Stefan Zweig’s lapidary and marvelously crafted story “Mendel the Bibliophile” is an archetypically elegiac exercise in nostalgia for a passing epoch. As much as anything else that he wrote it is a pure distillation of Zweigian sensibility and concerns. The story’s anonymous protagonist is a cipher for the humanist writer: a melancholy and sensitive old-world gentleman of impeccably liberal discernment, taste, and class-transcending curiosity. One evening he finds himself caught out in a thunderstorm in a distant suburb of Vienna that he has not visited in many years. Drenched, he ducks into a shopworn café where he is abruptly struck by a recollection of times past, when many years earlier, a side table in this shabby café was a kind of de facto office for a remarkably monomaniacal character.
The café served as the court of a
squat Galician Jew, entirely enveloped in his beard and hunchbacked into the bargain, [he] was a titan of memory. Behind that chalky, grubby brow which looked as if it were overgrown by grey moss, there stood in an invisible company, as if stamped in steel, every name and title that had ever been printed on the title page of a book. Whether a work had first been published yesterday or two hundred years ago, he knew at once its exact place of publication, its publisher and the price, both new and second hand, and at the same time he unfailingly recollected the binding, illustrations, and facsimile editions of every book. He saw every work, whether he had held it in his own hands or had only seen it once from a distance, in a window display or a library, with the same optical precision as the creative artist sees the still-invisible forms of his inner world and those of other people. If, say, a book was offered for six marks in the catalogue of a second-hand bookseller in Regensburg, he immediately remembered that another copy of the same book could have been bought for four crowns in an auction in Vienna two years ago, and he also knew who had bought it …
The story’s plot pivots off the concussive dislocation of the old order brought about by the First World War. The hapless bibliographic savant finds himself at the mercy of historical forces outside the purview of his bookish understanding. Engrossed in the passionate pursuit of the collector’s trade, Mendel orders a pair of auction catalogs to be sent by mail from London and Paris. The correspondence is immediately flagged as a treasonous case of association with enemy powers in wartime. Bemused, our unworldly old polymath is taken to the police station for a talk, and the ensuing interrogation unearths the fact that he was never nationalized by the Hapsburg crown—he was born in an obscure shtetl on the border of the Russian empire and has resided in Vienna for decades without papers. A two-year stint in an internment camp for enemy nationals follows, obliterating his health and enfeebling the spirit. The story concludes with ruminations over the passage of time in relation to the act of writing a book: an act committed “solely to forge links with others even after your own death, thus defending yourself against the inexorable adversary of life, transience and oblivion.” It is a fantastic story. Yet all the biographical elements of this tale—the improbable autodidactic bibliographer, an émigré polymath of the printed word from Russia swallowed up by the roiling forces of European history—are by coincidence to be found in the life of Chimen Abramsky.
Born in the last year of the Russian empire and educated by private tutors at home in Russia in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian, Abramsky, who died five years ago, left the world of Jewish orthodoxy to become a Communist and finally a liberal. He read voraciously and became a self-taught genius obsessed with the work of Karl Marx. Along the way, he amassed what one commentator described as “probably the most complete privately owned collection of socialist literature and Jewish history anywhere in the world.” The house he shared with his wife Miriam at 5 Hillway near the Hampstead Heath was crammed with thousands of books and precious curios, such as the original typescript of Rosa Luxemburg’s doctoral thesis and Karl Marx’s own annotated copy of The Communist Manifesto.
The story of Abramsky’s house and of the collection assembled in it embodies a singular intellectual journey through the political, philosophical, and religious disputations of the Western world and of 20th-century intellectual history. Now The House of Twenty Thousand Books, by Chimen’s grandson, journalist Sasha Abramsky, has been published in England by the Halban Publishers, to be followed this fall by a U.S. edition from New York Review Books. Sasha Abramsky is closely associated with The Nation and has forged his literary career writing deeply empathetic and textured accounts of American poverty and minimum-wage issues. The House of Twenty Thousand Books illustrates that Abramsky’s social conscience is hereditary.
The memoir’s chapters are structured through the mnemonic explorations of the physical space that the collections occupied inside the Abramsky’s household. As each collection is emblematic of a period of Chimen’s life and intellectual quest, the temporal quality in their organization is pivotal. His diminutive stature the product of early privations, Chimen would ask visitors to reach for a book tucked on a high shelf, displaying the greatest pieces—kept in his bedroom—only to supplicants who had attested themselves to be worthy of the honor. The room chapters arrange the themes of his life: The hallway is “an incredible portal. Marxist historiography is tucked in the living room. Jewish texts are in the master bedroom and the ‘Front’ Room houses ‘the Haskalah.’ ”
A consummate journalist, Abramsky, the grandson, deftly fiddled with and fixed my voice recorder before speaking with me recently in London about his memoir. “What the book is about, at least in part, is a search for meaning,’’ he told me. “It’s a journey to understand my grandparents’ mentality, and the places where they got meaning. It is a story of many layers. At the most obvious level my grandmother got meaning from being a hostess, from opening up the house and feeding people. Spreading a sort of earth mother sense of warmth, which went far beyond the stereotype of the Jewish mother or grandmother, to almost a pathological need to fill the house with unprecedented numbers of people. My granddad’s search was for meaning in the printed word of various sorts and in the way his collecting changed with his interests over the course of his life. When he was younger it was all about Marx, when he became older it incorporated books about liberalism. There is the whole issue of religion and politics and ideology, but at the most grandiose level of meaning, it is the story of a search for meaning in modernity, and the house becomes the background for search for meaning that took place in Europe of the 20th century.’’
The narrative of the heretical son and the pious father engaged in a titanic patricidal clash on behalf of tradition and modernity is a stock cliché of Jewish storytelling. Yet the case of the Abramskys, the gap between the arch-conservative rabbi father and the eminent radical son was clearly in a league of its own. Chimen’s father Yehezkel Abramsky was a savant of Torah scholarship in his native Belarus. The scion of a grand rabbinical line, he was possessed of a photographic memory, incredible powers of memorization (which he bequeathed to his bibliographer son) and a genius for biblical exegesis. Groomed from childhood for a major career in the Litvak Orthodox world, he became a rabbi at the age of 17. Yehezkel, was also actively outspoken in his anti-Communism. For this crime he was prevented by the Soviet authorities from taking up a rabbinic post offered to him in late-1920s Palestine. Assuming the editorship of an anti-Communist journal got him arrested and sentenced to five years in a Siberian labor camp.
Abramsky was by this time a renowned figure, and Weimar Republic Chancellor Heinrich Brüning intervened to have him released in exchange for six Communists. The condition Stalin stipulated for the swap was that two of Abramsky’s four sons would remain behind in Soviet Union. It would not be until British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden intervened personally that the pair was released.
Abramsky arrived in London in 1932 to take up the pulpit that Abraham Isaac Kook vacated when he left for Palestine. Two years later he was appointed to head of the British Beth Din, making him the senior rabbinic figure in the country. His 17-year stewardship of British orthodoxy was marked by purist orthodoxy.
The peculiarity of his son Chimen’s conversion (he would not leave the British CP until 1958, 18 months after the Soviet invasion of Budapest) to Communism, despite his father’s experience of the Gulag, is a running theme of his grandson’s book. This familial transgression obviously pains Sasha, and he meditates on the incident without attempting to expiate the sins of his beloved grandfather. In his old age it filled Chimen with shame as well: The only papers that this majestic hoarder hastened to discard were the early pamphlets written in dreary Stalinoid jargon.
In true communitarian fashion, Chimen and his wife Miriam opened up their house to several generations of British scholars and intellectuals. Miriam was a fanatically caring hostess (unsurprisingly also a social worker) who would serve majestic multi-course meals to dozens of guests; the pair filled what must have been a remarkable hermetic realm with arguments about books and ideas stretching into the early morning hours.
The book succeeds marvelously in what could be said to be the primary function of a memoir: enveloping the reader in the proverbial lost or vanished world. Dozens of people would show up at the Abramsky home on any given evening, where one could find oneself eating and arguing in one evening with figures such as Steve Zipperstein, Isaiah Berlin, and Eric Hobsbawm. The Abramskys kept a kosher kitchen and led a merry band of Jewish Communists in fiery renditions of the Passover Seder every year. When being driven on the Sabbath through a Jewish neighborhood, Chimen would dive onto the floor of the car so not to be seen.
Having become disillusioned with Communism, Chimen became a leading historian of Soviet Jewry and wrote penetrating scholarly articles on the place of Yiddish literature in the Soviet sphere just as it was being repressed by the Soviets. An autodidactic polymath who had studied in Jerusalem in the 1930s without finishing his degree—he was stuck in England in 1939 upon the outbreak of World War II—Chimen was forced to travel back to Jerusalem late in life to defend his degree before he was allowed to teach.
An intellectual outsider for half his life, Chimen would not properly enter academia and attain a teaching position until his middle age, when his friend Isaiah Berlin interceded to secure him a lecture post at Oxford. Chimen’s career concluded with him serving as professor of Hebrew and Jewish studies at University College London and appraising rare manuscripts as a consultant for Sotheby’s, where he applied his unique knowledge and superhuman grasp of the history of the printed word to help forge the modern Judaica collecting market.
Though occasional repetitiveness is a corollary effect of the room-by-room organizing principle, the marvelous control of style is substantially superior to anything to be found in Abramsky’s previous books, bearing the traces of meticulous drafting and redrafting. The descriptions of the atmosphere of the Abramsky house itself are ravishing, and Sasha telegraphs his childlike delight in cradling his patrimony. Yet, completing the cycle of assimilation, Sasha Abramksy’s grasp of the particularities of the Jewish canon (the book takes care to explain a great deal of specifically Jewish background and context) seems somewhat less assured than his thoroughly intuitive grasp of left-wing and European intellectual history. Part of the grandeur of Chimen Abransky’s house of books may be that it was assembled by one extraordinary man and can’t be inherited.
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