own private tennis court. The narrator comes along to play tennis and is soon in love with the daughter Micol. From this, he develops a bond with the whole family, as he uses the father’s library, and talks politics with the brother.

Bassani makes the book two things at once: a story of the tender pain of first love and a harrowing depiction of the situation of Italy’s Jews in the late 1930s. The personal is entwined with the political. This is easier said than done – it is all too easy to write historical novels in which the context weighs down the story so that you feel like you’re drowning in the author’s research notes (c.f. A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book). With Bassani, however, we are encouraged to think more about the joy of being young in the seemingly enchanted garden of the Finzi-Continis than the politics which get the narrator there in the first place. One walker said she’d had to keep turning back to double-check she’d read it correctly, as she’d been so unnerved by the way Bassani so matter-of-factly dropped in devastating instances of Jewish exclusion from society.

We discussed at length the many images of containment and circles that appear in the book. There are the walls of Ferrara, the walls of the garden, and even the ‘circolo’s – literally ‘circles’ but meaning ‘clubs’ from which Jews are being expelled. I stumbled across this very good essay by Adam Kirsch about the novel, in which he pointed to this quotation from Henry James:

Really, universally, relations stop nowhere and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, a circle within which they appear to do so.

It’s a brilliant quote!

Kirsch argues that Bassani’s very self-conscious structuring of the novel with Prologue and Epilogue is his method of drawing this circle, and the reason it is so laboured (e.g. the Epilogue begins: ‘The story of my relationship with Micol Finzi-Contini ends here.’) is because he is drawing the circumference of the novel ‘in defiance’ of the historical circumference, which ends, as we know, with her deportation to Germany and grave-less death. Bassani is drawing a circle around the precious moments of youth and first love, as a means of defying the greater circle of history.

It’s a neat argument. And yet, however well Bassani has written it as a love story, protecting it within so many defensive circles, history is still glimpsed through the chinks in the walls. For instance, when the narrator pauses on his bicycle:

I stopped beneath a tree – one of those old trees, lindens, elms, plane trees, horse chestnuts which, a dozen years later, in the frozen winter of Stalingrad, would be sacrificed for firewood, but which in 1929 still raised their great umbrellas of greenery high above the city’s ramparts.

In something as innocent as a tree, we are given a flash of the horrors that are to come.

Short, unlaboured moments like this litter the text, jolting you out of the oasis of youthful romance, and making the narrator’s loss of innocence all the more poignant for being in the context of the world’s horrific loss of innocence. The mentions of historical context feel artfully oppressive, as though the walls are closing in and the world will soon implode … as indeed it will.

As we walked across the Heath and looked down on London below, I thought that this feeling of the book was similar to the feeling I had when walking through Lucca – the Italian walled city (not unlike Ferrara), where Emilybooks spent a blissful couple of months last year. As you walk through the streets, you can never completely lose yourself in the city as the walls are always there surrounding you. You meander along, wiggling and winding and thinking you’re lost and then all of a sudden there’s the wall. It vanishes only for a moment before reappearing in the distance as you enter a square, or there at the end of an alley. When you’re in the city, you are never free of its walls. So, as we walk through his novel, Bassani never lets us entirely disappear into the love story – like the city walls, history is never out of sight for long.

The next walking book club will be a Daunt Books Festival special – discussing the wonderful Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns as we wander through Regent’s Park. You can book your place (as well as get tickets for all the other talks) here.

Giorgio Bassani

The Innocents

January 28, 2013

Literary celebrations abounded over the past week. Today is the two-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, which has given rise to many Janeites sporting period costumes and also to this great article in the Guardian – I particularly liked Paula Byrne’s thoughts on Lydia as a proto-feminist icon. Tuesday was Byron’s birthday – the poet, not the burger chain (although I discovered to my horror that when I google Byron the burger chain comes up before the poet).

The InnocentsBut my reading this week was predominantly steered by Edith Wharton’s birthday on the 24th. Instead of picking up one of her classic novels, I decided that now was the time to begin The Innocents by Francesca Segal, a reimagining of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in contemporary Jewish Northwest London.

Although I work in a bookshop in the heart of Jewish Northwest London, I kid myself that I have escaped the confines of the community in which I was raised. There was the first seminal moment when I was kicked out of Jewish Sunday school for repeatedly eating Frazzles – it’s just bacon flavour, not actual bacon, little smart arse me protested; I then forwent my Batmitzvah, choosing cello lessons over Hebrew for my after-school activity. Since then, the rebellion has continued in such acts as refusing to go on Israel Tour, moving to East London, marrying a Goy and regularly eating actual bacon, not just Frazzles.

And yet there are some things I have not left behind. Friday Night Dinners are now but once a month, but are still a time for a family get-together and Granny’s chicken soup with matzo balls. And there are the frequent patrons of the bookshop who know me as ‘Georgina’s girl’, or ask me about married life, or tell me how beautiful they hear my wedding dress was – all people who know rather a lot about me, even though, other than to sell them books, I’ve not seen them since I was a child.

I happened to be selling books at a talk Francesca Segal gave a while ago to a largely Jewish Northwest London audience. She talked about how mad it was that someone would phone up her mother just to say she’d seen her (Francesca) in Waitrose. She talked about how everyone is obsessed with everyone else’s news and gossip, how everyone knows of an engagement within seconds. An elderly Jewish lady raised her hand to ask a question: ‘I see you’re wearing a wedding ring. Who is it you’re married to? And what does he do?’ It was absolutely perfect!

While a close-knit community brings with it a wealth of support, it can also seem intensely claustrophobic, and it is with this that Adam Newman – the protagonist of The Innocents – struggles to come to terms.

We meet Adam soon after his engagement to Rachel Gilbert, his girlfriend since Israel Tour, over a decade ago. He is already part of the Gilbert family in everything but name – always coming on their annual holiday to Eilat, a staple at their Friday night dinners, a well-practised chauffeur and errand-runner; he even works for Rachel’s father’s law firm.

Into this perfectly contained little set-up, strides Ellie Schneider in vertiginous heels. She is Rachel’s cousin, a vulnerable, beautiful, very thin, New York model, who – it’s rumoured – has just starred in a porn film. Adam finds himself falling for Ellie, wonders what he’s doing with his life and faces a dilemma: should he escape and break Rachel’s heart, or can he come to terms with such a blinkered existence?

It’s a gripping dilemma, and I raced through the novel, swerving with its twists and turns, desperate to find out what Adam would do next, how the growing mess could all be resolved. I loved seeing Adam be challenged by Ellie again and again, in small acts like walking to the newsagent on her own at night, and staying at a friend’s studio in Bethnal Green:

Bethnal Green was not within Adam’s usual locus of operations. It seemed like somewhere that should be ‘South of the River’, that vague designation that conveyed an essence rather than a geographical truth. Several places felt ‘South of the River’ when they were really north of it – Shoreditch, for example, and her naughty brother Hoxton, places that required satellite navigation and a faint concern over the fate of one’s car during the visit. Like all places that were not contained within the bounds of either Central London or the N-prefixed postal districts, it was out of Adam’s comfort zone.

This perfectly captures Adam’s neurosis, shared by many a Northwest-London Jew. My brothers have never been so anxious as when they came for dinner once when I was living in Stepney. One of them recently refused to meet me for lunch near my flat. (He agreed eventually, after several cross text messages from me, but, he told me, he’d bring his mace.)

While Adam lusts after Ellie for her looks, and her vulnerability makes him long to protect her, he also envies her independence – her freedom to move from New York to Bethnal Green to Paris, to wear the wrong clothes and say the wrong things. His life, in stark contrast, is firmly bounded by what society dictates. Adam tries to inject Ellie’s spirit of freedom into his relationship with Rachel:

He would have to find the means to show Rachel how vital it was that they open their eyes to the rest of the world, for however circumscribed his own horizons might be, Rachel’s were ten times more so. What form this intrepid exploration might take was not yet clear, only that they could, and must attempt it. He had vague thoughts of travel, of literature and of inhabiting broader social circles, knowing all the while that these had always been available to him had he chosen to reach out for them, and in any case did not contain the essence of what it was he craved.

When Adam does try to reach out for them, wanting to go to see an alternative play or visit an art gallery, Rachel firmly resists.

While Rachel is shown to be utterly content in this blinkered, limited world, and Adam, although he struggles, is pretty well adapted to it too, Francesca Segal’s feat is her host of peripheral characters who have found their own alternative ways of living. There’s Adam’s sister Olivia, an eccentric feminist Oxford academic; Ezra, who crops up now and then as an alternative playwright; Nick, the only Jew in the Fens village where he grew up, now an impoverished writer living in Stepney; Ziva, the Holocaust survivor granny, who pockets Bittermints and on Yom Kippur takes a taxi and refuses to fast. Segal shows that being a Northwest London Jew doesn’t have to mean a life like Adam and Rachel’s.

So this isn’t really just a book about Jews. The Innocents is about choosing whether to give up complacency and familiarity in order to venture into the exciting unknown. Adam’s struggle is something with which many people can empathise, for a close-knit community comes in many different guises.

My childhood best friend is Iranian. She knows every other Iranian in London and New York, spent her youth going to very glamorous Iranian parties and yet was filled with terror at the prospect of another Iranian knowing that she ever got drunk, as it was so vital to preserve her ‘reputation’. A great friend from university had a similar experience with her Bengali family and community. Even my ultra-English friends whose families go back to William the Conqueror, experience something of this claustrophobia, in that they all went to the same schools and balls growing up, and are usually god-relatives of each other.

Really, Francesca Segal has achieved something brilliant – The Innocents is an insightful guide to the peculiarities of Jewish Northwest London, told through a story to which anyone can relate.

Do the Reggae

July 19, 2010

I have an awkward confession to make, which some of you might have suspected already …

I don’t really like pop music.

I know that this makes me a real granny.

The problem is that I love lots of classical music (see my post here about making up stories to it, especially to Schubert) and tend to find that whenever I listen to pop music, it feels a bit empty in comparison.

OK, I can hear you screaming. And I’m more than willing to accept that I’m completely wrong and that pop music is a brilliant thing in its own right. But for whatever reason, the fact remains that I just don’t get much out of listening to it.

But Reggae is the exception. I feel a deep connection to Reggae music. A connection which was best expressed in my brief but happy days of being a Reggae DJ, and which was rediscovered on Saturday night when I went to see Toots and the Maytals give a jaw-dropping performance at the Barbican.

When I was DJ-ing Reggae I never stopped to ask myself what it is exactly that makes me love Reggae so much. It’s far more similar to pop music than classical. If anything, the rhythm, riddim (instrumental bit) and chorus, are repeated so many times that I should find it really dull. A huge proportion of Reggae tunes start with a rolling snare drum, such as the marvellous Police and Thieves by Junior Murvin (here on YouTube). How predictable! (Although admittedly, how useful when DJ-ing.) Why doesn’t it bore me to tears? Why do I find that everything in me jumps awake and smiles as soon as that drum roll heralds another brilliant tune?

So I’ve had a bit of a think about it.

The feeling of Reggae is so overwhelmingly positive and, literally, ‘upbeat’. OK, etymologically, ‘upbeat’ refers to a beat of the bar in which the conductor’s baton is raised – which tends to be the last beat of the bar – but there’s something about the beats in Reggae music which always feel so ‘up’, so dancey, so looking forward to the next one.

The third beat of the bar tends to be emphasised, which gives everything a bit of a jiggly rhythm. Pop music feels to me quite ONE two three four. Live Forever by Oasis, is resolutely ‘MAYbe, I don’t REally want to know, how your GARden grows, cos I just want to fly. LATEly …’ The accent’s always on the beginning of the bar.

But in Pressure Drop by Toots and the Maytals, for instance, the guitar does its little ‘ch ch’ on the third beat and the emphasis in the lyrics is often there too – ‘I said WHEN it drops, oh you’re gonna FEEL it, know that you were doing wrong … It is YOU, oh yeah …’ (Here it is on YouTube, which might make those beats a little bit clearer.)

The emphasis just isn’t where it would be in a normal pop song. So it almost trips you up when you’re dancing, but not quite – instead it just gives you a little skip, a little lift, a little jump to your step. This third beat emphasis makes Reggae much lighter than pop music. And I guess it’s always needed to be light, given the heat of Jamaica. Just imagine dancing to it for hours in a Jamaican dance hall!

So instinctively I like Reggae’s cheekiness, its lightness of foot, its fun. It makes you (or at least me and everyone else who piled into the Barbican) unable to sit down or stand still. It makes you feel that you just have to dance.

Then there are the lyrics. Jamaica is all over them. References to places like Kingston Town and Trench Town are scattered throughout, giving rise to a kind of mythical geography of the island in the 1960s.

I first heard mention of ‘Kingston Town’ in Harry Belafonte’s Jamaica Farewell (here it is on YouTube). I was just as sad as him that he had to leave a little girl behind in Kingston-on-Thames when he went off to Jamaica. And I felt slightly proud that I knew a couple of people who lived there; until that point I’d never really rated this peripheral bit of London, next to Richmond. I started calling Kingston, ‘Kingston Town’, until one of my friends who lived there clarified the situation, telling me that there was another Kingston in Jamaica. Then everything fell into place.

But aside from a bit of nostalgia about my Kingston Town naiveté, there isn’t much of a reason to feel a connection to the Jamaica that shines sunnily through the lyrics. I would love to go there – in fact I have suggested it as a honeymoon destination (the fiancé thinks it might be a bit dangerous) – but I’ve never been.

But then there are the other places that are mentioned. The ones like Babylon and Zion that aren’t really in Jamaica. I remember singing Rivers of Babylon by the Melodians (here on YouTube) when I was at primary school. The song made me feel sad. It made me think about being an Israelite fleeing from the Egyptians, being in a strange land and weeping by a river. And I wondered why none of the C of E girls objected to singing a Jewish song all the time.

Of course, when I was older I learnt that the plight of the Israelites was used as a parallel for African slaves taken to strange lands, like Jamaica. I expect Reggae stars would feel a bit annoyed about a white middle-class Jewish schoolgirl thinking that their songs about oppression were actually about her history. But they chose that parallel, and, well, I do relate to it.

Take Bob Marley’s Zion Train, for instance (here on YouTube). Even if I don’t particularly want to get on a train to Holy Mount Zion in Israel, I still understand the somewhat complicated yearning to return to a true homeland, and have some inkling of what it means to be displaced from it.

When I discovered the phenomenal Desmond Dekker, I felt a little glow when I heard his song Israelites (here on YouTube). Yes, he’s singing about me! – I thought. Or, at least, Yes, I have something in common with him.

So that’s why I love doing the Reggae. There’s an instinctive connection to the rhythm – it’s cheeky unexpected emphasis on the third beat that makes me feel happy and dancey and keeps me on my toes. And there’s a slightly more thoughtful connection to the lyrics. Who knew that the Old Testament could be so much fun?

Having people

July 2, 2010

‘He has no people. You can’t trust a person like that,’ says Betty Draper’s father to her husband Don in the hit TV series Mad Men.

And Betty Draper’s father has got a point. Don Draper is the archetypal self-made man. He has come from nothing and shedding his family along the way – he has turned his back on his people. And no you can’t trust him; Don has a series of affairs while telling his wife that he is completely faithful to her, and never mind about his kids.

People without people have usually run away from something, some secret. And, because of this secret, we can’t really trust them.

People trust people who come from ‘normal’, stable families, who live in suburbia, who can come round for dinner parties, who go and stay with their parents over Spring Break. It’s the 1950s suburban American dream.

People who have people deserve trust.

But this is only true for the dominant society. For immigrants, the opposite is the case.

I’m reading the most astonishingly brilliant book at the moment. It really is one of the best books I’ve ever ever read. The Hare with Amber Eyes, by potter Edmund de Waal, tells his family’s story through his inheritance of a set of netsuke – small decorative Japanese objects. (The Guardian gave it a particularly good review which is here, if you’re interested.)

The netsuke first came into de Waal’s family when his ancestor Charles Ephrussi bought them at the end of the nineteenth century. Charles Ephrussi was an extraordinarily wealthy Jew, who lived in Paris. The son of a grain merchant from Odessa, he was an art historian, a great patron of the arts, and a collector. He was friends with Renoir, Manet and Proust to name just a few … There’s a famous story (nicked by Proust) about when Charles gave Manet too much money for a painting of a bunch of asparagus. Manet then sent Charles a painting of a single asparagus stem, with a note to say that one was missing from his bunch.

In this magnificent yet humble book, it is clear that Charles is trying his utmost to integrate himself into Parisian society. He has a salon, attends salons, is friends with all the aristocracy as well as all the artists. All his money is being used to try to fit in. But he is never fully trusted by society – because of his people.

When Ephrussi buys some Moreau, Renoir is disgusted with this ‘Jew Art’. He wrote, of Moreau, ‘It was clever of him to take in the Jews, to have thought of painting with gold colours … Even Ephrussi fell for it’.

De Waal sifts through the anti-Semitic writing of the time, alighting in particular on Drumont, the editor of a daily anti-Semitic newspaper. Drumont argued that Jews, because they were inherently nomadic owed nothing to the State. In de Waal’s paraphrase:

Charles and his brothers, Russian citizens from Odessa and Vienna and God knows where, looked after themselves – whilst leaching the life-blood of France by speculating with real French money … The Ephrussi family certainly thought they belonged in Paris. Drumont certainly thought not.

So here, for the Jews, it isn’t that you can’t trust a person with no people; it is that you can’t trust a person with people. They are loyal to their people rather than to the State.

The dilemma resonates. How would I describe myself, English or Jewish? I’d say Jewish first. And I’m only ‘Jew-ish’ in the Woody Allen sense – I never had a Batmitzvah, I was asked to leave Jewish Sunday school at a very early age (eating bacon-flavoured crisps in Synagogue didn’t go down too well), and I have far more friends who aren’t Jewish than who are. I only go to Synagogue once a year or so, and can only speak about ten words of Hebrew or Yiddish. (And most of them are words like ‘schmuck’ and ‘schlep’ that everyone knows anyway.)

Perhaps I’m more aware of being Jewish than being British, or English, because of the vague anti-Semitism that lurks close to the surface even in London’s multi-cultural world. Certainly, if I’m with foreign people and they say something disparaging about the English, I start getting quite defensively English about it. I suppose if people are going to say nasty things about Jews, it’s going to make me feel quite defensively Jewish.

But where do I stand as a reader?

When I studied English Literature at university, there was something distancing me from a large part of the course. It is a remarkably rich tradition, and a privilege to live in its country, to speak its language, but it was hard to feel excited about Anglo Saxon and Chaucer, and even the Brontes and Austen (you know how I hate Austen), when it felt like a heritage to which I was only really pretending. While all these women were trussed up and prancing around drawing rooms, or taking turns in their grounds, my ancestors were digging up turnips in Lithuania.

And then there is the discomfort of the anti-Semitism which infiltrates a great deal of the canon. Shakespeare is an astonishingly good playwright. Phenomenal. His language still can’t be matched. But what about Shylock? What about the fact that one of his major plays is hideously anti-Semitic?

Yes, it was different then is the old excuse, but still … it hurts to think that all this marvellous English playwright thought of us Jews was that we were determined to get our ‘pound of flesh’.

And then you meet Dickens’ Fagin, called ‘the Jew’ over 250 times in Oliver Twist, who is ‘disgusting’ to look at, a horrid criminal, who brings children into lives of crime in exchange for a roof over their heads. Incidentally, Dickens subsequently made friends with some Jews and proceeded to de-Jew Fagin in later editions of Oliver Twist, and tried to make up for his anti-Semitic stereotyping by placing a few good Jews in Our Mutual Friend. But, frankly, the damage was done. In fact, my cousin wasn’t allowed to be Fagin in his school play because they were nervous of being accused of type-casting.

Well, you can imagine what a special moment it was when I came across Eliot’s Daniel Deronda early on at university. Yes, I’d read Middlemarch – hasn’t everyone? – and yes, I thought it was good – doesn’t everyone? – but I felt that Dorothea Brooke and her life in the Midlands was part of this English tradition to which I felt like a bit of a pretender.

But Daniel Deronda is my perfect book. It is where the English tradition meets the Jews. And, even better, the English are satirised and the Jews come out on top! No Fagins, no Shylocks, but the wise and spiritual Mordecai, Mirah and … well if you read it you’ll find out that someone else pretty central to the book is Jewish too. Of course Daniel Deronda is more drawn towards the mysterious, exotic singer Mirah, than the fickle gentility of Gwendolen Harleth.

Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, Daniel Deronda – Eliot’s last novel – has always met with a mixed critical reception. Everyone prefers Middlemarch. When it was published, there was great consternation at her turning her attention to ‘the Jewish problem’. And perhaps some of the criticism is justified. The Jewish characters aren’t so sharply drawn – they are symbolic, standing for Jewish ideas of inheritance, Zionism and community, rather than existing as strong individual characters.

But for me, this will always be one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It made me see that there was a way of being both English and Jewish, of bringing together the two sides of my life without having to be polarised between them. I could read about Jews without having to read a horrific Holocaust survival memoir or an almost-as-horrific Philip Roth. A phenomenal mistress of the English language managed to write about the Jews, in a positive light, while also writing about contemporary society. It can be done. If only it were done as well, more often.

And if only there weren’t still mistrust of a person who has her own people.

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.

Anachronistic paranoia?

January 27, 2010

So I didn’t give you the full story, when I said I went to a friend’s for dinner in South London on Saturday night. We didn’t just have dinner. We also played a game called ‘Germans in the Dark’.

Germans in the Dark is a game that I used to play when I was a child, whenever our family went and stayed with my grandparents, who lived in the countryside and had a very big garden. My brothers, cousins, occasionally a grudging parent, and I would excitedly charge up Grandpa’s practically antiquarian torch, longing for it to be dark enough outside to play. The game is essentially a version of 40 40. Everyone runs off and hides, while one remaining person – the German – counts to a hundred before coming to look for them, with aforementioned torch. Everyone who is hiding has to try to get back to the home base – which was a large metal gate – without being caught by the German. If the German sees you, there then ensues a race back to the base; if you touch it first then you’re safe, if the German does then you’re caught. But, even if you are caught, there’s still the hope that someone else will reach the base safely, and in so doing, automatically free you.

I grew up thinking this was a game that everyone played. Like 40 40, or It, or Stuck in the Mud. It was only very recently, when I suggested to some friends that we should play – we’d got bored of Sardines – that I realised it was unique to my family.

On Saturday night, after dinner, I explained the rules. It wasn’t quite as seamless an explanation as the one above, because there were several interjections. In fact it went a bit like this:

Me: Everyone goes and hides and then the person left behind – the German – comes looking.

Others: What? That’s mad. So we’re all the Jews, hiding from the Nazis?

Me: Well, yes, I suppose so. But, well, you could be black, or gay, or just English, or anyone else who Hitler didn’t like.

Others: So what happens when the Nazis find you? Do you get sent to a concentration camp?

Me: No. Then you race back to the home base – that can be the sofa – and you’ve got to try to get there first or —-

Others: The home base? So is that Israel?

Others again: No Israel wasn’t around then. It should be Switzerland.

Others: Ok, I see. So we all have to hide in the attic and then try to get to Switzerland.

You get the picture. Essentially, it became clear to me that I’d spent years of my life playing a game that was a sort of make-believe-fleeing-the-holocaust drama. Of course, when I was a child, I didn’t really process all of that. It was just an exciting game. In the dark. With a really big torch.

Rules eventually explained, the game, on Saturday, began. I raced upstairs and hid in a wardrobe, making myself as small as I could and covering myself with clothes. There was a lovely smell of washing powder. To start with, it reminded me of that bit in Midnight’s Children, where Salaam is hiding in his mother’s laundry basket. Then I heard my friend coming up the stairs hunting for everyone. He was shouting out, ‘I’m coming to get you! Where are you hiding? Where are you all, my little Jews?’ And he put on a German accent.

I heard him enter the room where I was hiding. And then a rather unexpected thing happened: I felt scared. I could hear him pacing around the room, calling things out, looking under the bed, opening the doors of the other wardrobe. Any second now, I thought, he’ll open this one, and then he’ll have found me. I could feel my heart drum inside me – almost down to my feet.

The door opened and I held my breath. A hand came in and ferreted around. It touched a shirt that was covering me, pressed down on it through to my arm hiding behind. You’ve got me, I almost said, almost bursting out of there to try and win the unwinnable race down to the sofa – Switzerland. But I didn’t. Something in me wouldn’t move at all. And then the hand withdrew, the wardrobe door banged close, and he was moving away, running out of the room towards footsteps we could both hear on the floor above.

I inhaled. I couldn’t believe that somehow he’d missed me. I almost thought he might just not have said anything so that he could have a head start in the race to the sofa. Once I was sure I could hear him moving around upstairs, I crept out of the wardrobe, down the stairs and into the living room, where I sank, relieved, into the sofa.

It was just a game. How utterly ridiculous that I was scared! But, now I try to understand that fear, I think the game tapped into a much bigger problem that I have …

The thing is, I am scared of the Holocaust. Still. Despite the fact that it happened over sixty years ago. This is because I am absolutely certain that I wouldn’t have survived.

I am bad at hiding. I have bad luck – it would be typical for me to sneeze when the Nazis were standing under my attic. When I would, inevitably, have been sent to a concentration camp, I would not have lasted more than about a day. A week at most. This is because I am always getting sore throats, I am very weak (my arms are practically concave where the muscles should be), I am hungry all the time, and I need lots of sleep. I am also not very good at being told what to do. And I can be a bit tactless. None of these would have got me out of there alive. And my great-grandfather was worked to the bone, made to dig his own grave, and then was shot. So there is a precedent, in my family, for not making it.

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, the sixty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a day to remember the atrocities which happened, listen to the survivors’ stories, learn from their testimonies. The Guardian has a good article pointing out why this is so important.

One of the most charming (I know that seems inappropriate) stories I’ve heard was retold by Linda Grant, the brilliant writer, at a talk she gave back in October. She related the story of an old Jewish lady she met when researching her latest book The Thoughtful Dresser. I apologise for any inaccuracy, but as far as I remember, the story went like this:

The lady was, and always had been, incredibly fashionable. When she was sent to a concentration camp, she couldn’t bear the sexless striped outfits and compulsory shaving of heads. Determined to do something, she cut a strip off the bottom of her uniform and tied it in a bow around her head. When the guards came to inspect them, one of them said to her something along the lines of, ‘Was ist das?’ And she sweetly, naively, replied, ‘I wanted to look pretty for the inspection.’ Her cheek charmed the guard enough to send her off to help in the kitchens. And so, because of the bow, she survived.

Now that wouldn’t have happened to me. I’m not very good at tying bows. And I would have got the humourless guard who would have spat on me, or far worse.

Every now and then, I think about what would happen if … and I feel utterly panicked. Playing Germans in the Dark just brought on one of those moments. I wasn’t caught that time, but in real life I wouldn’t have been so lucky.

I have termed this worrying ‘anachronistic paranoia’. It is so completely out of place, out of time, to be scared of the Holocaust, sixty-five years after Auschwitz was liberated. There are other instances of anachronistic paranoia too. I remember learning about the First World War at school and being genuinely terrified that my brothers would be called up to fight and would then be killed. And it’s not just me: a friend told me she used be scared of German bombers flying over London.

So why is it that there is this fear about things which happened decades ago? I think we’re scared they might happen again.

Wars still go on. 251 British troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. This war may be on a completely different scale to the First World War, but young men are still going to fight and are being killed. And Holocausts still happen. Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia … all instances of genocide on horrific scales.

I’d like to think that the fact I’m Jewish would never be counted against me, certainly would never be a cause for me to be rounded up and murdered, but anti-semitism, upsettingly, still abounds.

I rarely come across blatant prejudice against Jews – probably because most people know I’m Jewish. Just like most people who are slightly homophobic wouldn’t admit to it to their ‘gay best friend’. It is usually more subtle than that. A wry comment here, a joke in slightly bad taste, a glib criticism of ‘all those Jewish people who are destroying Palestine’.

I was appalled the other day when a perfectly respectable-looking gentleman came into the bookshop, bought two or three reasonably weighty hardbacks, engaged in friendly chit-chat, before picking up a book called Is it Good for the Jews?, laughing and then saying, ‘God how ridiculous. The thing that Jews should really ask themselves, is “why is it always us?” There is a reason, you know.’ It took me a while to process it. I couldn’t believe that a well-educated stranger would make an anti-semitic remark to another stranger while buying a book. I said nothing. My colleague, who was putting all his books in a bag, passed them over and agreed with him. I expect it was just out of politeness. He left before I’d had time to think of a suitable comeback.

I’m not sure why I was so taken aback by that exchange. On reflection, that particular situation seems to be pretty typical of the anti-semitism that I come across. It’s a kind of unstated assumption that a huge number of people have, ‘Oh yes, those Jews. Rich, moneyed, clearly up to no good, but we’re not really supposed to talk about it.’ Instead of overtly stating their prejudice, they veil it in comments like this, said to me when looking at Freefall – the new book by Nobel-prize-winning liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz: ‘Ah Stiglitz. He has the sort of name where you just know he’s going to be stinking rich. A bit like Goldman.’

The worst thing is that I don’t often have the nerve to respond. In that instance, I wish I’d said something like, ‘Aha, yes, of course! Such Jewish names! Well, as we’re all in a conspiracy to take over the world, it’s not surprising they’re minted.’ Instead, I get overcome with a cripplingly English – and not at all Jewish – embarrassment and awkwardness. I go silent, and red, and think, ‘Oh I wish they hadn’t just said that. I’ll sort of pretend not to have heard.’

And it’s that terribly British, terribly polite, embarrassment, the quiet getting on with the conversation and not stamping the prejudice out of people’s minds, that means that anti-semitism, albeit far watered-down from the Nazi version, is still rife in Britain today.

And, with anti-semitism still a presence, how can I help but feel a bit scared when hiding in a cupboard, hearing somebody traipse upstairs shouting German, pretending to look for Jews? How can I not help but worry, if it were to happen again – because it doesn’t feel completely impossible – that I wouldn’t survive? Perhaps what should be just anachronistic paranoia, isn’t that anachronistic or paranoid at all.