To London With Only 'The Clothes On Their Backs'

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A new book explores the immigrant experience of Eastern Europeans in London. Linda Grant delves into the world of the Hungarian refugee community in her acclaimed new novel, The Clothes on Their Backs.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. A new book takes a look at the immigrant experience of Eastern Europeans in London. British journalist and novelist Linda Grant delves into the world of the Hungarian Jewish refugee community in her acclaimed new novel, "The Clothes on Their Backs."

As a journalist, Grant writes about trends in fashion. As a novelist, clothes play an important role in lives and identities of her characters. Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE: First generation Londoner, Vivien Kovacs, the main writer, is the ill-at-ease daughter of Hungarian immigrants. We see Vivien in childhood in the stuffy apartment where her timid parents established their new lives soon after they arrived from their native Hungary.

Grant beautifully dramatizes the tension between the generations. Her parents shield her from the life they put behind them when they arrived in Britain, keeping her from her Uncle Sandor. He's a notorious London slum lord who emigrated from Hungary after serving time in a Communist labor camp and who's also served time in a British prison.

Vivien, of course, resents being kept at arm's length from the past. After the accidental death of her young husband, she launches a feeble masquerade as a stranger. She approaches her uncle and takes on the job of helping him write his memoirs in the hopes of learning something more about her family history.

Uncle Sandor is a piece of work. A vividly drawn rough and tumble survivor. He goes along with Vivien's charade in order to make his story and the family's known to her.

Yes, I am Sandor Kovacs, it's me, Vivien eventually writes on his behalf, the one you read about, that terrible person. What she learns about him and her parents, the news about their difficult lives in Hungary and how they came to make their own ways in London changes her life and allows her over time to become the woman who can tell her own narrative - a first-generation British coming of age tale that blazes new trails in immigrant literature.

SIEGEL: "The Clothes on Their Backs" is the latest novel by writer and journalist Linda Grant. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University, and Alan has a new novel. It's called, "To Catch the Lightning."

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Excerpt: 'The Clothes On Their Backs'

The Clothes On Their Backs
The Clothes On Their Backs
By Linda Grant
Paperback, 304 pages
Scribner
List price: $14.00

This morning, for the first time in many years, I passed the shop on Seymour Street. I saw the melancholy sign in the window which announced that it was closing down and through the glass the rails on which the clothes hung, half abandoned, as if the dresses and coats, blouses and sweaters had fled in the night, vanished down the street, flapping their empty arms. There was Eunice, behind the counter, patting her blue-black lacquered hair with silver nails. How old she looked, and how forlorn, her chin sinking for a moment on her chest.

Then I saw her rouse, and raise herself up, lifting her chin with a cupped hand. She mouthed a couple of words to herself. Be brave! An impulse took me through the door, a strong pang of sympathy.

I stepped inside and her perfume filled the room, inimitably Eunice – Revlon's Aquamarine, the scent of eau de nil and gold.

'You!' she said. 'Vivien, is it really you, after all this time?'

'Yes, it's me.'

'I thought so. How come I never saw you before?'

'London is very vast,' I said.

'A woman gets lost easy, but not me, I've been here all along.

You knew where to find me.'

'But I wasn't looking for you, Eunice. I'm sorry.'

You never went to see how Eunice was? my uncle's voice cried out, in my head. You left her all alone like a dog, my Eunice! You couldn't even pop in to buy a pair of gloves?

'Well,' she replied. 'That's true. You and me had nothing to say,' and she gave me a haughty stare, raising her nose high and pulling back her shoulders. 'How is your family doing?'

The shoulders filled out her jacket, she smoothed the box pleats of the skirt. Three gilt buttons engraved with fleur-de-lis flashed on her jacket sleeve above the swollen bone of her wrist, lightly freckled. I recognised her gold watch. My uncle gave it to her. It was an Omega, his favourite brand, still revolving on quietly, tick-tock.

'My father died last week.' How strange it was to refer to him in the past tense, to think that I would never see again that cantankerous old man. Whatever was unresolved between us would stay unresolved unless we met again in the yane velt – that life,that other life.

'I only saw him the two times, neither was a nice occasion, you'll agree – your mother, though, she was very different from him. Is she still alive?'

'No, she died sixteen years ago.'

'That's a shame, now she was a true lady. I'm sorry she went before her time. And what happened to the boy? Don't look at me so innocent, you know who I mean.'

Yes. I remember. A sudden laugh, sharp little teeth, a lascivious mouth, his hands rolling his cigarettes, his red canvas boots, his spiky dark hair. His T-shirt. His guard's cap. His fish tank. But particularly I recall his smell and what was in it: and the whole arousing disturbing sense of him flooded my veins, a hot red flush of shameful erotic longing.

The red tide subsided. 'I don't know what became of him, he must be in his late forties now.' A residue of sadness, imagining the sultry, sexy boy as a middle-aged man for he had had nothing much going for him apart from youth and all its carnal excitements.

'You are a careless person, Vivien. You always was, you've not changed.'

'Oh, Eunice, you don't know anything about me. It's been nearly thirty years. You can accuse me of anything you like, but careless! No, not at all.'

'OK, OK, I take that back. So tell me, where have you been living all this time?'

'Abroad for a few years, but I'm back in London.'

'In that flat round the corner?'

'No, of course not. I have a place near Regent's Park.'

She looked me up and down and I knew what she was thinking– that I didn't dress like a woman from Regent's Park. Where were the pearl necklaces, the Chanel handbag, the diamond earrings, the fur coat? Eunice had an exact understanding of the clothes that rich people put on when they got up in the mornings; she read all the magazines, but I was more or less in rags. Those jeans! And she had not spent most of her life in the retail trade without knowing how to seize an opportunity. A rich woman badly dressed is in need of a clever saleswoman.

'Well, well,' she said, 'you want to buy an outfit? I've got something that would fit you. We're low on stock because we're closing but I could find you a nice bargain.'

I smiled. Me of all people, being offered a dress. For I no longer bothered to look at my reflection in shop windows as I passed, let alone cringe in front of a full-length dressing room mirror with strong overhead lights, and if I did I would not recognise what I saw. Who was that dreary woman walking up the steps of the tube with lines around her eyes, jeans, boots, leather jacket, chapped hands, a ruined neck? That middle-aged person you see hesitating at the traffic lights, trying to cross at Oxford Circus, with her dyed hair and untended roots? For some time – several months, but perhaps it was longer – I had let myself go, just drifted away from even thinking about how I looked, had let go the self which once stared in the mirror, a hand confidently holding a mascara wand, a person who cared about how she appeared to others.

There are mitigating circumstances. This is not my true personality.

A year ago my husband died, thirteen and a half months, to be exact, and then my father. Too much death gets in your hair, in the crevices of your nose, your clothes, it's a metallic taste in the back of your mouth. My daddy was ancient, a toothless old man in a dressing gown and stained trousers; my husband had muscled forearms with reddish gold hairs and a thick neck which he had trouble finding collars to fit. He was so full of life and energy and humour, had a go at things whether he was any good at them or not, then cracking jokes about his own failures; only Vic could get lost on a golf course.

Twice this has happened to me. In the middle of my life here I was, as it was in the beginning. The same pearl grey horizon with no distinguishing features has reappeared. And today of all days, on my way to my father's flat to get it ready for the house clearance people, a woman I had not laid eyes on for nearly thirty years was looking me up and down, remembering me as a young girl in her early twenties when I was careless, as charged. And curious, full of yearning, longing, passion, hope, indignation, judgement, disdain. Full of conviction, of course, about what not to wear. Yet now I stood with a line of white at the roots of my hair, in my jeans and plucked at the green silk scarf round my ruined neck, for no one looked at me any more the way Vic had looked. And despite my sturdy legs, the roll of fat around my waist, I felt like a ghost, only half here.

From THE CLOTHES ON THEIR BACKS by Linda Grant. Copyright © 2008 by Linda Grant. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.

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