With Love and Squalor
By Anna Aslanyan.
Simon Blumenfeld, Jew Boy, London Books, 2011
The Jewish East End is akin to another London phenomenon, the Elephant and Castle shopping centre. While it existed, most regarded it as an eyesore; after it was gone people started romanticising or, at least, remembering it with a certain nostalgia. (True, the infamous shopping centre is still there, but when plans for its regeneration were hinted at, emotional stories of its role in the local life appeared, its very ugliness suddenly becoming quaint and therefore attractive.) The interwar Whitechapel and Shoreditch were never found particularly inspiring by their inhabitants until enough time had passed to allow them to be seen in a new light. If works of other Jewish writers drawing on their East End background – most notably Wolf Mankowitz, Alexander Baron, and Emanuel Litvinoff – were published after the war, Simon Blumenfeld’s Jew Boy came out in 1935, when the Whitechapel Library was still known as the University of the Ghetto before being assimilated by what is now a flourishing art gallery.
Alec, the Jew boy of the title, would not recognise his East End were he to take a stroll through the area today. He would be surprised to see queues outside the old Brick Lane beigel bakery late at night, when clubs are closing and party-goers need refuelling; the display of Singer sewing machines in the window of the nearby All Saints would look familiar to him, but definitely out of place – as a tailor he knows they belong in a sweatshop rather than a swanky clothes shop. All that glamour would come decades later; in the 1930s the area is firmly in the grip of poverty and the tension between workers and their employers is growing.
The realism of the novel, which portrays Alec’s life in all its drabness, is crude and unrelenting. Low wages, appalling conditions, workers’ futile attempts to stand up for their rights, inevitable periods of signing on at the Labour Exchange after getting a sack – the emerging picture is depressing. There are numerous parallels between Jew Boy and Journey Through a Small Planet, Litvinoff’s 1972 fictionalised memoir also depicting the East End between the wars: both show children in rags and overcrowded dwellings, family squabbles and hostile glances from Little Englanders. But there is a marked difference between the two accounts. Litvinoff’s autobiographical narrator is desperate to shake off his surroundings with their insular atmosphere – to him, “the Kosher signs and Yiddish lettering were embarrassing advertisements of alienation”. Alec, on the other hand, although fed up with his miserable existence, is attached to the culture he was born into. Noticing a restaurant sign written in Yiddish, he feels a surge of warmth and remembers his father waxing lyrical about his native Odessa, “that Paris of the Black Sea” (but ignores the pogroms that probably forced his parents to leave). Visiting his girlfriend’s sister, he disapproves of her desire to reject her roots: “At least the Jewishness she had discarded, for all its faults, its turbulent excitable people and habits, had life and colour, throbbed with vitality.” If the planet he comes from is too small for Litvinoff, for Blumenfeld’s protagonist it has everything – apart from the means to enjoy it.
Alec spends his days slaving in a workshop, wandering around London in his free time. The city’s thriving network of theatres, music societies, and dance halls is the main outlet for his cultural ambitions allowing him to escape the everyday drudgery. There are literary gatherings, too, but their atmosphere is not stimulating enough because “[t]here really isn’t anything Jewish about the work of almost any Jewish writer writing in English. They’re fakers, exhibitionists, poseurs, almost to a man.” Looking beyond this circle provides little consolation as “most of the novels written by Englishmen for Englishmen […] might just as well be written about the man in the moon for all the connection they have with sober reality down here on this planet…”
Such angry tirades do not make Alec popular with girls, and the morals of the day are no help – having a child outside wedlock is worse than turning to prostitution, while starting a family for a man of his status is out of the question. When women take to Alec they are driven by motherly instincts: a girl he is trying to seduce has “that impulse to gather him in her arms, like a child.” Freud himself would chuckle satisfactorily at the hero’s decision to leave home after he walks in on his mother disentangling from her suitor’s embrace, and would be pleased by the passage where Alec is sitting in the room of a young lady he fancies, feeling “as though he was very tiny, tucked away in a huge, dark cave somewhere”. The fellow claims to be familiar with Freud’s works, but when he finds a collection of whips and manacles in a streetwalker’s flat its purpose never occurs to him; once it has been explained, he jumps to the conclusion that “the very same forces that drove these girls on the streets were responsible for twisting [their clients’] desires.”
Apart from being inexperienced in affairs of the heart, Alec is extremely immature in his attempts to get involved in political activities. He is full of revolutionary zeal, yet his view of the current situation is vague. Although his speech before striking fellow workers attracts some attention, he is evidently confused about what he should be saying: “Rationalization… Speeding-up and its inevitable sequel […] Unemployment… The Means Test… Fascism… War…”. In the end, they go back to their sewing machines; Alec is out on his ear as soon as the boss can afford to cut down his staff. Even when it dawns on him that there are important factors to be understood – “that solid wall, economics” – the realisation is immediately drowned by the utopian “Take away the root cause of all the trouble, and most other difficulties would adjust themselves.” The full extent of Alec’s naivety becomes clear when he decides that emigrating to Russia would solve all his problems and rushes to the Soviet embassy to apply for a permission. Were he to end up in this workers’ paradise on earth and survive the next decade with its Communist and Nazi atrocities, it would be difficult for him to escape the anti-Semitic campaigns that followed. In the event, he is refused entry and stays in London, full of hope for the future of the world proletariat.
Alec’s blue-eyed ignorance gets in the way of your perception of the novel until you come to terms with the fact that his character is part of its realist set-up. In hindsight, it is as easy to see where his arguments fail as it is to buy a midnight beigel in Brick Lane today. Despite its primitivism, Jew Boy is important as a book that paved the way for other, more mature works on the same subject. It was ground-breaking for its time and remains a rare witness statement in which the past is neither sentimentalised nor demonised. The Jewish East End got this fervent love letter three quarters of a century ago and more came in its wake; as for Elephant and Castle, it is still waiting for its bard.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 11th, 2011.