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The Last of the Luftmenschen


In the New Statesman, Ken Worpole gives a soaring overview of the writing career of Alexander Baron alongside the reissue of his own study of British working-class and popular fiction, Dockers and Detectives, published by Five Leaves:

Two of his best novels were still to come, both touching on Jewish themes. The Lowlife, published in 1963, focused on Harryboy Boas, a Hofmann presser in the rag trade and one of the last of the Luftmenschen, the Jewish street philosophers who once filled the pavements of Whitechapel, Hackney and Stoke Newington of a summer’s evening, putting the world to rights. This celebration of one of the less illustrious aspects of Jewish life in London featured the bohemian, sometimes semi-criminal subculture of the eponymous “lowlife”: the gambler, bookworm and Soho drinking-club habitué. Furthermore, it was a novel still in love with “the London street” as the locus of all human affairs. Iain Sinclair, an early advocate of this novel, wrote: “The wonder of The Lowlife is that it does justice to a place of so many contradictions, disguises, deceptions, multiple identities.”

In 1969, King Dido emerged, the most accomplished of Baron’s historical novels, based on his long-standing admiration for Arthur Morrison’s 1896 classic social reform novel, A Child of the Jago. Baron transmutes this slum melodrama into a fast-paced revenge tragedy. Dido Peach, a dockworker of suggested Romany or Jewish origins, dominates the novel from start to finish. There is something of the Heathcliff figure about him, a complex, mysterious man whom it is hard to like but who represents some kind of vital force in the backstreets of Bethnal Green, matched and eventually defeated only by the equally frightening Metropolitan Police inspector Merry, his archetypal class nemesis, whose literary origins are clearly based on Victor Hugo’s ruthless Javert in Les Misérables.

First posted: Thursday, January 20th, 2011.

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