I read this book after reading Nina Stibbe’s Love Nina about her time as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers’ (MKW) family. Mary-Kay came across as so delightful I took the opportunity to find out more about her family history.
The Eitingons is a big book – 476 pages including the index and references. There are a few personal references but mostly this is a well-researched book about three figures in the Eitingon family who achieved fame or notoriety in very different ways: Max, a psychoanalyst and close colleague of Sigmund Freud; Motty, a fur manufacturer, who achieved great fortune; and Leonid, an important member of the Soviet Secret Service (latterly the KGB). From time to time, MKW tries to find connections between the three, and although none are documented, she allows herself a little speculation.
These are weighty stories of the twentieth century and I found out stuff I hadn’t previously known, including detail about how the assassination of Trotsky (in which Leonid was involved) was managed. This part of the book is thrilling – even though I knew how it ended. Perhaps there is too much detail in some parts of the book as a result of MKW’s extensive research and from time to time I had to check back to remind myself who some of the characters were but MKW’s intelligence and charm is always there in the background.
They sound a clever bunch these Eitingons – they all seemed to know several languages and to be pretty successful in their chosen careers. Mary-Kay herself studied Russian although she ended up not using it and instead ended up as longstanding editor of the London Review of Books. One of my favourite bits of the book is where she describes her role as “obsessively attending to other people’s English words – washing them, ironing them, preparing them for publication.”
The London Review of Books has a more or less permanent place on the front counter at Five Leaves Bookshop. Hopefully we will become intellectuals by osmosis, but more importantly it is a reminder of the best bookshop in Britain – the London Review Bookshop. Oh, if only we were in London, three minutes from the British Museum with a major international magazine behind us. Still, we have LeftLion and we are next to a bookies.
The LRB can be quite hard to read at times. A little too much on German philosophy after Hegel in the current issue, but, like the recent looong article on Julian Assange, David Renton’s article remembering the murder of Blair Peach will stay long in the memory. The LRB is like that, annoyingly over-intellectual and obscure one minute, with searing articles the next. And the authors are given enough space to develop their articles. The mag is serious about what it does. One of the best features is the inclusion of memoir, often lengthy pieces – which have been collected in this book. The title memoir is by Hilary Mantel, on a medical crisis. Others memoirs that will stick with me are by Edward Said on trying to live in the space between his role as an academic and as a campaigner for Palestine and, especially, Joe Kenyon on his days as a miner prior to nationalisation. Other pieces have become familiar – Alan Bennett on “The Lady in the Van” and Lorna Sage’s “The Old Devil and His Wife”. The latter is a demolition job on her awful grandparents which (I am almost certain) appeared as part of her family memoir Bad Blood which could be described as mis lit but transcended the genre. Not all the pieces are so good. A.J.P. Taylor’s “Breakdown” needed a paragraph or two of explanation while, surprisingly, the LRB’s long-standing editor Mary-Kay Wilmers’ article about her attitudes to the women’s movement was one of the weakest in the book.
Some of the pieces reach into the past, such as Tariq Ali writing about his strange visit to North Korea forty-odd years ago but the collection ends with Jenny Diski visiting the future – planning her own funeral.
I could say this is a book to dip into… but I’ve been reading it steadily, article after article. And I want more.
If my own personal library (God, that sounds pretentious) could have only one type of book, it would be essays. Accessible essays on all sorts of subjects. You can see where the annual Five Leaves essay collection comes from. At the heart of the collection would be a group of books like this one. Excellent essays, fairly personal in orientation, but grounded in experience and an understanding of history and politics.
Reading The Memory Chalet is difficult though, because you are aware that the author was dying when he wrote them. In fact he did not write them, he dictated them as motor neuron disease made movement impossible. The reader is always conscious that these were the last writings by a major writer occupying his well-ordered mind in a productive way. What else could he have done?
The essays I am drawn back to are the more personal accounts – of early travels in Europe, of his disenchantment with Zionism born out of living on a kibbutz, of London bus routes, of manual labour on board a ship, alternating “between scrubbing diesel boilers and throwing up in the teeth of a North Sea blizzard”.
Judt was of the left, at home mostly in the pages of the London Review of Books, but was quite clear about the kind of socialism he wanted – in the 1960s supporting Havel, Michnik, Kis and other “outcast” intellectuals who he saw as the best hope in replacing the “dead dogma immured in a decaying society” that was Eastern Europe under communism, and which also helped him reconnect to his East European Jewish origins.
Judt finishes the book with a chalet – a cafe at a small train stop In Murren, Switzerland – with the mountains falling away into the valley below, with the sight of summer barns you can climb up to. You can wait for the next train “punctual, predictable” or just wait, in a place where nothing goes wrong. Judt was rootless, lived in many places, but he ends “We cannot choose where we start out in life, but we may finish where we will. I know where I shall be: going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever.” And that’s when you cry.