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Miriam Gross's damnably readable memoir

An Almost English Life: Literary and Not So Literary Recollections - review.

An Almost English Life: Literary and Not So Literary Recollections
Miriam Gross
Short Books 256pp, £12.99

Labelled a “short book”, this memoir has the quality of a long conversation with a very interesting woman. From the first line (“My mother, though Jewish, was not a ‘Jewish mother’”), one hears the voice – clipped, measured, nononsensical. It’s a discreet memoir – particularly on family, marital and extramarital matters. But it has enough packed into its 250-odd pages to supply other writers with material for any number of jumbo-sized novels.

Kurt and Vera May, with their only child, Miriam, barely escaped the clutches of Hitler. Gross’s early childhood was rootlessly cosmopolitan – not something she regrets. “Much, perhaps too much, has been said about the importance of ‘roots’,” she thinks. She was born, unrootedly, in Jerusalem in 1937. Her lawyer father set up a fashionable ladies’ clothes shop – the higher rag trade. It thrived. Miriam was brought up speaking German, with a mild revulsion for Israel (specifically Zionist “terrorist tactics”). For 30 years, she avoided visiting the country “mainly because I was too busy”.

There followed a spell in Switzerland and then six years as a boarder at Dartington Hall School in Devon. Her parents were determined their daughter should not be brought up a “German”. Miriam kept the language but was in her late teens before she was aware that something called the Holocaust had even happened. Dartington, it was intended, would anglicise her.

Under its owners, Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, Dartington in the 1930s was a rather zany commune devoted to art, beauty and spiritual freedom. Attached to it was the “liberal” school. It was co-educational and nude bathing was permitted in the school swimming pool. Pupils, Gross primly notes, never went “all the way”. “Petting” was indulged, as were homoerotic “pashes”. Lucian Freud spent a couple of years there galloping horses across the Devonshire moors, without learning to read or write.

Dartington, as intended, anglicised Miriam May. The process, she realised, was complete when her parents visited and she found herself horribly embarrassed by their accents. She graduated a sophisticated adolescent, adept in French kissing (and French), a connoisseur of Dixieland jazz, possessed of some nifty jive moves on the dance floor and disabused of any great reverence for the opposite sex – something that would stand her in good stead in the career to come. She was formidably well read and six months cramming got her into Oxford to do English where, as was normal at that period, she was criminally neglected by tutors who regarded undergraduates as pests.

The negligent Oxford gave her space to grow into herself. “All the way” was now on the cards. The whole of her life, she confesses, until her second marriage in 1993, was spent “pining for, or agonising about, or impatiently anticipating, a meeting with a loved one”. “Usually male,” she slyly adds.

The pining must have been as often on the other side. Miss May was whip-smart and, as Zadie Smith put it in presenting herself as an unpublished young author to Faber, she did not resemble the back of a bus. She still doesn’t, as the flap photograph confirms.

She caught the eye of Isaiah Berlin, about whom she writes fondly. A J Ayer’s wife, with whose son she was having a steaming affair, arranged for her to be fitted with a diaphragm. She slept with Kris Kristofferson, then a Rhodes scholar, but he couldn’t get it up. “Perhaps a very discreet premature ejaculation,” she charitably surmises. He probably has a rueful ballad about it somewhere in his knapsack along with memorials to Bobby McGee.

With a respectable Second, she drifted into the London literary world. The magazine Encounter needed someone fluent in German and it was there she met her first husband, John Gross. She moved on to the Observer to work for 15 years under, and eventually alongside, Terence Kilmartin, who represents, for Gross, everything that was best in London literary journalism.

The London literary world was not at the time open to all talents – particularly female talent. John Gross would write a book called The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. No need to add “woman”. Letters and women, in the 1960s, did not collocate any more than men This woman’s work: Miriam Gross in the mid-1960s and washing up. The oafish Philip Toynbee, a star writer on the book pages, would come drunken and leering into the Observer office, and even poked her breasts. Anthony Crosland eyed those same features appraisingly and asked Kilmartin, in her hearing, “Is this your new au pair girl?” Kenneth Tynan, the paper’s theatre reviewer, was more gallant but the mirrors on his bedroom ceiling put her off anything serious with him – close as she came.

Over her decade and a half at the paper, she developed a lofty editorial scorn for “contributors”. Copy would too often come blemished with “grammatical blunders, non sequiturs and sloppy arguments”. It was hard labour making their stuff “readable”.

One kissed the rod. The literary-critical authority of the national dailies and Sunday papers in this era was Olympian. They were taste-forming journals. The Observerwas selling close to a million every week (it clears a quarter of that today). The fourth estate – and its higher journalism – doesn’t have that massive authority any more and perhaps never will again. As Gross wearily observes, it’s merely an armature, and by no means the most important, of the book world’s PR machine. Gross finished her career as a senior editor on the Sunday Telegraph; it was tactfully intimated to her, when she was 67, that seniority was not high on the paper’s list of priorities any more. She gives a parenthetic account of her “emotional life”. She and John Gross remained married but lived separate, friendly, lives for most of their years together. A six-year-long, tormented affair with a married man is described in some detail but she does not name him. Her second marriage, with a former editor of the Financial Times, has been happy. The book is dedicated to her two successful journalist children, Tom and Susanna.

Gross is better at demonstrating her qualities as a higher journalist than describing them. Pride of place goes to the literary interviews she did for the Observer. Five of her interviews are included in the last section of the book. Her technique was to ask simple questions and charm the pants off her interviewee. She and Harold Pinter got tipsy together and he talked and talked. In the Philip Larkin conversation, it becomes increasingly clear that he is chatting her up, throwing his prize Larkinisms her way (for example, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth”). One sees the satyr’s glint flash behind the horn rims. These interviews would adapt into wonderful radio plays. One would be tempted to say that they, alone, make the book worth buying – if it weren’t that the rest of it is, to use Gross’s highest term of literary commendation, so damnably readable. And short.

John Sutherland’s most recent book is “Lives of the Novelists: a History of Fiction in 294"

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis