Jakov Lind

Jakov Lind

This is an edited and expanded version of the eulogy delivered by Anthony Rudolf at the funeral of Jakov Lind,West London Synagogue Cemetery, Hoop Lane, London, Feb 17, 2007.

Almost forty years ago, I was introduced to Rabbis Albert Friedlander and Michael Goulston. Michael died young, Albert survived into old age. They are both buried in this cemetery. Thanks partly to them, I was privileged to meet a number of writers who had lived extraordinary lives. There was, and why not, an element of vicariousness, even frisson, in my ongoing fascination with the lived lives of these writers, and for two reasons: one), the awesome glamour – in the proper sense of the word – cast by survivors of the camps and, in Jakov’s case, survivors of the dragnet; two), if I and others of my generation had been a few years older and born in occupied Europe, this destiny – survivor or victim – was ours. What would we have done? What would we have been?

Accompanied by the American poet and folklore scholar Howard Schwartz, I first visited Jakov in the early 1970s, when he lived in Saint Johns Wood. At that point, I had only read Soul of Wood, one of his two indisputable masterpieces. Jakov was a bad boy like Piotr Rawicz and Jerzy Kosinski, not a good boy like Primo Levi and Aharon Appelfeld. He was a coyote, a trickster. He enjoyed hash and LSD. A wicked smile played around his mouth, while witty aphorisms and deep insights tripped off his lips. He emanated inner strength – and an electric intelligence that we all wanted to emulate. I was hooked and remained hooked.

Where does the story begin? Jakov was born in 1927 in Vienna into an assimilated Jewish family. A few months after the Anschluss in 1938, his parents sent him on a children’s transport to Holland. There he joined one of many Zionist farms or training centres across Europe, in preparation for kibbutz life in the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. As we know from his fascinating and sophisticated autobiographies written in English, the tough-minded teenager, at odds with those Dutch Jews who did not resist deportation, went underground. He survived the war in Germany as a Dutch merchant seaman on a barge. He tells us that it was safer for a Jew to be in Germany “inside the lion’s mouth” rather than in Holland, where you would feel “its teeth and claws”. He even survived a physical examination when he checked into a hospital for venereal disease. “What, that too?” said the male nurse with a laugh, after inspecting the culprit.

After the war, Jakov Lind finally went to Palestine as an illegal immigrant but he only lasted five years, having had one child with his first wife. While there, he wrote one short novel in German, which was published in Hebrew translation. In 1950, Lind returned to Vienna, where he enrolled as a drama student but eventually found the cultural scene – full of former Nazis, or more accurately, Nazis, unrepentant Nazis – too much to take. The German language, too, was involving him in a personal psychodrama he could do without. So he left for London in 1954. Here he lived for the rest of his life, with regular stays in New York and Majorca. His second marriage to Faith Henry produced two children, one of whom, Simon, predeceased him.

Critics agree that Jakov Lind is a major writer, but in the UK his was a succès d’estime. Indeed, one of his main publishers, Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape, told me that Lind’s books never made a profit – but that it was an honour to publish him. Years later, my own Menard Press published one of his volumes of short fictions, The Stove, which contains the marvellous Story of Lilith and Eve. This volume, too, did not make a profit but yes, it was an honour for me to publish him, too. Apart from The Stove, none of his books is in print in the UK or the USA. What a scandal.

Let me briefly try to characterise Jakov as a writer. He surveys his era with savage laughter and surreal vision and displays both a caustic irony and a tragic sense of the human condition during what he called “the agony of our pre-Messianic times”. This is not the place to discuss the painful and possibly mistaken decision to write in English but we can say with confidence that, already in London, he wrote his two finest books in German: the stories in Soul of Wood and the novel Landscape in Concrete as well as the play Ergo. These works are astonishing and highly original imaginings of many facets of evil, including sadistic cruelty. Tthey speak eloquently of the condition of being a victim and the madness abroad which constitutes the virtual victory of Hitler if we fail to translate survival into freedom. The dark humour of Soul of Wood recalls Rawicz’s Blood from the Sky, while the mythic apocalyptic world of Landscape in Concrete recalls Kosinski’s The Painted Bird.

Edward Timms reminds us that there are echoes of the good soldier Schweik in the main character of Landscape, Gauthier Bachmann. One could add that the exploration of morality, madness and war has affinities with Catch Twenty Two. In Ergo, the philosophical satirist moves even further from realism than Rawicz and even more towards allegory than Kosinski. Ergo appeared in 1968. One year later, he published the first of his books written in English, the autobiography Counting my Steps. This was followed by other autobiographies: Numbers in 1972, The Trip to Jerusalem in 1974 and, much later, Crossing (1991).

Lind’s style, his thought and what Kafka called “the world history of [his] soul” could all be studied profitably “against” those of fellow central European writers such as Joseph Roth, Canetti and Kafka on the one hand, and Hebrew writers originating from that world, including Appelfeld and Pagis, on the other. In Germany and Austria, he is discussed in the same breath as Günter Grass and Thomas Bernhard. There are undoubted affinities with Grass but he claimed, implausibly, never to have read Bernhard.  
I approached Günter Grass for a comment on Jakov, and here are the low-key remarks he sent me: “In the 60s and 70s, I met Jakov Lind on several occasions, for example, at the meeting of Group 47 in Stockholm. At that time he had published his book Landscape in Concrete in German, a dense literary text which impressed me greatly. In later years, he swayed between English and German and I had the impression that this insecurity made him more and more speechless. I did not hear from him for a long time and then I received the news of his death. He will remain in my memory.” A subject for another occasion is Grass’s choice of the novel Landscape in Concrete rather than Soul of Wood to remember him by.

Immediately across the road from this cemetery is the famous Golders Green crematorium. There, nearly seventy years ago, Stefan Zweig eulogised “an important Jew who died in exile”, as Auden called Freud in that beautiful elegy of 1939 which ends: “Sad is Eros, builder of cities, / And weeping anarchic Aphrodite.” Today, we bid farewell to another ornament of the magnificent and lost world of Jewish Central Europe, a lover of women whose death indeed makes Eros sad, and causes Aphrodite to weep.

Lind was one of the best and most distinctive European, Austrian and Jewish writers of our time. I am told that a street in Vienna will be named after him but what is more important is that his books should be brought back into print in the UK and USA. Although he will be outlived by at least three of these books (and perhaps by some of his paintings), today we are saying farewell to the mortal man who wrote them: father, grandfather, brother, lover, wit, friend and – thanks to all his intensely human qualities as well as the precious gift of luck -- survivor of the Shoah. He was one of the great witnesses. Another great witness, Paul Celan, asked “Who shall bear witness for the witness?” The answer is, all those who loved Jakov and, beyond him, loved his work.

-- Anthony Rudolf (08/05/2007)

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