Monday, 10 May 2021
This is more than just another new CBe book, it’s a new/old one and it’s been waiting for over a decade to happen. When I decided, back in 2008, that there were going to be more books than the first four, I wanted Leila Berg’s Flickerbook – first published in 1997 by Granta, and out of print within a few years despite wonderful reviews – to be one of them. It felt definitive: superb writing appearing out of left field. I wrote to Leila Berg c/o Granta, and somehow that letter got through (many don’t) and she replied:
I went to see her. Leila was in her 90s. She was gracious and kind. For various reasons the reissue of Flickerbook didn’t happen then, but now it has. Leila died in 2012.
Flickerbook told me things: things specific to the life recounted – that of a girl growing up in a Jewish family in Salford in the 1920s and 30s – and things about England and about writing. Although subtitled ‘An autobiography’ the book ends when Leila Berg is aged just 22. It is written – in the words of the website dedicated to Berg’s life and work – ‘in the subjective voice of the author as her childhood self at the specific age being revisited’. It’s a re-living, largely in the present tense (and in this it has elements in common with another new CBe title, Roy Watkins’s Simple Annals).
The website I’ve just mentioned (www.leilaberg.com) is worth exploring. It includes a link to an article by Leila Berg about her life in London during the war, after Flickerbook ends. Anyone who thinks wartime London was bathed in a warm, pulling-together, mutually-supportive ‘spirit of the Blitz’ probably needs to read it.
Two incidental reflections on Flickerbook. One: given Berg’s absolute commitment to the infinite potential of children, and her anger at the way institutional education denies them agency and corrals them onto the consumer belt, she had to write the book in the way she did, from the child’s perspective. (Which is often, on the page, to the adult reader, funny, but it is not at all cute; it is chastening.) Two: Berg, growing up in a Jewish family, constantly notices differences between her own family and others: ‘Christians say Granny. Or they say Nan. They don’t say Bobbie.’ ‘Christians beat boys and girls. Jewish people only beat boys. That is because they think only boys are important. But Christians think girls are important enough to beat too.’ An awareness of being other is a part of who she is. Because the narrative of Flickerbook ends in September 1939 there is no mention of the Holocaust but the conditions for the scapegoating of the Other – in England just as much as in any other country – are witnessed.
This new CBe edition includes an introduction by Ruth Fainlight and, as an afterword, a reprinted review of the original edition in the London Review of Books (where reviews have room to say something) by Hilary Mantel. Here are the endpapers from the original 1997 edition:
Flickerbook, officially published next month, is available now from the website. And can be one of the 10-books-for-£70 Lockdown Subscription if you want it to be. The subscription offer has kept CBe going over the past year and it must taste OK because there are people coming back for second helpings. Meanwhile, Dan O’Brien’s A Story that Happens, published in April by CBe, has an excerpt published by the Washington Post and a feature on the book in the Los Angeles Times and other US acclaim. In the UK to date, silence. It’s quite hard to sell books.