Book review: Phineas Kahn

Authentic immigrant narrative spoiled by melodrama


Phineas Kahn By Simon Blumenfeld

London Books, £14.95

Fans of mid-20th-century Anglo-Jewish literature owe a huge debt of thanks to London Books. In recent years, they have introduced many of us to some of the best novels by Alexander Baron and Gerald Kersh, all published in handsome hardback editions with excellent introductions.  

This is the third novel they have published by Simon Blumenfeld. Born in Whitechapel in 1907, Blumenfeld left school early to work as a cap-maker, presser and market-trader. He is best known for Jew Boy (1935), a portrayal of life in the East End, the first of four novels he wrote in four years. After the war, he embarked on a long career in journalism, including more than 40 years as a columnist for The Stage (under the pen name, Sidney Vauncez (Yiddish for ‘Moustache’) .

While Jew Boy is about growing up in the East End, Phineas Kahn (1937) is about the life of an immigrant. It begins in a small town in the Russian Pale, all crooked streets, toothless peasants and samovars. 

Here, we meet Phineas Kahn and follow him as he studies at cheder, synagogue and becomes a talented violinist. After his parents die, he marries Shandel and the couple emigrate to Vienna, and then London, though Phineas briefly goes to America to try to make money to support his family in London. 

They live lives of unremitting poverty. Phineas works as a cap-maker in the East End. He hungers for culture, but has a growing family to feed. He is in many ways his own worst enemy, falling out with successive employers, until at times he hardly knows which way to turn. He is even turned down by the British army because they can’t afford to compensate such a huge family should he be killed. 

The most interesting part of the novel is the first 80 pages, set in the Russian Pale. But, by the time we get to the last 100 pages, the focus shifts to the children and it becomes a melodrama. One son becomes a schoolteacher in Manchester and gets married, as does another son while a third embarks on chemical research. A daughter goes to Russia, one son dies, his wife kills herself. All of this is overwrought. 

Phineas Kahn could be read as a British version of Henry Roth’s 1930s masterpiece, Call It Sleep, also about Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century. There the resemblance ends. From the first page, Roth’s novel is a masterpiece. Phineas Kahn is for the most part poorly written, lacking great phrases or images. Jew Boy undoubtedly remains Blumenfeld’s best work. 

David Herman is a senior JC reviewer


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