I was sitting on the uptown express on what used to be called the Lexington Avenue Line, and now has some alien number assigned to it by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, when a great truth (you get a lot for your 90 cents on the subway) was revealed to me. The truth came in a remark made by Heinrich von Kleist: ‘One could divide people into two classes, those who understand themselves by metaphor, and those who understand themselves by formula. Those who understand themselves by both are too few to make up a class.’ Suddenly I understood not only what I was doing there and why, but also what I had been doing for years. I belonged, of course, to the metaphor people and Kleist had made me see that mine was Henry James’s ‘The Jolly Corner’. This is the story of Spencer Brydon, in his mid-fifties, who has spent 33 years abroad enjoying ‘the freedom of a wanderer, overlaid by pleasure, by infidelity’, running away from ‘the ugly things of his faraway youth’. The death of his two brothers had left him heir of two New York properties and he has come ‘home’ to attend to them, ‘or, expressing it less sordidly, he had yielded to the humour of seeing again his house on the jolly corner, as he usually and, quite fondly, described it, the one in which he had first seen the light.’

He also owns another house not quite so splendid but very lucrative. Another self, an alter ego, the billionaire that he might have become had he stayed in ‘monstrous’ New York, begins to emerge as he negotiates the contracts on his property development project. The house on the jolly corner he leaves empty of furniture, but filled with the ‘impalpable ashes of his long extinct youth, afloat in the very air like microscopic motes’. As the other property turns into an apartment block, Brydon finds himself obsessed with the idea that his alter ego is still in the empty house on the jolly corner and begins to spend his evenings walking the echoing corridors and standing in flickering candle-light in the dusty vacant spaces of his childhood. One terrible night he finds that the roles have been reversed. He had frightened the ghost: now the ghost begins to frighten him. He cannot escape, for the ghost confronts him, a grizzled, sad figure, face covered by his hands on one of which two fingers are missing. Brydon faints and awakes in the arms of the woman who, he now realises, had always loved both selves, the one he had become and the alter ego.

This was my story, the story of a New Yorker who had run away, who ‘had so long and consistently neglected everything’. Even at the age of 22, as a PFC in the US Army, I knew that I wanted to live in Europe, which the chances of army life had shown me, and that I was not going back to New York. I knew too, but did not admit it, that I was running away, just like Spencer Brydon.

I had been to New York many times since 1956 but never to the New York where the ghost might be and in later years never alone, never sure enough of myself to enact the supreme self-indulgence that a trip to the jolly corner implied. But there was that dream which came to me again and again. I was in New York and delighted. ‘I’m really here,’ I would repeat to myself over and over: but suddenly I would notice that it was my last day. I had to leave and had not called all the people whom I ought to have called. A terrible anxiety would seize me, and I would awake in a sweat of discomfort.

A chance remark of a good friend in January of this year made the difference. Her father is in his nineties. ‘You had better go soon,’ she said, ‘if you want to see people.’ A few weeks later I became 50, the age that I had incorrectly remembered as that of the hero of ‘The Jolly Corner’. I reacted badly to being 50 and felt like calling the manager to complain that a terrible mistake had been made. How could little ‘Jonny’ Steinberg be 50? The trouble was the manager was not in her office.

On impulse I rang People Express and booked a seat to New York in early April. As soon as I saw the Manhattan skyline my dream returned. ‘You’re really here; you’re really in New York.’ That was Monday. It took me to Wednesday to find the guts to go back to the old neighbourhood. My jolly corner was 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue, where the family had lived from 1933 to 1956. Mother had moved while I was in the Army: the last time I had been there was 29 years earlier. As the Third Avenue bus approached 86th Street, my insides tightened. This was it. I got out and walked towards Lexington and stood at a once familiar corner. Part of it was gone. The Walgreen’s drug store where, as teenagers, Richard and I had tormented Louie, was gone, replaced by a huge, white, faceless department store, as was the jewellers where I had stood for hours desperately wanting those hideous rings with heavy red and purple stones in them. In almost every other way Lexington Avenue between 86th and 92nd Streets was uncannily the same. There, on 87th, was the Immanuel German Lutheran Church with its main entrance opposite the huge, ornate, gloomy tenement with outside fire-escapes on the other side of the street. Braun’s liquor store was still there and the neon light still did not work. Paulding’s drug store was still on 90th, but on ‘my corner’, Picker’s drug store was gone, dear Mrs Picker, who patiently took dirt out of little boys’ eyes and got splinters out of hands and who took me, aged nine, to the doctor the day, playing German officer, I cut my thumb to the bone trying to make a monocle out of a pair of old sun-glasses.

There, looking utterly as I remembered it, was 145 East 92nd Street. I climbed the steps that I had crawled on as a baby and bounded over as a teenager and noticed for the first time that, in that way typical of pretentious New York apartment buildings, the entrance was flanked by Doric columns. The arched door handles, the fanlight over the door, the wrought-iron balustrade with polished brass railings, the white marble floor broken by long stripes of grey marble slate, the walls – all exactly, exactly, the same. Even the ornate US mailbox at the bottom of a chute that rose 12 stories, which had enchanted me as a child, was the same, as was the tiny, white elevator button, the rattling oak-panelled elevator and the different but equally incompetent elevator man.

In a mixture of German and English, for he spoke Russian and Polish, I failed to convey to him why I wanted to look at the door of Apartment 4C but got him to take me there anyway. Afterwards I sat in the lobby for a long time and, as at a grave, felt a welling-up of tears and grief, of memory and of an intense urge ‘to go home’ just once more: but the familiar stones were not home nor was the elevator or the balustrade. Dad has been dead for 34 years and Mom for 14, and little Jonny is gone too. I sat for half an hour quite paralysed with grief. There were no ghosts in my jolly corner, just an unspeakable sense of loss. Then after a familiarly artificial-tasting chicken-salad sandwich with coleslaw, at the unfamiliar price of $3.75, at a new little restaurant – alas, Hahn’s delicatessen with its huge turkey sandwiches on rye overflowing with lettuce and Russian dressing was gone – I visited my old school and walked the empty classrooms. I passed the room where, in 1950, I fell in love simultaneously with Linda Gaines and Thomas Morley’s ‘Now is the month of Maying’. I don’t know what became of Linda; I still love Thomas Morley. I stood in the room where Lucile Kohn, false teeth clicking, had tutored me in Latin and remembered the awful embarrassment which I felt in the presence of this ancient maiden lady when we tried to do Catullus together, rumpled sheets and all. I looked out of the window onto the familiar view of Central Park in the empty classroom where I had spent senior year and heard the voices again.

Then I left. In the subway downtown I thought ‘that’s that.’ I have been to the jolly corner: no ghosts but lots of grief. But I was wrong. My real jolly corner was not where I thought it was. As Spencer Brydon finds out, the ghost is not in the little room upstairs but blocking his way in the foyer.

The jolly corner was the Park Avenue Synagogue, 50 East 87th Street, where my father, Milton Steinberg, had been the rabbi until his death, and where my real alter ego was waiting, though I did not know it. Father was a very special rabbi, and his death so young (I am now four years older than he was when he died) left a nimbus time has not dimmed.

On Friday evening I had decided to go to evening prayer and on the way I stopped by to see Dr and Mrs Druss, the parents of my oldest friend, Richard, whom I first met when he was three and I was two and a half. I can remember meeting him. He had on a blue duffle coat with a hood and I coveted it. The Drusses lived then and still live at 145 East 92nd Street in Apartment 2B. As I sat sipping ginger ale in what had been Richard’s room, I felt at home. The Drusses had decided to accompany me to synagogue, an act for which I can never be grateful enough. Like the guardians in The Cocktail Party, they walked on either side of me down Lexington, across Park and up to the familiar façade.

I cannot imagine why prosperous German-Jews in the 1920s should have re-created the Alhambra as their idea of Jewishness but there it was, covered in its filigree and marble. As I reached for the heavy handle in the huge dark doors, I felt my knees wobble, and then, once again after more than thirty years, perhaps the 33 of Spencer Brydon, I was in that familiar place, reciting those Hebrew words of which I had strangely not forgotten a single one. There was the organ loft, a kind of Arabian heaven behind the ornate façade and painted light blue; there was the small square pulpit made of white marble and inlaid with little bright red, green and blue mosaics; there was the button under Daddy’s chair which lit two lights under the balcony to summon the ushers. I used to love that button as a child.

The assistant rabbi was new. The cantor was new. The people I had known were now windows. ‘In loving memory of Milton Weill,’ said one. I was wearing the watch he had given me on my 21st birthday. Tillie and Ezra were now windows, so was Sanford Cohen; everybody I had known was a window. Not quite. Half-way through the service, a familiar round figure passed us going down the main aisle. Ruth Druss whispered in my ear, ‘It’s Mrs Hahn’ – Mrs Hahn of the lovely turkey sandwiches, the round beaming face, the round body. I remembered Mr Hahn, equally round. Their two faces like lovely moons smiled at our antics from behind glass counters.

The massive hymn, ‘Adon Olam’, which proclaims the eternity of God, struck me as never before with its confident assertions. What happens if you don’t believe all of them or any of them? Does it matter? Then the ancient ‘mourners’ kaddish’, a prayer so venerable that it goes back to the popular language of ancient Israel, Aramaic, and has been sanctified by millennia of grief. It seemed to my swimming eye to be written in tears.

After the service my guardians took me to the front under the pulpit. Mrs Hahn looked at me for a long time and then burst into tears and we hugged each other, weeping. What else is one supposed to do? I greeted the new young rabbi who told me that when I walked in, he had said to himself, ‘Funny how that man looks like Milton Steinberg,’ but decided he was seeing things.

Under that pulpit, in that place, was my ‘property’ and my ghost. How often had I heard as a boy the phrase, ‘Will you be following in your father’s footsteps?’ and how often had I resented it? I looked at that pulpit and knew its feel. I knew what James meant when he said of Spencer Brydon that he ‘had so long and consistently neglected everything’.

On the plane back home, I reread ‘The Jolly Corner’ in a dog-eared second-hand copy in which Miss Ann Gillin had recorded in a childish hand the symbols pointed out by her instructor, and felt a tremendous sense of gratitude to dear, old exasperating Henry James. He may not, as Quiller-Couch nastily remarked, have really understood that conversation on the manor house lawn, but he knew his Americans to the core of their romantic souls.

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