Alexander Baron: The forgotten great British novelist

David Herman welcomes a revival of interest in the man hailed as a great novelist in the 1950s


One of the most exciting developments in recent years has been the rediscovery of Anglo-Jewish writing from the 1950s. There have been acclaimed revivals of plays by Arnold Wesker and Harold Pinter. What has been largely overlooked, though, is the revival of interest in an extraordinary group of post-war Anglo-Jewish writers who had fallen into neglect, in particular, Alexander Baron, Roland Camberton and Gerald Kersh.

Baron was born a hundred years ago, in December 1917. He’s no longer a household name but his war novel, From the City, From the Plough, sold half a million copies when it was first published. The Guardian called him, ‘the greatest British novelist of the last war and among the finest, most underrated, of the postwar period.’ 

He was born Joseph Bernstein, the son of Barnet Bernstein, a Polish-Jewish immigrant who worked as a fur cutter in the East End, and Fanny, a ‘good and serious reader’. Alec lived with his parents above a cobbler’s shop in Bethnal Green.

Like so many children of Jewish immigrants in the East End, Baron became a political activist in the 1930s, actively campaigning against the fascists. But he became increasingly disillusioned with the far left and finally broke with the communists after the Hitler–Stalin Pact of August 1939.

The great turning-point in his life came when he was called up in July 1940. He served in the army until spring 1946, experiencing fierce fighting in Sicily, the Italian campaign, Normandy and Belgium. He used his wartime experiences as the basis for his three best-selling war novels.

There was a dark side to his wartime experience, suffering a breakdown in 1945. He later wrote, ‘I felt that innumerable fine wires inside me were being tightened on violin pegs.’ He was discharged from the army due to ‘Psychoneurosis… aggravated by war service.’

In 1948 Baron published his first novel, From the City from the Plough. His publisher Jonathan Cape asked him to change his name from Bernstein to Baron. The novel takes place in the final months of training, leading up to D Day and the Normandy campaign. There is little action. Instead the focus is on relationships and emotions and it seemed to speak to a generation of ex-servicemen after the war. The critic VS Pritchett wrote that it was ‘the only war book that has conveyed any sense of reality to me.’

This opened the floodgates. Baron published seven novels in less than a decade. He had two great subjects: the war and working-class London. Few have written better about either. In the Sixties he started writing superb accounts of London life, including The Lowlife (1963) and King Dido (1969), creating memorable characters like Harryboy Boas and Dido Peach.

He also increasingly wrote for television. By the 1960s he had become a regular writer on BBC's Play for Today, well known for drama serials like Poldark and A Horseman Riding By, and BBC classic adaptions including Jane Eyre, Sense and Sensibility and Oliver Twist.

Baron died in 1999. Sadly, he didn’t live to see the critical revival of the past fifteen years. All his best novels have been republished, some several times, many with excellent introductions and he has been championed by a new generation of critics and writers.

Baron was the most gentle and thoughtful of men. But there is something intriguing about the way his novels are torn between two forces, domesticity and respectability on the one hand, and something more violent and unsettling, on the other, whether war, gang violence or sexuality. One hundred years after his birth he deserves to be remembered as one of the leading writers of his generation.  

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