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Growing up with ADAM

Rachel Lasserson remembers a very extraordinary, ordinary man

Rachel Lasserson  |  Spring 2006  -  Number 201


ADAM International Review, edited for 52 years by my grandfather Miron Grindea, was like another member of the family, albeit a distant and very senior relative. As children we held it in awe because we couldn’t understand it, although we felt its magnetism drawing in the interesting, the crazy, the famous and the obscure.

We felt it most when we stayed with our grandparents, Miron and Carola, in Brighton, in their elegant, high-ceilinged Regency flat. Coming back from the beach on a Sunday morning, laden with interesting stones for our Stone Gallery, we would wander into the sitting room to find a small party drinking whisky out of miniscule glasses. Typically this party comprised a local sculptor and his wife, a retired ophthalmic surgeon obsessed with Delius, an elderly writer and his young partner, a garishly made-up Rumanian actress, a handsome Israeli poet and a Finnish pianist. After the introductions, we would inevitably be asked to play something on our instruments for the guests. Resistance was futile and potentially hazardous, as I learned early on, when my refusal once left my grandfather frothing on the edge of an asthma attack.

The sitting room walls were lined with paintings, each stamped on my memory from the hours I stared at them. When I recall them now, I still see them through the eyes of a 7-year-old; a colourful tree which grew eyes by Cocteau, a terrifying giant’s face by Dali, strange watery landscapes of Israel and Rumania by Dorel Pascal, a faceless monster by Kokoschka. There was a tiny, tinkly Clavinova and an antique black zither, on which we composed all manner of forgettable nonsense when we tired of adult conversation.

As children, we would watch this dance of characters, delighting in the entertaining ones, yawning at the bores, assuming that life would be forever thus.

Or did we? Perhaps we knew how special it was. Perhaps that was why my brother David, aged 5, declared that when he grew up he was going to be an ordinary man like Plum-Plum (Miron). Not a doctor or a pianist - just an ordinary man who meets interesting people, travels and writes on a typewriter, single-handedly editing a highbrow literary quarterly.

As I grew older, I became more involved with ADAM. I believe this was my grandfather’s way of keeping me by his side, more than his unshakeable faith in my literary genius. I learned to read proofs, and I waded through tedious opaque verse which he couldn’t be bothered with. He took me to literary salons, prizes, gatherings, conferences and lectures. (Fine when you’re an adult, slightly less fine when you’re 14 and your contemporaries are all going to other kinds of parties . . .) Miron thought nothing of hopping on a plane to Sweden to try and swing the Nobel Prize in favour of the obscure Portuguese writer, Miguel Torga.

The title of my Introduction to the anthology of ADAM editorials is ‘Music, Proust and Anti-Semitism’. Throughout the sweep of ADAM’s extraordinary 52 years of publication (during which time it introduced the British reader to writing in translation long before the translation industry and Picador were invented – from Swedish literature to Senegalese), these three themes persisted.

Music was my grandfather’s greatest passion. He had a fine ear and his musical knowledge was the result of a lifetime’s listening to great instrumentalists. He thought nothing of giving up several days to attend a special concert and travelled two days across Europe to hear Casals play in his Concert for Peace. Emphatically, it was Elisabeth Schumann over Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Bruno Walter over Toscanini, Casals over Tortelier, Myra Hess and Rubinstein over other pianists, and Thibaud and Kreisler over everybody else. Any challenge to this produced pained cries of ‘Acccchhhhh! Vulgarians!’

Many pages of ADAM are given to scholarly writing on music and musicians, and earlier numbers contain concert reviews. Whole issues are devoted to single composers - Chopin, Mozart, Enescu, Britten, Debussy, Berlioz, William Alwyn - almost all include unpublished correspondence, memoirs, even, in the case of Mozart, the transcript of a short play. Number 379 is subtitled ‘For Musick’s Sake’ and contains profiles of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, as well as an oil painting by Schoenberg himself and a facsimile of the document marking his official reconversion to Judaism in 1935 in a Paris synagogue (with Chagall as his witness).

The importance of music in the lives of great writers is a favourite subject. He devoted entire issues to variations on this theme: ‘Baudelaire and Berlioz’, ‘Four Writers and Music’, ‘Gide et la Musique’, the last of which includes gleeful reports of Gide’s actual piano playing. Although Miron’s own attempts to persuade Gide to play for him were unsuccessful, he did persuade Shaw to play a piano transcription of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He also treasured a recording of Tolstoy playing his own composition on the piano.

No single subject received such close attention as Proust and his masterpiece A La Recherche du Temps Perdu - eight long issues devoted exclusively to Proust testify to the holy status of the [chef d’oeuvre in [ADAM’s eyes. Proust’s own Jewish background and overtly Jewish style fuelled Miron’s personal fascination with the oeuvre. As Denis Saurat put it in issue 349 (1971),

Le style de la Recherche est celui des rabbins commentant les Ecritures, le style du Talmud et du Zohar, phrases longues, compliquées, surchargées d’incidents, aboutisant à de petites trouvailles precieuses, desarticulées, avec des echapées sur d’autres sujets . . . il a replongé par sa racine juive jusqu’aux grandes intuitions de la Cabale, la reincarnation, la loi sexuelle, l’eternité des idées . . .

Nowhere is this ‘Jewish style’ of writing more evident than in [ADAM’s own meandering editorials and dizzying tangential footnotes. Although [ADAM had transformed itself from a Jewish magazine at its Rumanian inception to an Anglo-French literary quarterly after Miron moved to London in 1939, it continued to be unmistakably Jewish in both perspective and tone. The emotional register is strenuously un-English: troughs of lamentation (a magazine closed down in France! Somebody didn’t win the Nobel Prize!) follow peaks of celebration (an unpublished fragment by Mozart!). Miron writes of the ‘intensity of expression which is almost all that remains to us refugee-writers from our national culture’.

For post-war Jews there were two consuming subjects: Israel and the Holocaust. ‘The Grave is in the Cherry Orchard is the prison diary of artist Arnold Daghani’s years in Mihailowka concentration camp. In ‘Sabra Poets (1971), no one could miss the symbolic importance of a Jew uniting Palestinian and Hebrew poets in one volume. But it is the anthology of Jerusalem, ‘The Golden City in Literature (1968), which is the most impressive. It was the result of many years of research and has been reprinted as a book in its own right, with a Foreword by Graham Greene. It is dedicated ‘To the memory of my parents, who dreamed of Jerusalem’.

Like many diaspora Jews, Miron was obsessed with antisemitism, and would digress for paragraphs if he found any record of his subject’s feelings towards Jews. In general, the tone in exploring the rabid Jew-hatred in Carlyle’s, Dostoevsky’s and Wagner’s writings is one of baffled sadness that across Europe and throughout history thinkers and writers of genius were poisoned with the same hatred. Carlyle’s antisemitism does nothing, however, to rob the London Library of its special place in ADAM’s pantheon of favourites.

In keeping with the Jewish tradition of exile, where memory must be kept alive through writing, ADAM is packed with tributes to friends and significant figures. Anniversaries and important dates are, like yarzeit candles, observed unfailingly: Strindberg’s centenary, the 150th Anniversary of Balzac’s birth, the centenary of Chopin’s death, Schiller’s bicentennial, the centenary of 1848 in French Literature. ADAM’s own milestones are also marked: #200, #250, #300 are all ‘special anniversary’ issues. Before he died in 1985, Miron was preparing a grand 500th issue devoted to the Dreyfus affair. With hindsight, this may be seen as the culmination of his life’s work. It was certainly a subject of immense personal importance: the Dreyfus affair split French society in two, and exposed institutionalized antisemitism at every level. Dreyfusism, ‘the political touchstone’ of the Recherche (to cite Professor Levin’s ‘Introduction to the American edition of Letters of Marcel Proust, issue 260, 1957) was and is, of course, hugely relevant to postwar silence surrounding questions of French collaboration.

To my shame, I never read a copy of ADAM from cover to cover until after he died. Preparing this anthology of his editorials has been like resuming a dialogue with a loved one. Collected, they articulate a moral code, a belief system, a rich world for whoever cares to enter. Individually, they crackle with humour, chutzpah and his own unmistakable meshugas. My adult self has enjoyed being guided by his refined taste and scholarship rather than chafing, younger, under his orthodoxy. It seems no coincidence that, through immersion in his oeuvre, I have found greater pleasure in writing, in music and things Jewish.

Rachel Lasserson worked on ADAM for years, accompanying Miron Grindea on numerous literary sorties. She works in theatre, plays the violin and writes occasional features.

ADAM: An Anthology of Miron Grindea’s Editorials, selected and edited by Rachel Lasserson is published in two volumes by Vallentine Mitchell at a price £45 (hardback) and £19.95 (paperback) each.

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