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Literary treasure houses

We delight in accounts of the astounding work of two devoted bookmen

    Anthony Rudolf guides the reader around the thousands of books in his collection
    Anthony Rudolf guides the reader around the thousands of books in his collection

    Silent Conversations: A reader's Life
    By Anthony Rudolf
    Seagull Books/Univ of Chicago, £24.50

    The House of Twenty Thousand Books
    By Sasha Abramsky
    Halban Publishers, £14.95

    Anthony Rudolf is a man of letters, goodwill and generosity. He characterises himself as "a disorganised go-between, over-extended attendant lord, serial sidetracker and master digressionary". This disarming modesty is the obverse to his indefatigable application over five decades to writing, translating and publishing. His jibe at the inactive side to his nature masks its importance to that portion of his career that he has devoted to reading, observing, thinking and analysing. A full life in letters is not merely a matter of productivity. It also involves the Wordsworthian art of recollection in tranquillity.

    Rudolf has corresponded with and assisted many of the best minds of his times. Four Nobel Prize winners have appeared in some form on his Menard Press list; those he has not broken bread with, he has known vicariously. Grandchild of Eastern European Jews, he has nonetheless delved deep into works of literary antisemites Ezra Pound and Céline. Openness and breadth are essential to the furniture of his mind. The books he has known and his "silent conversations" with them form the basis for a grand, polyphonic work whose reverberations extend well beyond the shelf-lined hallways and box-covered floors of a modest flat in north London.

    From university years at Cambridge to his day job at the BBC, Rudolf anchored his taste in French masters, Balzac, Baudelaire, Barthes and Bonnefoy, whom he translated, figures in a pantheon that also includes lesser greats whose names do not begin with B.

    Sasha Abramsky
    Sasha Abramsky

    Juggling with apparently trivial details appeals to a whimsical streak - he notes that he shares initials with Rimbaud - but Rudolf's main concerns are serious and his aperçus more profound than appear in many an earnest lit crit study. He has grappled, as his generation of intellectuals did, with Sartre as well as Surrealists. All are brought into lively focus in the first phase of the tour of his library that is Silent Conversations.

    A second phase ex-plores "Jewish Worlds". He shares thoughts on his friends Primo Levi and Jakov Lind and on other brilliant survivors such as Piotr Rawicz, whose Blood from the Sky he championed. Remembrance is honoured, but Rudolf's Jewish world is not bound to the Shoah. The other century in Jewish history which interests him most is the 17th, and he offers a mini-essay on Racine's Esther, turning the play into a kind of emblem of where his foundational traditions meet.

    Russia also looms large in his imaginaire, as he calls it, and contemporaries such as Elaine Feinstein - "the Grand Duchess of Anglo-Jewish letters" - help him find his way amid "the dangerous glamour" of its literary ghosts.

    In this connection, he offers a small memoir of little-known poet Robert Ford, once Canadian ambassador to Moscow, who became his confidant in the 1980s when he was publishing pamphlets on nuclear disarmament that attracted the attention of MI5.

    Rudolf's politics have always been strongly held - his idea of Israel harks back to an era of kibbutzim - but they are not the subject of this book. In further sections devoted to poetry, memoir, fiction, literary and art criticism, he assesses each genre he has worked in as author.

    The book is indeed a memoir of a kind- that of a man who knows that only selected aspects of a relatively sedentary career can be of larger interest. Some may wonder why this Quixote should have spent many years on a study that only a Happy Few are likely to read, but Rudolf argues - and invokes famed writers who argued likewise - that quantity may be essential to uncovering quality of the highest order.

    Silent Conversations should not be read "at one sitting" but returned to and weighed over time. Even its sections tagged by names too obscure to recall hold provocative insights.

    A less exhaustive but still substantial tour on neighbouring ground is Sasha Abramsky's tale of his bibliophile grandfather, whom Rudolf knew as bookseller. Also of Eastern European descent, Chimen Abramsky was the son and grandson of illustrious rabbis. He arrived in London via Palestine in the 1930s following his father's persecution by Stalin. Eventually, he combined capitalist trade with consultation on rare texts for Sotheby's and chairing the department of Jewish studies at UCL. His house, as narrowed by shelves as is Rudolf's flat, was for decades a meeting place of the intellectual Left; for, despite his father's sojourn in Siberia, Chimen and his wife remained devout Communists until the mid-1950s.

    This aspect of his grandparents' career vexes Sasha Abramsky, who lives, far from 20th-century Europe's agony, in California. He wonders how they could have followed Moscow's line after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and how Chimen, under a pseudonym, could have written an obituary entitled The Debt Jews Owe to Joseph Stalin.

    Yet, overall, his book is driven by a desire to recapture the atmosphere of a home he loved to visit as a boy. His grandmother's "obsession with community" kept her kitchen as full of friends and of food as other rooms were of Chimen's Marxist tracts or the Judaica he acquired when his Communist dream failed. Through each part of their house, Sasha Abramsky leads us, revivifying what was there and the histories behind it. Memorialising an epoch in Jewish life, he mixes the visual with the instructive in a way that could inspire a television series.

    His book is a user-friendly companion to Rudolf's wise, literary table-talk.

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