Distant voices

A Double Thread: a childhood memoir in Mile End - and beyond

John Gross <em>Chatto & Windus, 220pp

John Gross's memoir of a wartime London childhood can be read as an elegy for the vanished world of East End Jewry, and, more unconventionally, for that of the literary essay - because, at its best, A Double Thread is less a book than an extended essay of the kind that has all but disappeared from English letters (though it flourishes in America). Nowadays, any newspaper columnist who can sustain an argument of more than a thousand words is recognised as an essayist. But the success of the newspaper column is no more than an example of the cheap popularisation of the essay in a degraded culture. Dr Johnson called the essay an "irregular, undigested piece". And that is right. The newspaper column is too finished, too regular; it is an easily digested piece. But the essay - as perfected by Montaigne, Charles Lamb, George Orwell, E B White and Lewis Lapham - strives for literary permanence and concerns the search for a personal voice, of the kind that animates Gross's reflections on memory, childhood and Jewishness.

For Montaigne, the essay was a philosophical form, amorphous, reflective, digressive and informed by self-revelation. Gross's book has all of these attributes. Above all, for Montaigne - who ought to be reread by anyone interested in the evolution of western thought so as to be liberated from Alain de Botton's cynical appropriation - it was personal and confidential. In this sense, the best essayists are those, like Gross, who have the gift of digression, those who surprise the reader and themselves, who are able to luxuriate in language and to elaborate and inflate any chosen subject.

One of the frustrations for the contemporary British writer is that there are very few places where one can publish essays that are not extended book reviews, which perhaps explains why so many of our best cultural critics - James Wood, Anthony Lane, Christopher Hitchens, Ian Buruma - have either moved to the US, where brevity is not celebrated as the highest virtue, or write almost exclusively for American publications.

John Gross's father was a doctor, working among the urban poor. He grew up in what he calls a residual Orthodox household - "traditional without being fundamentalist, observant but not too much". The Jewish East End - which today is the Bengali East End - had something of the flavour of the shtetl life of the Pale of Settlement, from where most of the Jews had arrived in London at the end of the 19th century in search of a new life, if not in America, then far away from persecution. Gross's text is studded with the Yiddish words and phrases that enlivened family conversations, locutions which were "echoes of an already vanishing past".

It is informative to compare A Double Thread with two other recent memoirs by distinguished Jewish writers, the American historian Peter Gay's My German Question and Dan Jacobson's Heshel's Kingdom. What is common to all three books, apart from the precision of their prose, is an ineradicable undertone of mourning. These writers are all, it seems, haunted by a shadow life - Gay by the alternative life, the very Germanness, that was wrenched from him when his family belatedly escaped from Berlin in 1939, never to return; Jacobson by the story of his grandfather, a rabbi in Lithuania, who, thinking of emigrating, visited America, only to be appalled by the secular excesses of that country. In the end, he decided to stay in Lithuania, where he died suddenly from a heart attack, thus liberating his family to move to South Africa. Those of Jacobson's family who remained in Lithuania were murdered by the Nazis, and the writer cannot escape the thought that he would never have existed but for his grandfather's unexpected death.

The hauntedness of A Double Thread is at once different but the same. It is the hauntedness of the migrant: of the individual who feels English and yet other; who grapples with a certain doubleness or dual identity; who has one language, yet hears his father and grandfathers speaking another; who can never stop wondering about the life that was left behind, which he never had the chance fully to know or share.

The old Jewish East End is long gone now - and yet traces of it remain, not simply in the occasional bagel shop or clothes factory on Brick Lane, or in the memories of those such as Gross who grew up in Stepney, but in a kind of psychic energy. London is so huge and complex, so much of its growth has been haphazard and serendipitous, that its ever-changing streets are like a palimpsest - with successive generations failing quite to erase the influence of those who have gone before. Gross's memoir is, similarly, a kind of palimpsest, with its ghost traces of past times, its half-remembered conversations and spectral presences.

In his introduction to The New English Prose, John Gross, a former literary editor of this magazine, wrote that good prose was unquestionably more common than good poetry. "It is something you can come across every day: in a letter, in a newspaper, almost anywhere." It is something you can come across in this book, too.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Trapped in the human zoo