Obituary : Elaine Feinstein “has left the conversation”, in the marvellous phrase Yves Bonnefoy used on learning from me that a mutual friend had died. My friendship with Elaine, going back to the early seventies, was, like all close friendships, an intimate dialogue. As the fine novelist and inquisitive woman she was, Elaine thrived on this existential literary form, which naturally and typically included gossip and, in recent years, lamentation over the deaths of mutual friends, like Clive Sinclair. She told me near the end that she wanted to continue living even in extremis (medically speaking), because it was an absolute human imperative to know what happened next in the lives of intimes: her grandchildren, her children, and her close friends; in the world of politics (our views overlapped but there was disagreement over the USA and Israel for example); and books, her own and those of other people.
Not only at our last meetings, but for a long time before, we discussed her final novel and her reasons for not wanting it to be published. I read all her books in manuscript and was privileged to make comments, in one case supplying the title. As fellow translators from the Russian, we talked often, over the years, of her Marina Tsvetayeva translations. These are wondrous recreations, deploying all the linguistic registers available to a master (mistress?) poet with elective affinities to the Russian poet. As fellow memoirists, we discussed her biographies of Pushkin, Ted Hughes, Bessie Smith and others. Second only to Ted Hughes, Elaine was the best reader of poetry I have ever heard. Professional actors should listen to their recordings. I made clear to her my opinion that her short novels were better than her long ones: one of her most beautiful and poignant books is a novella, The Border, in which a central figure is Walter Benjamin, almost as central to our own dialogue.
Perhaps my favourite of all her books is the melancholy and oneiric Russian Jerusalem, an unclassifiable work of fiction, memoir and criticism, part fantasised part real participatory observation. This reader wills her to become the mistress of a genius who wrote about her ancestral Odessa, namely Isaac Babel, perhaps the most tragic, enigmatic and fascinating of all her adopted family of writers. Sex, she once wrote hyperbolically but not without some truth, is “the only answer to death”. Fortunately, as Auden said of Yeats, the death of the poet has been kept from her poems.
Elaine, too young to be a mother figure, was like an older sister to me, just as my previous RSL subject, our mutual friend Moris Farhi, was like an older brother. On a mundane level, she wrote me references and supported grant applications. On a deeper level, we shared confidences. I can say, without breaching her privacy (she breached her own in brave and rare poems about marital love and discord, see Talking to the Dead), that I was a confidant at a dark time in her life, when things were at their worst with her brilliant, mercurial and depressed immunologist husband. Radical measures were on the table. But she stayed – for noble and clear and, at the same time, mysterious reasons, and now she is buried alongside him.
The woman would have been appalled, but the eternal novelist in her – alert to all possibilities for fictional exploitation – would have relished, the black humour of her funeral, an episode worthy of Sholem Aleichem or Philip Roth. On arrival, the congregation was told by the contrite and impressive lady rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Cemetery that the grave had been dug in the wrong place and we would have to return in two hours time. Fortunately, her middle son, Martin, lives close to the cemetery and the three sons decided that the reception should take place before the funeral. Both Rabbi Alexandra Wright and Elaine’s son Adam made fine speeches, which ought to be published. Throughout her life Elaine kvelled and shepped naches (to use the ancestral Yiddish we loved) – swelled with pride and joy – over the many and remarkable achievements of her three sons, Adam (literature), Martin (classical music) and Joel (mathematics) and their spouses and children.
Elaine’s cooking and taste in delicatessen entirely reflected her East European Jewish background, a background which later became foregrounded, sometimes in creative tension with, sometimes in lockstep with, her Cambridge-educated Englishness. We argued about the presence of anti-Semitism in Europe (I use the word advisedly, our version of the UK was European to the core) which I thought she overplayed and she thought I underplayed, and we wondered if the difference could be split. Whatever, on the only occasion I have acted in public, I recited the kaddish as the minister in her BBC Radio Four play, Foreign Girls (1993).
“Et la fête continue” is the title of a joyous and melancholy poem/song by Jacques Prévert. The party goes on, and the survivors relish Elaine’s colourful presence and loving attention, even though she “has disappeared into the sun while continuing to sing”, like the character in the poem*. It goes with the territory.
* which you can hear Yves Montand sing on Youtube