Emanuel Litvinoff, Writer (1915-2011)
In June, it was my privilege to meet Emanuel Litvinoff, who died peacefully in his sleep last Saturday. As a tribute, I am republishing my piece today – the last interview with one of the major writers to come out of the East End. Read “Journey Through a Small Planet,” and you will always think of Emanuel Litvinoff whenever you walk down Cheshire St.
At ninety-six years old, Emanuel Litvinoff is taking it easy now, enjoying long afternoons of contemplation, gazing out from the tall windows of his tiny flat in a Georgian terrace in Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury, to the tall plane trees where woodpeckers and crows are to be seen. Yet still he thinks back to the two tenements off Cheshire St where he grew up in the nineteen twenties.
In 1913, Emanuel’s mother and father fled Odessa to escape the pogroms in which thousands of Jews were killed – they travelled steerage and hoped to get to New York but they never made it beyond Spitalfields where Emanuel was born in 1915. When the First World War broke out, Emanuel’s father returned to Russia and never returned, which left Emanuel’s mother to bring up her family alone by taking in sewing. These were the circumstances in which Emanuel grew up, within the confines of his East End Jewish ghetto – “the small planet” as he termed it in his writing – and his beautiful account is full of feeling, remarkable for its emotional candour and lack of sentimentality, tracing the kindness and the cruelties of existence in a series of clear-eye episodes from life of the young writer.
Although Emanuel won a scholarship to study the trade of his choice upon leaving school, he discovered that every one he selected was closed off to him as a Jew, and so he struggled, taking a series of menial jobs through the depression of the nineteen thirties and ended up working in the fur trade, nailing wet fur to boards. “It was tough,” admitted Emanuel. “I was often so hungry that I would hallucinate. We fought every day for our lives.” He remembers queueing for food in Whitechapel, applying to the Jewish Board of Guardians for a pair of boots and sleeping rough. Yet Emanuel was a born writer and in 1942 a slim volume of sombre poems was published, and when, on his first wife, Cherry Marshall’s, encouragement, he submitted a short story to an Evening Standard competition, he won a car. In the post-war literary world, Emanuel counted Dylan Thomas among the fans of his work as his writing took flight in the creation of articles, poems, novels and plays. And, with a strong moral sense enforced by his own experience, Emanuel wrote a poem that challenged T.S. Eliot over the antisemitism expressed in his early work, and even Eliot had to admit, “It’s a good poem.”
All this I knew before I went to visit Emanuel Litvinoff, but when I walked into his room, lined with books and illuminated by floor-to-ceiling windows, where he lives with his second wife Mary McClory, I was touched by the modest presence of the man. Recently Camden Council have withdrawn the support for Emanuel which had been recommended by doctors at University College Hospital after Emanuel received treatment there, leaving Mary to take care of her husband without any assistance. Emanuel’s response is sanguine. “It seems the same as 1931 all over again,” he said, shaking his head in disappointment, “This is a depression caused by financiers and bankers, but it’s the poorest who are paying for it.”
Mary and Emanuel have been together for twenty-seven years and have a twenty-five year old son, Aaron. Now Mary has given up her job as a teacher to care for Emanuel full-time and while he sits perched in his chair wedged between bookshelves, she has created three elaborate balcony gardens for him to look out upon, growing rocket, beetroot, sweetpeas, nasturtiums and California poppies from seed and even potatoes in a pot. A sense of peace borne of mutual trust presides over this couple here in this quiet flat, looking down upon the old square. Mary brought out some original editions of Emanuel’s books which she had been looking at to compile a collection of his poetry and Emanuel was eager to examine these treasured copies, holding the pages right up to his nose and scanning the lines of verse as if for the first time, yet travelling a half-remembered journey in his mind.
Although frail, Emanuel certainly retains his charm and, when he stands, his physical presence, natural authority and stature become apparent too.“After a lapse of time, the past becomes a mythical country,” he wrote in 2008. A sentiment that has specific meaning for Emanuel Litivinoff as one who has travelled such an odyssey, over almost a century, and for whom the distant past of his childhood can be recalled only in fragments now – yet thanks to his extraordinary literary talent, it is a story and a world that exists forever in the pages of his masterpiece of autobiography, “Journey Through a Small Planet.”
Emanuel at his flat in Mecklenburgh Square, June 2011.
Emanuel revisits Brick Lane, 1972.
Emanuel standing on the Pedley St bridge off Cheshire St in 1972.
Emanuel with his brothers Abe and Pinny on 18th December, 1940.
Emanuel is the second from the right in the second row of this picture of class one at Wood Close School in the nineteen twenties.
The earliest photograph of Emanuel with his two brothers.
Emanuel Litvinoff (1915-2011)
New portraits copyright © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies
Find out more at www.emanuel-litvinoff.com