November 8, 2008
Emanuel Litvinoff: Journey Through a Small Planet
The more I write about books on this blog, the greater grows my awareness of the huge gaps in my reading. I had never heard of Emanuel Litvinoff until I saw that this book was to be reissued by Penguin Modern Classics. (He is still alive, born in 1915 and retired from writing in the 1980s. How we wish other writers would show the same restraint.) Even then it didn’t much interest me: a memoir of Jewish childhood in London’s east end? I stood in the shop and tried the McLuhan test. As I finished page 69, I found myself unthinkingly turning to page 70. Sold.
Journey Through a Small Planet isn’t quite the book I was expecting. The cover shows Litvinoff in 1972, the year of its publication, revisiting the East End of his youth, and for some reason (probably that, as usual, I skimmed the blurb) I thought the book would be an account of this journey. In fact this is dealt with briskly in the brief Author’s Note.
As we proceeded on foot through the once familiar streets the change was startling. Clumps of Muslim men stood aimlessly on corners and there was a curious absence of women. Shrill, eerie music wailed in the heat of the afternoon. The odour of spices mingled with the stench of drains. Skinny little girls with enormous, solemn black eyes sat on doorsteps nursing babies.
This Islamification of the area shocks Litvinoff – in his youth it was the Jewish quarter – and in the 35 years since the book was written, the areas (Spitalfields, Hoxton, Brick Lane) have undergone further development, into boho gentrification. The book takes us into recollection of its, and his, past.
Litvinoff’s parents were Jews who fled Russia in 1914 to settle in America -
The tailors thought of it as a place where people had, maybe, three, four different suits to wear. Glaziers grew dizzy with excitement reckoning up the number of windows in even one little skyscraper. Cobblers counted twelve million feet, a shoe on each. There was gold in the streets for all trades; a meat dinner every single day. And Freedom.
- but they never got there (“a laconic ship’s officer said that anybody but a miserly lot of Jew-spawn would know the money they’d paid wouldn’t cover the fare on a decent river-ferry, never mind passage to New York”), and so they stalled in England, in London, and become part of a community where “people spoke of Warsaw, Kishinev, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa as if they were neighbouring suburbs.”
But his father returned to Russia, and Litvinoff found himself an orphan. “Fathers – what I’d seen of them – were not much of a bargain.” In return, in the book he imagines his father’s past in London, as a member of a passionate but incompetent revolutionary group, and working for a tailor when Germany invades Belgium in 1914:
Mark [Golombek]‘s blood boiled at the outrage to peace, but it wasn’t a worker’s war and he didn’t intend to stand for it even if it meant plenty of overtime making khaki. In the pocket of every soldier’s tunic that passed under his hissing iron was inserted a handwritten leaflet. Sometimes it read: ‘Refuse to fire on your German brothers! Unite for Peace!’ Sometimes, under pressure, the message was even more inflammatory: ‘Turn your guns on your real enemies! Down with bloodthirsty capitalism! (Signed) Workers’ Committee for International Unity’. In addition to Mark, the Workers’ Committee consisted of Gurevich, the glazier, and Cohen, the upholsterer.
“Cohen’s principal value to Gurevich,” we learn, “was that he provided a majority when it was necessary to outvote Golombek.”
This opening chapter is a tour de force: imaginative, surprising, real. The book thereafter brings Litvinoff’s own life into close-up, and the detail of real life inevitably brings it down to earth somewhat. But this is a book which lives and succeeds both by its subject matter and its writing – unlike, say, The Grass Arena – and Litvinoff makes his memories live.
In the Jewish quarter where he is raised, “religion was a kind of family affair, to be treated with irony and ambiguity.” His neighbours define themselves by their religion but do not submit to it unquestioningly. Ambiguity is all over their lives: Litvinoff’s people feel at once secure in their ghetto, but also trapped by it. His ‘uncle’ Solly cries, “It’s like living in a bloody madhouse!” His mother responds, “So, the door is open. Go live in a palace.” A comic play succeeds among the neighbours “because it made people laugh and cry and remember the past, all at the same time. And even though one always heard how bitter everything was in the past, the old people were still crazy to relive it.”
Anti-semitism is dealt with, like much in the book, anecdotally, along with apprenticeships (“I’d be dressed up like a man of forty cut off at the knees”), school conflicts (“there was a hole in my stomach like a hundred-foot drop”), flirtation with Communism, and the ever-present ephemera of youth. This lightness of touch is balanced by the substantial material surrounding the text, which makes this edition a triumph of publishing for Penguin and an object lesson in how to reissue a book, how to give it the modern classic treatment, with loving care. Journey Through a Small Planet itself takes up only 150 pages of a 250-page book – the other 100 include other material from Litvinoff, such as ‘A Jew in England’ which does deal with anti-semitism more directly, a short story ‘The Day the World Came to an End’, uncollected poetry, and best of all, a 40-page introduction by Patrick Wright which does fulfil my early expectations by taking Litvinoff back to his beloved East End in the 1990s.
The book received some press attention with an interview in the Guardian, but otherwise it seems a shame that a wonderful reissue like this, the very essence of what publishers of ‘modern classics’ should be doing, has gone otherwise unremarked. This is one example that gives me hope for mainstream publishing, against the odds. In this, and in the enrichment offered for such a low price, I was reminded of another passage. Litvinoff recalls his neighbours’ love of the Irish Sweepstake, its vast winnings and impossible prospects. “Women misappropriated shillings from their housekeeping to buy tickets.”
All without exception expected enrichment. The one thing you had to say about our people, we never lost hope. Not entirely.