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Emanuel Litvinoff, Writer

June 25, 2011
by the gentle author

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-eyed 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, 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

New portraits copyright © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

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19 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    June 25, 2011

    thank you. all i know about mecklenburgh square is that is was v. woolf’s last london residence, and i think the woolfs’ house was bombed.

    i love to think that someone who remembers brick lane of a century ago is still about.

    i have to get you the url of the tenement museum on the lower east side of manhattan. a place like it is where mr. litvinof’s family — and millions of others — started out here in america, within sight of the statue of liberty.

  2. jeannette permalink
    June 25, 2011

  3. June 25, 2011

    Your article is great. I come from the blog of Coralie in London.
    And your pictures are wonderful!
    Have a nice weekend
    Elisa, from Argentina

  4. June 25, 2011

    Fascinating man, such an interesting, fascinating life.

  5. June 25, 2011

    old people’s stories have a timeless quality about them – they never cease to draw amazement

  6. Alan permalink
    June 27, 2011

    ‘Journey Through A Small Planet’ is still in print, often in stock in the bookshop and every bit as good as the Gentle Author says.

  7. June 28, 2011

    What’s the betting the glasses in that lovely picture of the three brothers came from your previous subject the Algha Spectacle Works!

  8. June 28, 2011

    This is a great article and you took some lovely portraits. Thanks so much!


  9. Jan permalink
    June 28, 2011

    Such an evocative article, and I love the photographs. I have read Journey Through a Small Planet, and can commend it to all who enjoy historical accuracy and a well written book.

    I am glad to be able to say that as a cousin of John Moore, it gives me great pleasure to see him continuing to be recognised as a writer of worth.

  10. August 18, 2011

    Dear Mr.Litvinoff,
    Nearly 40 years after reading “A Death Out of Season” I picked up a copy of “Blood on the Snow” at a Left bookshop in Sydney and devoured it with the same ardour as the earlier work. Growing up in the intellectual crucible of 1960’s Hampstead I was a close neighbour of your brother Barnet and his family; I remember meeting you at least once. Your nephew Adrian and I were in each other’s first ever jazz combo together and I retained sporadic contact with him until I left for Australia in 1979. I am delighted to know you are still with us and I am keen to hear news of you and other members of the family.
    The Eliot references continue to intrigue me as I was a voracious reader of his work while not being blind to his gratuitous antisemitism, a blind spot he shares with Shaw, Wells and other literary giants I otherwise respect.
    May you live to be 120!
    Yours sincerely,
    Frederick R.(Freddie)Hill B.Mus. (Cardiff) Dip.Ed (Sydney)

  11. August 19, 2011

    I too read Little Planet many years ago and never forgot the young teenager who carried his manuscript in a plastic bag, good to know you still with us

  12. August 20, 2011

    Fascinating article.. I’m truly inspired by your blog. It’s so wonderful to live in an area that has so much history and you manage to enumerate this in your articles.

    If you know anything about the Tea building on Shoreditch High Street – would love for you to look into – as I run concrete in the basement and although lots of work has been done on it, I see remnants of past factory life.

    Thank you for sharing your stories with us.

  13. Carol permalink
    November 1, 2011

    It was with great sadness that I learned of the passing of this wonderful person. I have been truly blessed to have known him, a true gentleman.

  14. Gail Davis permalink
    June 11, 2012

    I had a pleasant surprise when I visited your website to see early photos of my Father and his brothers. My Father was Emanuel’s oldest brother. His parents called him Abraham (Abie) Litvinoff. He was mentioned in ‘Journey Through a Small Planet’. When he grew up he decided to change his name to Alfred Lister and became an accountant. He was the tallest boy in the photo of the three small boys and the soldier on the left of Emanuel in the three soldiers picture. The soldier on the right was Barnet Litvinoff. He was a famous writer of Jewish History Books and Biographies. His last book was his autobiography.

    On 5th May 2012 some of Emanuel Litvinoff’s family and friends were invited to Mecklenburgh Square to celebrate his life. My Uncle lived in a flat in the Square for 46 years. We saw a Memorial park bench which his wife has put in his favourite part of the Gardens. Then we went into a college to hear readings from his poems and prose and see films of his life. It was a very emotional and interesting day.

    Gail Davis

  15. Gary Gillman permalink
    March 1, 2015

    I am coming late to this, e.g., I know E. Litvinoff has passed on now, but I was amazed to read this interview from only 4 years ago, I had no idea of the longevity he had. He is famous for having stood up to Eliot in the poem mentioned in the article. In fact, I believe he read it aloud at a gathering at which Eliot was present, circa-1951. I must look for his autobiography.

    I found his recollections and perspective on his past much more interesting than those of Jonathan Miller in the piece on him. (What a cold fish Miller sounded, I was surprised, but then I don’t know all that much about him).

  16. Wendy Don Blumfield permalink
    August 15, 2015

    I was moved to tears by this beautiful article. In one of the photos, Emanuel is the image of his late brother Barnet Litvinoff who was my mentor and inspiration when I worked for him in his publications office in the early 1960`s. Barnet used to tell me that all his schoolmates and his siblings went to the library to do their homework after school because it was warm and light there. And indeed, Emanuel and other siblings as well as Barnet all went into the creative professions. I kept in touch with Barnet and his wife Sylvia for many years, they used to visit us in Israel too. Everything I know about writing I learned from Barnet. What an amazing family!

  17. Gail Davis permalink
    June 26, 2016

    I am Emanuel’s niece. I’m very proud to part of his amazing family!

  18. December 11, 2021

    We are interested to arrange for a plaque in Hollycroft Avenue to commemorate the life and work of Mr. Litvinoff. We should appreciate some background d on the dates when he lived in Hollycrolft Avenue and the books he worked on while living there.

    It would be appreciated if any of the family would kindly make contact at the email address above.

  19. February 15, 2024

    A great novelist and biographer who inspired me to write.

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