Living by numbers

The Arithmetic of Memory

Anthony Rudolf <em>Bellew Publishing, 240pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 185725135

Anthony Rudolf, best known as a poetry publisher and translator from French and Russian, has found a new way of telling the story of an innocent Jewish boy in a socialist family of the 1950s. Listed in the index under "Anthony's Attributes" are: "Feet compared to a right-angled triangle"; "Nerd, not a"; "Not argumentative"; "Reader by torch-light"; "Reader of girls' stories"; "Sinner"; "Socialist"; "Spotty"; "Competitive"; and "Dickhead" - which gives you some idea of this book's dead-pan charm. But Rudolf's main weapon in the attempt to escape the tragic/heroic tradition of autobiography is its innovative numbered format. The end result is amusing, obsessive, sometimes frustrating, but never dull.

Is it possible to separate what we "really" remember from what we remember of other people's memories? Rudolf sets out to do just that by splitting his narrative into discrete numbered sections. Thus, 4 (C) ii:1: "I remember Warren Pantzer. I was jealous of him because he was good-looking and because he had a cardigan with a zip." In this itemised main text, he writes down only what he actually remembers at the moment of writing, without research or appeals to his family or friends. Any additional detail, emotion or retrospective judgement is hived off into a square-bracketed "theatre of hindsight or speculation". But the numbered items cumulatively sound their own quiet tattoo of humour or pathos. Five pages after our first meeting with the handsome Master Pantzer, he appears again, in 4 (C) iii:3: "I remember the art room. I was a member of group four, the no-hopers. This also included Warren Pantzer. The group drew, endlessly, goalkeepers making diving saves and cartoon profiles of girls with long hair . . . "

Rudolf was the oldest child in a family of traditional, though not Orthodox, Jews in Hampstead Garden Suburb. His parents were campaigning members of the local Labour Party, New Statesman readers whose house was a venue for loud, lively discussions about politics and theatre. His father, whose family were originally Austro-Hungarian, had wanted to stand for parliament in 1945, but his wife opposed it. Instead, he founded a prosperous firm of accountants and took pleasure in saving money for penniless authors, as well as successful ones such as Ted Hughes (who said Henry Rudolf was "like a father" to him).

Though Anthony Rudolf never spells this out, Henry Rudolf seems to have been a loving but intimidating figure to his real-life son. Paragraph one in the "Father" section of the book contains Rudolf's memory of his father's "vast" black fountain pen, a Swan; devout Freudians, look away. Father did not approve of comics, except the rather improving Eagle, and called his son's concern about his spots "vanity". When Rudolf goes on his first date, taking a girl called Rosalind to see April Love at the Ionic Cinema, his father advises that she "pay for her own cinema ticket and . . . her own bus ticket" - not much of a boost to a boy's chances with girls in those days.

Nevertheless, a hidden cheerful confidence is inscribed in this un-vainglorious memoir, for Rudolf tells us more than once that he is on the side of the underdog, and the underdog, in this book, is him. (After his interview, as a prep-school boy, for Westminster, the headmaster told his father: "You have a clever son, Mr Rudolf, but unfortunately our Jewish quota is full this year.")

Rudolf's mother's family originally came from Poland. She is mostly depicted, as she must be by the rules of the game, as the maternal presence in his boyhood life, deftly removing splinters with needles or helping him to wash his spots. A too-brief square-bracketed paragraph reveals she was also a remarkable woman in her own right, cycling alone from Berlin to Denmark in 1937 to find out for herself what was happening in a Europe stumbling towards war.

For those raised as Gentiles, like me, the busy intensity of Jewish life in the Suburb seems enviable. In a period when Church of England observance was at its most etiolated, Jewish life is all body, with its living Yiddish tongue, its family rituals, its feast days and its food - New Year apples and honey and pomegranates, sweet pastries filled with poppy seeds, coconut pyramids . . . But death is here as well. "Kaddish" is the Yiddish word both for a boy-child and for the funeral prayer the boy will one day say for his father.

This strange, sweet-tempered book is fuelled by a sense of mortality and by stubborn loyalty to a lost authentic self. Most autobiography computes the past through a thickening, merging process of emotional multiplication, but Anthony Rudolf works by addition, like a poet or a child, patiently lining up numbers that can stand alone in their original novelty and shine.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The transport row: who is to blame?