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
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