Slum-Lord Survivor

The messy truths of post-war English Jews.

These days, real estate is all. Just prior to reading the fourth novel by journalist and novelist Linda Grant, The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago, £11.99), I watched a British TV documentary about West London’s property market, referencing the area’s notorious 1960s slums, run by the infamous slum-lord, Peter Rachman — a Jew. I cringed, and wondered how British Jewry, a particularly self-conscious community, responds to this scandal.

Rachman inspired Grant’s book, a fictionalized account of his life (as Sander Kovaks) relayed through his niece, Vivien, who transcribes her uncle’s 1940s Hungarian war-time reminiscences. With quiet English middle-class suffering, the characters battle their isolation from others and the world. “Everything felt too near, yet eerily distant at the same time. The outside world looked as if it was seen through the thick glass window of a speeding train…”

But in Vivien’s case, the suffering had real roots, and London’s anonymity served a purpose. As Vivien learns as she comes of age in the 1970s, before they arrived in England the Kovakses survived the Holocaust. While experiencing her own first profound losses — virginity, a husband, an unborn child — Vivien learns about her family’s loss, and acts out her knowledge through continually evolving clothing styles. In an attempt to escape her parents’ stifling depressions and lives centered on television quiz shows, she seeks out wild outfits and her estranged playboy uncle, and begins to transcribe his traumatic life-story.

Grant’s novel explores the complex family dynamics of Holocaust survivors and their legacies, giving voice to those English Jews who’ve kept silent about their identity. Grant explores how siblings — Sandor, and Vivien’s father — each survived the Holocaust in different ways: Sander wheeled-and-dealed, while Vivien’s father cautiously left Hungary prior to German occupation, but mainly to avoid a personal embarrassment. The brothers’ contrasting personalities affected how they survived and their subsequent responses to the war and to England, while developing disdain for one another.

By creating a psychological tale which asks large questions about race relations, belonging, self-defense and civic duty, Grant cleverly invokes moral themes without being didactic. As Vivien learns, Sandor was an ostentatious slum-lord who was also helpful to black immigrants and to his mother, while her father was a quiet, hard-working man who denied truths and rejected family. Grant’s characters are ambivalent, self-contradicting, and messy. Through their varying reactions to Nazism, the 1970s English rightwing emergence, and the current terrorism crisis, Grant reminds us that these philosophies and their victims are — like slum-lording and profit-making — complex. Similarly, Vivien loses, or at least questions, some of her bleeding-heart liberal values, resulting in a view of the world that is unresolved, in a way that is not fashionable in today’s British media. Indeed, one of Grant’s characters invokes a critique of journalism and its superficial moral judgments; and Grant (herself a journalist) bravely reminds us how stories are often reported in a simplified and one-dimensional way, and shouldn’t be.

While the novel has farfetched coincidences and hanging strands (Vivien’s relationships with her husbands and mother), The Clothes on their Backs is a touching look at the political through the personal.

Judy Batalion is a Canadian writer and performer living in London. Her edited collection of writing on comedy audiences will be out in 2009.