The House of Twenty Thousand Books, by Sasha Abramsky, Halban, RRP£14.95, 336 pages
In Joseph Roth’s haunting novel Job, a devout Jew named Mendel Singer flees the unremitting hardship of life in Tsarist Russia for the relative freedom of turn-of-the-century New York. However wretched life in the Old World had been, the break with the past is as painful as peeling off layers of one’s own skin.
Similar transformative journeys were undertaken by more than a million Russian Jews between the 1890s and 1920s, expelled by successive waves of pogroms, revolution, civil war and persecution. Sasha Abramsky’s tender, intelligent, many-layered memoir of his grandparents, The House of Twenty Thousand Books, is a version of this same story, at once epic and intimate, rooted in family life but encompassing the sweep of history. At its heart are loss and renewal, tradition and reinvention, schism and continuity.
In this case the setting is England rather than America. The house of the title is outwardly unremarkable: a bay-fronted semi in north London belonging to the author’s grandparents, Chimen and Mimi. Inside, it is anything but unremarkable. Crammed into every nook and cranny are thousands of books, manuscripts and letters accumulated by Chimen over a lifetime of unflagging bibliophilic zeal.
They include extraordinary treasures: a first edition of Spinoza’s 1677 Opera Posthuma; William Godwin’s 1793 treatise An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice; early editions of The Communist Manifesto with annotations by Marx and Engels; the original woodcut of William Morris’s News From Nowhere; Rosa Luxemburg’s doctoral thesis; a first edition of Malthus on overpopulation; unpublished stories and letters by Turgenev.
Abramsky guides us through this astonishing profusion room by room, with an engaging combination of glee and awe. By the time Chimen died, the books constituted probably the most complete privately owned collection of socialist literature and Jewish history anywhere in the world. It earned him a reputation that led to a fellowship at Oxford and a chair in Jewish and Hebrew studies at University College London.
While Chimen gathered books, Mimi gathered people. The house overflowed with guests, including many eminent scholars. Eric Hobsbawm, Harold Laski, Christopher Hill, E P Thompson and E H Carr were all frequent visitors. Isaiah Berlin, whom Chimen befriended later, preferred to meet at the Athenaeum club or his Oxford college.
If The House of Twenty Thousand Books is a loving portrait of a particular brand of Jewish immigrant experience, it is also a vivid portrayal of the Marxist intelligentsia that flourished in England between the world wars and played such an important role in the country’s political and cultural development.
Like many other Russian-born Jews of his generation, Chimen embraced communism as a young man. In his case, this was a rejection of Oedipal dimensions. His father, Yehezkel Abramsky, was one of Russia’s leading Orthodox rabbis and a renowned Talmudic scholar. After the family escaped to England in 1931, he became one of the most powerful conservative rabbinic figures in Britain.
Abramsky writes movingly of his grandfather’s attempts to contain the contradictions. In his East End bookshop, Chimen wore a cloth cap to conceal from his Orthodox Jewish customers the fact that he no longer wore a yarmulke. Behind the atheism and communism, one senses in Chimen a strong emotional loyalty to the spurned religious world of his father. Like him, if in radically different ways, Chimen honoured the tradition of tirelessly interpreting and preserving words and the ideas they transmitted.
Nevertheless, he remained an apologist for Soviet communism long after news of Stalin’s atrocities had come to light in the early 1950s, as Abramsky ruefully acknowledges. It was a devotion that eventually caused Chimen himself profound guilt and regret. Yet even after he’d left the party and relinquished all illusions about Stalin, Chimen remained an ardent advocate of Marx as one of the world’s great thinkers.
Aptly, it was on March 14 2010, the anniversary of Marx’s death, that Chimen retired to his bed for the last time. More poignantly still, he died, at his own request, with a tiny Hebrew Bible in his hands, a symbol of his continuing connection to the past from which he had emancipated himself.
Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)