5 October 2011

Emanuel Litvinoff (5 May 1915 – 24 September 2011)

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I think it was in 1992 that I first met Emanuel Litvinoff. I had for some time been aware of his marvellous memoir of Jewish Whitechapel, Journey Through a Small Planet (1972), but I had never found a way of including a discussion of it in the book I was writing about East London at […]

I think it was in 1992 that I first met Emanuel Litvinoff. I had for some time been aware of his marvellous memoir of Jewish Whitechapel, Journey Through a Small Planet (1972), but I had never found a way of including a discussion of it in the book I was writing about East London at that time. When that was finished, and published as A Journey Through Ruins, I found myself employed as a feature writer on the Guardian. This gave me the opportunity to follow up on various unexplored threads of interest. Going through the cuttings files, I realised that Emanuel had once written quite regularly for the Guardian, but it was by leafing through the telephone directory that I discovered that he was still alive and living in Mecklenburgh Square, a grand if rather bombed and pulled-about place along the eastern fringe of Bloomsbury, which had once been home to the great classical scholar Jane Harrison, to the Imagist poet known as H.D., and to Virginia Woolf too. So I phoned him and went along for a visit.
I found him living in a small one-bedroom flat on the third floor of a building that was used to accomodate overseas postgraduate students studying in London. It was a surprising situation, and I remember wondering how many African revolutions had been planned in this apparently sedate setting. But, as Emanuel explained, some of these flats had come up for rent in the 1960s and he’d been there ever since. On one occasion he suggested we went out for some lunch, and we walked across to the admirably named Goodenough College, a student residence on the south side of the square, and ate, as Emanuel appeared to do quite often, in the canteen. We talked quite a lot over the years, and I kept building up the article that I had originally meant to include in A Journey Through Ruins.
The first version appeared, under the silly title “Ghetto Blaster”, in the Guardian Weekend in March 1993. The second was included in Iain Sinclair’s anthology London: City of Disappearances in 2006. A year or so later, I finally got round to completing it. The opportunity came when Litvinoff was approached by Penguin, who wanted to publish a new edition of Journey Through a Small Planet, this time as a ‘Modern Classic’. The idea had apparently been mooted by another admiring Penguin writer, but Litvinoff was adamant that I should be responsible for the introduction. He wanted an account of his life and work that did not confine him either to the Jewish East End, which he had been all to happy to leave in 1930s, or to his well known confrontation with T.S. Eliot. Penguin might have been expecting a page long preface, but our editor there, Marcella Edwards, was tolerant of the length of the introductory essay that followed. I hope it does Emanuel some justice, and shows how a serious writer can have a highly accomplished and also important life without conforming to the stereotype of the literary author – even, for that matter, when another man’s name appeared on the cover of some of his books. Litvinoff didn’t mind describing himself as a failure as a writer, although not without a smile and a quotation from George Orwell – that “every life feels like a failure from inside”.

A couple of years ago, Joey Rubin, an American writer and “private intellectual” who was then studying with me at the London Consortium, wrote a dissertation about Litvinoff and his post-war engagement with the theme of European Jewry. Earlier this year, a version of this was published in Critical Quarterly.

My own obituary appeared in The Times on Monday 5 October 2011. The (slightly improved) text follows:

Emanuel Litvinoff, who has died at the age of 96, is perhaps best known for his memoir of the Jewish East End into which he was born, the son of recently arrived Russian émigrés, in 1915. Written in the 1960s, Journey Through a Small Planet has accurately been described as a “memoir-in-stories”. It testifies to the teeming world that was once crammed into a few streets around Brick Lane in Whitechapel. The Jewish settlement was only yards from the City of London, but “people spoke of Warsaw, Kishinev, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa as if they were neighbouring suburbs”. It was a world of absent men, many of whom had returned to Russia in the First World War, encouraged by the British authorities to enter the Tsar’s army. Litvinoff’s father was among those who were never seen again. The sound of the sewing machine with which his mother supported her four sons remained with him for life.
Having repeatedly failed the scholarship examination that might have opened more conventional prospects, Litvinoff drifted downwards. By the mid-thirties, he was wandering the streets with dreams of becoming a great writer. Coleridge had his opium, but Litvinoff owed his first poem to intoxicating fumes from a furniture factory glue pot. He also set out to produce an epic novel which would match the American Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and The River. He had to reach for a dictionary when the Bulgarian born writer, Elias Canetti , who moved to London from Vienna in 1938, visited him in his room on the Finchley Road and described him as a “schizophrenic” writer.
When he volunteered for military service, Litvinoff saw the coming Second World War as a straightforward battle against Nazi evil. However, his view was complicated by a shocking event that occurred in 1942, when he was serving with the Pioneer Corps in Ulster. An old cargo boat named the Struma had left Romania in December 1941, packed with nearly eight hundred Jewish men, woman and children, desperate to escape the Nazis. After breaking down at sea, the ship was towed into Istanbul harbour. Its passengers hoped to travel overland to Palestine, but they were forbidden to disembark unless the British agreed to admit them to Palestine. The British authorities in London rejected their request and, after weeks of deadlock, the Struma was towed out into the Black Sea and left to drift. A day later, on 24 February 1942, it exploded and sank, leaving only a single survivor.
It would emerge, much later, that the Struma had been torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. But for Litvinoff, the British were responsible. The disaster “blurred the frontiers of evil” in a way that left him reluctant to describe himself as “English”, or to seek the kind of assimilation achieved by other Jewish writers in Britain. After the war, Litvinoff found work as a ghost writer for the popular Anglo-Jewish writer, Louis Golding. In the most interesting of these works, To the Quayside (1954), he takes Golding’s characters (who were accustomed to a comparatively genial life in the pre-war suburbs of Manchester) and propels them through the traumas of the Holocaust and the early years of the new state of Israel. In his own books, Litvinoff would pursue the same wider European story. The Lost Europeans (1960) is concerned with a number of Jews who go back to Berlin soon after the Second World War. His trilogy, Faces of Terror (1968-75), tells the story of the Russian revolution and its aftermath, retold partly through the lore of Jewish anarchists in Whitechapel.
In England, Litvinoff became known as a questioning, sometimes abrasive figure. His most famous collision with the mainstream occurred in 1951, when he challenged T.S. Eliot for allowing some of his anti-Semitic lines to be reprinted in a new selected edition of his poems. Such attitudes may have been more or less commonplace in England before the war, but Litvinoff was outraged to see them reprinted without adjustment or comment after Auschwitz. He returned to the issue of English anti-Semitism in the novel The Man Next Door (1968), which follows the campaign of mayhem and murder unleashed on the family of a successful Whitechapel lingerie manufacturer (‘Alluriste Ltd.’) who moves into the English countryside to become the neighbour of an unemployed and crazed vacuum cleaner salesman.
Having found his cause, Litvinoff became a campaigner as well as a writer. In 1956, he and his first wife, Cherry Marshall, who then ran a successful fashion modelling agency, decided to widen the repertoire of “cultural diplomacy” as it was then being conducted between Britain and the Soviet Union. At one of their parties, the actor, David de Keyser, who had just returned from visiting Moscow with the Old Vic theatre company, announced that women in the USSR had ‘absolutely nothing’ in the way of fashion, and were ‘starving for a glimpse of the western world’. Enquiries followed, and when the Russian Chamber of Commerce in London declared itself enthusiastic about the idea of staging a British catwalk in Gorky Park, Marshall and six of her models boarded a plane, quickly dubbed “Cleopatra’s barge” by the onlooking press. The show was a spectacular success, but Litvinoff, who had squeezed himself onto the delegation as Marshall’s “business manager”, had other business to attend to.
He had been approached by the Dr Nahum Goldmann, the recently elected President of the World Zionist Organisation, who asked him to take a letter to the Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Frustrated in his attempts to deliver this missive through the British embassy, Litvinoff made his own way to the city’s main synagogue, where he found the Rabbi hemmed in by goons and muttering platitudes about how marvellous Soviet Russia was for its Jews. Meanwhile, starved and ragged figures tottered on the steps outside hoping for charity – these spectral survivors whispered of Siberia, reminding L:itvinoff of other recent instances of Soviet anti-semitism: Stalin’s murder of Jewish writers and intellectuals, the blatantly anti-semitic trial of Slansky in Czechoslovakia, and the alleged “Doctor’s Plot” of 1953. Horrified by what he had seen, Litvinoff came home and launched the international campaign for Soviet Jewry. In 1958, he published the first edition of the newsletter that came to be known as Jews in East Europe, which he edited for years from an office in Fitzrovia. The journal, which was assembled with information from Israeli sources, traced the persistence, or resurgence, of ancient blood libels in various parts of the USSR, and the loathsome campaigns against ‘parasites’ and ‘cockroaches’. Litvinoff devoted much energy to arguing his way through the suspicions of those who thought any criticism of the USSR was a concession to Western anti-Communism. In 1973, he served as a witness at the Paris prosecution of the editor of the Soviet embassy’s French- language publication U.R.S.S., convicted of ‘incitement to racial hatred and discrimination’. As he wrote then, the persistent of anti-semitism among extremists was one thing, but its “resurrection as an instrument of policy” by a great power formally opposed to such discrimination, seemed barely credible.
Litvinoff was close to the Zionist cause, and yet here too he remained a man of independent judgement. In 1966 he visited Israel for a symposium of Anglo-Jewish and Israeli writers, and argued fiercely with Moshe Shamir and other Israeli writers who promised that Israel would “liquidate” the diaspora, and that no Jew could be anything but rootless outside Israel. When the assault moved on to insist that Hebrew must replace Yiddish, as if the latter was merely a debased victims’ language, Litvinoff spoke up for the Yiddish he had known when growing up on Brick Lane: “a yeasty language, alive with experience of sorrow, exile, the knockabout humour of the market place”. His more or less friendly argument with Israel continued into his last novel, Falls the Shadow (1983). Here Litvinoff adopted the theme of the Nazi Jew, already familiar in popular fiction. His book tells the story of a Nazi murderer who has escaped to Israel and apparently become a model citizen. The novel was written not long after the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in Lebanon, and there was no Israeli edition.
For Litvinoff retirement meant sitting in a small flat high up on the east side of Mecklenburgh Square, itself at the eastern edge of Bloomsbury. He lived here with his second wife Mary McClory – having long since managed to secure this unlikely perch in a building otherwise used to accommodate overseas post-graduate students studying at the University of London. He enjoyed looking out into the plane trees, which had once inspired the American Imagist poet Hilda Doolittle, who lived in this London square during the First World War. When asked why he had put down his pen after completing Falls the Shadow in the early eighties, he declared that he had always found writing books very wearing, and he had worried that the strain of another might kill him. He had good reason to preserve his energies. In 1986, and to his own delighted astonishment, he and Mary had a son, Aaron. So he spent many afternoons in the square garden, watching children play and smiling, as he did a lot in his last years. He lived to see Aaron graduate earlier in the summer.

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