Re­vival of writer who sank into the squalor of Soho

The first ti­tle from a new pub­lish­ing com­pany in­tent on re­dis­cov­er­ing lost clas­sics is a trea­sure which is bound to win its au­thor a new fol­low­ing

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

FROM THE open­ing scene it grabs you. You feel your­self be­ing dragged through a thicket of ur­ban un­der­growth. Night and the City by Ger­ald Kersh lurches from com­edy to men­ace, vivid de­scrip­tion to rapid-fire di­a­logue. Witty and sharply ob­served, the novel boasts a pan­theon of flawed and some­times re­pul­sive char­ac­ters, most, ap­par­ently, “on the make”.

Even “a cat of the city” re­flects the noc­tur­nal mood: “shame­less and heart­less, elu­sive as an eel, re­silient as rub­ber, in­de­struc­tible as chew­ing-gum; a tile-be­got­ten hy­brid, born among salmon-tins and bro­ken bot­tles, whose pedi­gree had slunk in of­fal from dust­bin to dust­bin since Egypt”.

Yet amid the an­ar­chy and break­neck nar­ra­tive pace of Kersh’s de­scrip­tion of Soho, heart of Lon­don, his crafty plot­line is firmly con­trolled. Then you look at the date of first pub­li­ca­tion: 1938. Can it be? “I was knocked out when I first read the novel,” says Martin Knight, whose col­league, John King (au­thor of The Foot­ball Fac­tory), dis­cov­ered an old copy, quite ap­pro­pri­ately, in a louche Soho dis­count book­shop. “It felt so cur­rent and im­me­di­ate, and the writ­ing is re­ally bril­liant. Kersh deals with per­mis­sive­ness and the so-called lower classes, 20 years be­fore ‘an­gry young men’ like John Os­borne broached the same top­ics,” says Knight, ghost writer for a num­ber of top foot­ballers.

In­spired by Kersh and other chron­i­clers of the cap­i­tal’s seamier side, King and Knight set up the Lon­don Books im­print to re­vive the genre. Kersh’s Night and James Cur­tis’s Gilt Kid of 1935 are two of what they hope will be a trove of long-buried lit­er­ary gems. Next year they aim to bring back A Start in Life (1970) to co­in­cide with au­thor Alan Sillitoe’s 80th birth­day. An­other ti­tle they are ey­ing is Si­mon Blu­men­feld’s sem­i­nal Jew­boy (1935).

Kersh’s third novel main­tains its zest 60 years af­ter it first ap­peared. His “hero” is Harry Fabian, a hap­less odd­job­ber and pimp, al­ways with some quixotic plan to make a for­tune. The latest, we learn, in­volves all-in wres- tling. Af­ter each dis­ap­point­ment, Harry re­turns for one more tilt at the wind­mills. But his life turns into a ni­hilis­tic vor­tex. Ul­ti­mately he be­trays and cons ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing him­self, as the po­lice close in. Mean­while Lon­don cleans its streets in prepa­ra­tion for the 1937 Royal Coro­na­tion.

Along the way, Harry meets char­ac­ters like Lip­sky, Liq­uid Fin­ger, Phil Nosseross, Anna Siberia, Adam the sculp­tor, and Figler, whose note­book car­ries “a life­time of tor­tu­ous re­search in the snake haunted hin­ter­land of ques­tion­able com­merce… a kind of Kab­balah of buy­ing and sell­ing”. Kersh’s cre­ations al­most re­sem­ble Sholem Ale­ichem’s, but are far darker in hue.

It comes as no sur­prise to learn that Night and the City spawned two film treat­ments un­der the same name. First came a UK cin­ema noir clas­sic of 1950, star­ring Richard Wid­mark; then a 1992 re­make fea­tur­ing Robert de Niro and Jes­sica Lange, re­lo­cated to New York.

All of which makes one won­der why Kersh fell so abruptly off the radar. “From Kersh’s books, you can tell that he ob­vi­ously lived that life him­self,” notes Knight. Born into a large Jewish im­mi­grant fam­ily in Ted­ding­ton-onThames in 1911, Kersh be­gan writ­ing at eight and pub­lished his first novel, Jews with­out Je­ho­vah, in 1934. Four of­fended rel­a­tives sued him for mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion — even though it was meant to be fic­ti­tious. Hap­pily, this did not put Kersh off his pas­sion.

He went on to pen more than 1,000 ar­ti­cles, 400 short sto­ries and 19 nov­els. He also worked as a body­guard, cook, lo­cal news­pa­per ed­i­tor, French teacher, trav­el­ling sales­man and cin­ema man­ager. He mar­ried three times, some­times slept rough, and built a house in Bar­ba­dos which burnt down.

Kersh’s mor­dant ac­count of ba­sic train­ing dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, They Die With Their Boots Clean (1941) was enor­mously pop­u­lar. Later he learnt that many of his French rel­a­tives had per­ished in the Holo­caust and went on to write about Belsen.

Trou­bled by botched tax re­turns, fail­ing health and a tor­rid per­sonal life, Kersh still churned out mas­ter­pieces like Pre­lude To A Cer­tain Mid­night (1947) and The Great Wash (1953), which dealt pre­sciently with melt­ing po­lar ice caps. An­thony Burgess called his Fowlers End (1957) “one of the best comic nov­els of the cen­tury”.

Even­tu­ally Kersh died pen­ni­less and forgotten in New York in 1968. Paul Dun­can is cur­rently writ­ing his bi­og­ra­phy. Night is bound to win him a new gen­er­a­tion of fans. As John King writes in his in­tro­duc­tion, “the vi­brancy of his sto­ry­telling prov[es] that good lit­er­a­ture is time­less”.

Lawrence Joffe is a free­lance writer

Ger­ald Kersh: time­less

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