A gentle man and his books

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By Rudrangshu Mukherjee
  • Published 9.01.15

The House Of Twenty Thousand BooksBy Sasha Abramsky, Halban, £14.95

It is difficult to think of a private house with 20,000 books. But this is what Chimen Abramsky's house was in north London. Chimen's life was as remarkable as his collection.

He was born in Minsk in 1916 and died in London at the age of 94. His father was a well-known rabbi. Chimen grew up to be an atheist, but he observed all the Jewish festivals. He was an autodidact who went on to become a professor of Jewish Studies in University College, London. For a large part of his life he was a communist who became thoroughly disillusioned with the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In his house, he built up one of the finest private libraries on the history and culture of the Jews and on the early history of Marxism and communism. He was a dealer in rare books and a consultant at Sotheby's on rare books. His house was also the venue for meetings - what in Calcutta would be called an adda - of men belonging to the republic of letters: from Isaiah Berlin to Eric Hobsbawm. Chimen kept an open house where anyone interested in books and ideas was welcome.

This is a biography of a man and his collection lovingly written by his grandson. Sasha Abramsky recalls visiting his grandparents' house as a child when bits of "Spinoza and Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Hegel'' were cited to him "as morality tales.'' This made him wonder about the kind of growing up his father and aunt - Chimen and Mimi's children - had: "a political education camp'' perhaps, he muses.

Chimen must have been an adorable man. He comes across from his grandson's account as a kind, loving and gentle person. He was a man of immense learning and love for learning who hoped for a more just society but this did not make him an austere, earnest and a humourless person. He was a comrade who loved to laugh.

Chimen's father, because of his religious beliefs and scholarship, was a direct victim of Stalin's oppression. His death sentence was commuted as a result of pressure from his circle of friends that included Maxim Gorky. He was sent off to a labour camp in Siberia. He was released after two years and he moved to Riga, from where he escaped to London. Chimen studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem but in 1939, during a visit to London, he found himself trapped there and, since then, London became his home.

It was in London that Chimen met his wife, Mimi Nirenstein, whose father owned a bookshop in the East End, Shapiro, Valentine and Co. Husband and wife began to run the bookshop. His love affair with books had begun. In terms of building up a collection and making some financial gains through the book trade, the end of World War II was an opportune moment. There were books in the market and bargains to be made.

It was while dealing in books that Chimen began building up what became his own incredible private collection. There wasn't a room in his house that wasn't cluttered and lined with books. And Sasha takes his readers on a journey through each of the rooms.

Chimen's life in books was not without wonder and adventure. Once, at the height of the Cold War, he stood at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower with a collection of original documents from the library of Eleanor Marx; he exchanged this for cash from an intermediary representing Mao Zedong. In a hotel in New York, he was presented with a hand-written manuscript of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. His disillusionment with Soviet communism notwithstanding, Chimen travelled to Prague in 1963 to rescue 1,500 Torah scrolls from a disused synagogue. Chimen took such incidents in his stride to narrate them to his friends and admirers.

There is a growing genre that can only be described as books about books. One thinks here of course of the writings of Alberto Manguel. But the book that comes immediately to mind on reading The House of Twenty Thousand Books is the unforgettable 84, Charing Cross Road. Both these books convey the same ambience: clutter of books; the unerring eye for the apt title/edition, a sense of wonder and, more than everything else, an immense fund of enjoyment of the world of books.

In addition, the book under review also brings to readers a lost world of radical politics, of a time when communists or Jews debated and argued about the future of the world. They discussed traditions and their refashioning. At the heart of all such discussions were a love and a concern for humanity.

The end of this book is poignant. As he grew old, most of Chimen's friends died. He too was afflicted by deafness and failing eyesight - the price of old age. Sasha leaves us with this portrait: "As a very old man, Chimen would sit on a simple wooden chair at his dining room table, a pile of books and papers next to him... largely cocooned within the world of silence... He would take a book, lean upon it, hunch forward slightly. His glasses would slide maybe a quarter of an inch down his nose; his left hand, fingers slightly splayed, would hold down the pages... his right hand, fingers also splayed, would rest on the corner of his temple.'' The familiar pose of a reader, a book lover.