Rooted in Poetry

Bernard Kops Returns to Russia to Assassinate the Tsar

a book review by Thomas Ország-Land (July 2012)

IN 1881, the St. Petersburg cell of the notorious anarchist organization Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will) assassinates the tyrannical antisemite Tsar Alexander II of All Mother Russia, the flames of murderous pogroms sweep through the abused Pale of Settlements and a Jewish boy from Muswell Hill in 21st century London is rescued by the banned Yiddish Jericho Players company of Latvia… What?

Bernard Kops, the doyen of European poetry, has issued a great new Jewish novel. It tells a fantastic and entirely believable tale with warmth, humour, empathy and depth reminiscent of the Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem. Its text pulsates like some pieces from the immortal pen of the Jewish-Soviet master Isaac Babel. But Kops gives us more even than his towering antecedents because he is also, quintessentially, a poet.

His story is about the present. Its characters are those among us whose forebears struggled through the great European migrations in the last two centuries and the many who chose to remain, and even the giants whose explosive imaginations came to formulate the self-image of much of the world in our own time.

The Odyssey of Samuel Glass
by Bernard Kops

David Paul, London, 272pp., £14:99p
ISBN 978 09548482 8 6

Like a fateful refrain, the menacing sound of Holocaust cattle-trucks clanging through the frozen Russian terrain, and the crying of the people inside, are audible throughout the narrative. But it is also a very funny coming-of-age story.

Its hero Samuel Glass is probably the only lad in all literature who manages to shed his skateboard as well as his innocence several times in succession, because he does so in his prolific fantasy, and then to lose a flesh-and-blood beauty next door to some lucky New Zealander.

Our adventurer turns up in 19th century Vitebsk, the town of his forebears, to confront his destiny but finds himself trapped in the wrong country and the wrong century of a confusing world. Yet the real world proves even more confusing when the sounds of the Holocaust horror follow him all the way back to the idyllic Thames Valley of London.

Kops’ universe, like Sholem Aleichem’s, is centred around wise, passionate and magnetic matriarchs at the peak of their power, surrounded by weaker men and whores and witches defending a place in their orbit.

One such matriarch is Lisa, Sam’s gorgeous widowed mother, who is about to embark on a love affair a year after the untimely death of her beloved husband, Sam’s father. Another is Sarah, Lisa’s equally young and desirable great-great-great grandmother who summons our heartbroken hero back into history to assassinate the tsar. Which he does, in the company of a team of bombers.

Unsurprisingly, the tyrant is less initially loathsome to Sam than Lisa’s chosen David and Sarah’s new husband Akiva…

Many writers familiar to a sensitive, educated North London teenager pop up in the story unexpectedly and always on cue. Sam meets a best-selling author named Anne Frank who wonders why he had to run away from home, since “mine,” she recalls, “ran away from me.”

Lovers of freedom like Shelly and Lorca stroll through the brutalized Russian lands soon to come under the yoke of the Soviets. Sam, who has never experienced a single act of antisemitism on Muswell Hill Broadway, watches T. S. Eliot climb off his pedestal to seek out the Jews “underneath the piles.” Shakespeare even helps out when the protagonist must eventually sing (literally) for his supper.

The novel, Kops’ 10th, has just been issued during the Jewish Book Week of London. The author was earlier feted on his 85th birthday by the London Jewish Museum at a sell-out reading of his 1958 play The Hamlet of Stepney Green that first catapulted him to world fame as an originator of Britain’s new wave, “kitchen-sink” theatre.

Kops hails from the now bygone, destitute European Jewish immigrant settlements of East London that sheltered there from the Holocaust during the Second World War. Sam’s Russian Odyssey is full of autobiographical turns.

This author is extraordinarily prolific and, at long last, commercially successful. The 2010 publication of his collected poetry This Room in the Sunlight (David Paul Publishing, London, £9.99p., Paperback, 132pp.) was a major event for English literature. He has also issued more than 40 plays, two autobiographies and six previous volumes of verse.

All of Kops’ writing is rooted in poetry, which may perhaps explain his ability to make his prose throb with passion, as famously done by the short story writer Isaac Babel in his classic 1920s Russian collection Red Calvary. How does Kops do that in English? Let us enter his workshop.

English poets know that in any copy prepared for public recital, the language demands a pause or at least one unstressed syllable, and does not tolerate more than two unstressed syllables, between two stressed ones.

A writer ignoring this may expose the text to awkward stresses of pronunciation or unintended pauses in the performance. But properly used, this formula gives us something like blank verse, the most versatile metre in the language favoured by Shakespeare and many others. Its commonly employed five-footed line easily lends itself, depending on the mood of the text, to the expression of anything from light musings to cutting satire or pulsating tension.

In the following example chosen almost at random, I have edited only very slightly a passage of Kops’ prose about the spread of panic at Vitebsk railway station to turn it into vibrant descriptive poetry:

A long queue of ragged, silent and lifeless humans
were shuffling forward, one shoe at a time,
everyone trying to get away from Vitebsk.
The Red Rabbi sniffed… checking the atmosphere:
“I fear there is pogrom in the air.”
“There is always a pogrom in the air and more often
a pogrom on the ground,” Akiva retorted.
The creatures in the queue seemed barely able
to rub two kopeks together. Where were they off to,
and why? As they approached the ticket hatch
some urgent whispers started to circulate.
The voices of the lumpen stragglers were
morose and suddenly fearful. “Did someone say pogrom?”
An old hag cackled: “I see it with my own ears…”
A toothless man muttered: “I’ve heard it with my own eyes…”
“When, WHEN?…” “Anytime you like… Tonight! Tomorrow
or yesterday!…” But, “It is all a tall story,”
uttered a heavily pregnant Jewish dwarf.

Now consider Kops’ unedited prose below, describing a real pogrom raging amidst a theatrical performance: Chaos was smiling on his rostrum, conducting the scene. The hall was alight and the crowds from outside rushed in with burning torches. The cast huddled together on stage. The audience was a tangled, screaming, unbelieving crowd.

And the mob went in amongst them. “Death to the Yids. Pogrom! Pogrom! You bastard Jews. Christ murderers. You’re finished in this country.” And daggers and breadknives were doing their job, a flashing flood; and blood was fountaining, pouring down and hammers were crashing, and smashing and nightmare was king.

The hall ignited and the slavering flames licked at the bundle of actors upon the stage…
And down in the hall, peasants cried and fought each other and tore at each other desperate to get outside.
“Death to the Yids! Death to the Yids.” The chorus continued outside.
“We’re finished. We’re finished. God help us. They are burning us. They are turning us into smoke.”

They cried and a vacuum of silence rushed in from the world; and the woman with her baby was sliding in the blood where the dead lay, gushing their innards; the baby still sucking the breast, and as she sang softly a lullaby. “Sleep my baby sleep. Roshinkers mit mundelan, almonds and raisons, sweet and bitter, sleep my baby sleep.”

As a boy, Sam had slipped into the past to get away from home; as a man, he must seek his future on board an immigrant ship with the touring Jericho Players dreaming of their own, permanent Yiddish theatre on the old Commercial Road of London. In real life, several Jewish theatrical companies from the Pale of Settlements were badly received in 19th century England, but they travelled on to set up the American film industry in Hollywood. The British film industry was created only during Kops’ childhood by the famous Jewish-Hungarian Korda brothers.

Before he is allowed to return to his prosperous, modern reality, Sam must still experience the poverty of Kops’ native East End of London. Despite the squalor and degradation, Sam feels almost comfortable there. In a moving nod to his own, deprived childhood, Kops observes that “compassion and caring was still alive in the shtetl (a Yiddish-speaking East European village) that was the old East End.”


THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes from London and his native Budapest. His next book will be THE SURVIVORS: Holocaust Poetry for Our Time (Smokestack/England) to be published in 2014.

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