Praying for an end

Michael Hofmann

  • Scenes from a Disturbed Childhood by Adam Czerniawski
    Serpent’s Tail, 167 pp, £9.99, October 1991, ISBN 1 85242 241 6
  • Crossing: The Discovery of Two Islands by Jakov Lind
    Methuen, 222 pp, £14.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 413 17640 1
  • The Unheeded Warning 1918-1933 by Manes Sperber, translated by Harry Zohn
    Holmes & Meier, 216 pp, £17.95, December 1991, ISBN 0 8419 1032 4

These books are the autobiographies of three displaced persons. In terms of anno domini, they might make up a single, almost seamless life: childhood (Czerniawski), youth (Sperber) and manhood (Lind). But such a life would be a monster of contradiction. Two of the authors write in their acquired language, English, and one has been translated from German; two are individualists, one is a subscriber to causes, a disciple and a belonger; two are (rather dissimilar) Jews, one had a Catholic upbringing; two fetch up in England, one in France. I will be Anglocentric and begin with the English.

One of the points made in the coverage of Maastricht was that for the English, Europe is traditionally a place from which bad things have tended to come, invasions and rabies and so forth. Dover presents white cliffs rather than a Statue of Liberty. So protected, the English have remained relatively inviolate, the most settled and exclusive of peoples, enjoying the baffling and specialised condition known as Englishness, a thing at once glorious and unserious and – almost its first definition – eminently worth defending. It’s a strange thing, then, in these days of the double opt-out and a Home Office policy so ferocious towards asylants that it has broken the law, to read the accounts of two men coming to England as a refuge and a new home, written in English by men born in Warsaw and Vienna. Czerniawski and Lind came here in the first post-war decade, and are – to me oddly and blithely – unconcerned about questions of entry, residence and nationality. (Lind marries an English girl who seems hotter than he is on the matter of aliens gaining work permits; Czerniawski drily describes the efforts of Ernest Bevin to get him and his family repatriated, ‘now that Stalin has re-established independent Poland’.)

Perhaps, on balance, it really was a more decent age than the present. I remember a Glasgow immigration official telling me, just turned 16 and half-way through the hermetic world of Winchester, ‘to register wuth the poleece’, notwithstanding Common Market and all. I had to wonder what Cerberus at Dover would now swallow Lind’s declaration of love for the English language, or Czerniawski, a Pole among Poles, to his consternation nicknamed ‘the Englishman’ in a camp in Gaza by a naive teacher. These books might almost suggest assimilation is possible, and Englishness an elective condition. You only have to want it badly enough. Perhaps the wicked Continent is full of Englishmen in spe?

Scenes from a Disturbed Childhood is the most modest of the books, and in some respects the most successful. Czerniawski has been prevailed upon, initially by a Radio Three producer, then by his publishers (it seems that writers, to their credit, usually need to be talked into writing their autobiographies), to tell the story of his childhood. In English terms, it is an extraordinary story; in Polish terms, it is one of a number of representative stories, and none the less interesting for that. Accordingly, and quite rightly, Czerniawski is writing it twice over: one version in English, perhaps from outside, deadpan, passive; and one in Polish, more intimate, more detailed and historical, I would hazard. Adam Czerniawski was born into a grand bourgeois family in Warsaw in 1934. When the war broke out, the family fled first East, where his father, by then mobilised, managed to get into Romania and join the Polish government-in-exile; then, unavailingly, West; and finally back to Warsaw. In 1941, just as Hitler turned on the USSR, permission came for the rest of the family, the author, his sister and his mother, to leave, which they did by way of Vienna and Budapest. They reached Sofia in Bulgaria only by the freakish chance that their urgent appeals to a Mr Zlotarev were misdirected to a man of the same name who happened to be Deputy Foreign Minister. The family was reunited in Istanbul, and spent the rest of the war in Turkey, Lebanon and the British Protectorate of Palestine.

This is where Czerniawski ended up spending five years – the remaining five years, one is tempted to say – of his boyhood. Names like Jerusalem, Ramallah, Tel Aviv and Beirut appear in the narrative, all touched with a strange innocence: the main action was still elsewhere. And yet, if anything, the region was even more riddled with ironies and tensions than it is now, because of the imposition of so many Europeans and their conflicts. At the same time, violence was not so readily available as a solution. A Polish Army was being set up in Palestine, and Jewish settlers from Poland found themselves living alongside emaciated hymn-singing Poles released from Stalin’s camps. The young Czerniawski learned Hebrew and Arabic, and had to mind his p’s and q’s in both. Historical and racial strife were filtered down to the boy in striking linguistic and cultural brushes: ‘I now have a long trek to the Polish school in Montefiore Street. Outside the gates at break time Arab ice-cream vendors bawl out Polish obscenities in the mistaken belief acquired from the schoolchildren that these words describe the colours and flavours of their wares. The school functions six days a week, and as I march there on a Sabbath with my prominent school satchel, I get stoned by Jewish children.’ To a Polish reader, some of these complications must be familiar – from other reading, if nothing else. To the English they are an education in the ironies of history.

Czerniawski’s progress through Scenes from a Disturbed Childhood is full of such little coloured sidelights. It is sensible, unquestioning and intrepid. There is no psycho- or emotional stuff, no playing to the reader – only some very English downplaying – no heightening or false embellishment. His use of the present tense throughout is astonishing and masterful. It acquires something provisional and modest – only the past tense claims to tell you everything. It is like a puppeteer’s present, which makes safe, makes small and points up. I wonder if I have ever read an autobiography which makes so little Tamtam about the author; it is almost like an autobiography without the hero, enclitic, just Horatio or just Pylades. Events in Warsaw, for instance, he describes in a few pages of short quotations from a variety of sources – family members and politicians, soldiers, ambassadors. Some of the best lines are his sister’s, an indication of some selflessness. One or two chapters have at the end of them small sections of ‘random memories’ of his own, a generous feature and more authentic than expanding them and incorporating them into his main text. And conversely, bits of that text leap out at you for their beauty, memorableness and suggestive power. Returning to bombed Warsaw in 1940: ‘The cactuses on the balcony were covered in snow. Under the snow they were green but they collapsed like punctured balloons when the snow was removed.’ That seems to me to be worth pages and pages of description and analysis. Similarly, a novel or play might be spun from this, about his father, a tobacco importer in peacetime, and now stuck in the Middle East and not allowed to fight: ‘With time on his hands, he works on a tobacco blend agreeable to the palate of Polish troops and designs a board game based on the map of Europe, with Polish soldiers fighting their way to Warsaw on every front.’

So somehow, for circumstantial historical reasons, Czerniawski has wound up in England. The fact that he is a Polish poet, and translates Polish poetry into English might prompt one to situate him just offshore – where a ring of translators is working to defend England from foreign culture – but that would be unjust. In the English version of his memoir, at any rate, his Englishness is comically and consciously apparent. He describes his assimilation lectures of 1947: ‘Now and then chaps from the British Council arrive to explain the British way of life to us.’ Asked whether he feels homesick for Poland, he replies, having recently moved house in England, that what he really misses is Gloucestershire. In most cases of this kind, one’s practical allegiances don’t survive a period much longer than ten years.

Jakov Lind was 27 when he came to England, and having knocked around a bit, he was more purposeful about it (there are two previous volumes of his autobiography, called Counting My Steps and Numbers). What influenced him was the outcome and conduct of the war, which he, a Jew, had experienced at first hand, in Austria, Germany and Holland. As his friend Michael Hamburger wrote, ‘no wonder Jakov Lind has become a specialist in the monstrous!’ The Continent was insupportable, he couldn’t live in Israel, indomitable Churchillian England was the place for him. And yet what brought him over was the most egregious misunderstanding of the nature of the English language which had beckoned to him as a child: ‘Because of this discrepancy between spoken and written language, I had the impression that anyone could speak or write it; it was a free-for-all and not just made for Englishmen and Americans, Australians and Canadians. English seemed to know no rules and had a grammar one could apparently learn in four or five easy lessons.’ I think English is exactly the opposite. Far from being without rules it is full of them, unwritten and unspoken for the most part, and the rules are full of exceptions. It is a language meant to discourage and to betray, full of class-traps, attitude-traps and provenance-traps. It is ruled by usage, the Queen and Pseuds’ Corner, a language you use at your peril. He has many shrewd observations to make on England and the English: their sober mentality and love of ghosts, their pity for foreigners, their disapproval of anyone trying too hard, their utter incomprehension of Europe, the essentially negative qualities such as incuriosity and anonymity that make up for the want of such positives as, say, cafés. He has two lovely anatomies of individual Englishmen: the first, now deceased, the tobacconist who absolutely insists he is closed and refuses to serve his customer; the second, the odd, Coleridgean type who cadges a drink after hours and the next day denounces the publican to the police.

The burden of this volume of Lind’s autobiography is the way he came to have a literary career, something he seems to have mixed feelings about, to say the least. To be someone in German post-war literature occasions him guilt and even repugnance. Twenty years after the original, sensational publication of Seele aus Holz (Soul of Wood), he refashioned himself as an English writer – since 1982, he has been writing in English. It is a long way to have to go, and even then, it isn’t far enough. Lind seems uncommonly liable to wonder at the nullity of things – money, drugs, sex, success, America, the list of Martin Amis titles. They have come to him and he enjoys them, but at the same time, in some deep way, he wishes they hadn’t. Crossing is the book of an unhappy Midas, a man unable to come to terms with this century and what he has done himself in order to adapt and survive in it. It is sloppily written – as though it might have been dictated – with little pride or joy. His books, typically, are barely mentioned, and the violent imagination that he displays in them – the golden touch – is absent here. The only rhythmically convincing passage is this:

The publishers. The readers. The editors. They thought I could write. I thought I could write but now I see I can’t write a line. I’m dumbfounded. I am silent. I’ll never write another line. I’m finished. Fifteen thousand dollars have blocked my veins. I’m as good as dead. I’m burned out. I’m through. I’m busy, very busy, staring at the ceiling, praying for a global catastrophe that’ll end it all.

Even if it was only said for effect, you know it’s true anyway. Lind reminds me of another tall, handsome emigrant with a taste for the monstrous, cosmic disgust and taedium vitae: George Grosz. Crossing is an unintentionally shattering read.

George Grosz provides the cover for Manes Sperber’s The Unheeded Warning, but the match is not one of temperament, merely of chronology. Sperber, born in 1905 and died in 1984, an Adlerian psychologist, engagé novelist and publisher, is the most formidably gifted of these three autobiographers, and the present volume, the second in a trilogy called All Our Yesterdays, is a rich piece of work reflecting the early years of an energetic and precocious young man. ‘Even today I am able to re-experience the beginning of every friendship I have made since my youth.’ His book is spontaneous, sincere and exhaustive. His method is self-analytical: he not only recreates the past, he interrogates his own role in it. It is demanding to read – and is written in a formal, three-piece style that is respected by the translator Harry Zohn.

Not the least part of what interests me in Sperber comes from the fact that he was born ten years after the novelist Joseph Roth, and that his life follows the same movements as Roth’s: born in a village in Galicia, came to Vienna as a child, went to Berlin in the Twenties, visited the Soviet Union, and went into exile in France. Almost inevitably, then, The Unheeded Warning describes many of the things familiar to me from Roth’s books: the Europe of the time, cloven between Bolshevism and America; crowd scenes and demonstrations; the faddishness of Berlin, ‘the most recognition-happy city in the world’; the spies and other sinister types that washed up there. Unlike Roth, though, Sperber was an ideologue and a believer, a ‘Marxist Adlerian’, he calls himself. From a very committed position, he catches all the dynamics of the myriad groupings of the time, the remote-controlled German Communist Party, referring to Moscow as ‘home’, just as much as the different Jewish and post-Freudian groups. The ‘warning’ of his title refers to the rise of Nazism, but also to Sperber’s own feelings of culpability for his continued support of Stalin. He is brilliant on bigotry – Kadavergehorsam (literally, the obedience of the corpse), faith and loyalty carried to excess.