Miron Grindea: The Don Quixote of Kensington

A Romanian exile who gave himself six weeks to learn English became the editor of a literary periodical that outlived Stephen Spender's 'Encounter' and T S Eliot's 'Criterion'. C J Schüler examines the extraordinary legacy of Miron Grindea

In September 1939, as the world teetered on the brink of war, a young Romanian journalist arrived in London, speaking barely a word of English. Within two years, this small, wiry, energetic man had carved himself a niche in the heart of the British literary establishment, and founded what was to become the longest-running literary periodical in Europe. Like so many other émigrés from war-torn Europe, Miron Grindea found his way into the heart of British cultural life, drawing to him many of the foremost names in English literature..

Now, 10 years after the death of "this light-hearted, serious-minded cosmopolitan scholar", as Iris Murdoch called him, a two-volume anthology of his editorials, selected by his granddaughter Rachel Lasserson, has been published, commemorating his remarkable achievement and providing a dazzling panorama of literary life through the second half of the 20th century.

Miron Grindea was born Mondi Grunberg on 31 January 1909, of Jewish parents in Tirgul Ocna in Moldavia, then a part of the Kingdom of Romania. After the First World War, the family moved to the capital, Bucharest, where Grindea began to move in avant-garde intellectual circles, and a friend persuaded him to adopt the name of the radical hero of a then-popular novel. After studying at Bucharest University and the Sorbonne, he began reviewing music and literature for ADAM, a Jewish cultural review; by 1936 he was its editor. That same year, he married the pianist Carola Rabinovici. Despite the growing influence of the right-wing, anti-Semitic Iron Guard, he remained in Bucharest, where he became involved in anti-Fascist activities.

Grindea came to England with his wife as a correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on a five-day visa. On arrival, he registered at the Romanian Embassy; the following day, the BBC European Intelligence Section approached the embassy, looking for a Romanian speaker to broadcast to his native land. Within days of arriving, Grindea had secured both employment and permission to remain.

The Grindeas moved into a flat in Emperor's Gate, Kensington, where they were to live for the following half-century. Although fluent in both French and German, Grindea then spoke scarcely a word of English. He gave himself six weeks to learn the language; and these two volumes are a testimony to the rapidity with which he mastered the tongue, forging his own elevated, florid, continental prose style.

In the summer of 1941, many émigré authors, including Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig, gathered in London for a meeting of the international writers' club PEN, under the presidency of H G Wells. Inspired by their struggle for humanist values at this darkest moment of the continent's history, Grindea determined to start an international literary journal. Since wartime economy regulations prevented the publication of any new magazines, he decided to continue his old journal ADAM from London. When the first edition of the reborn magazine appeared in September 1941, it was numbered 152.

His first editorial was a stirring manifesto. "Many of our colleagues," Grindea wrote, "cannot share our privilege of still being able to affirm our convictions, for they are either in chains, in concentration camps or in fear of immediate suppression if they dare to say anything... That is why we would like to continue our fight here until the hundreds of poets, novelists, playwrights, essayists, pamphleteers, living and languishing now in enslaved Europe, can join our tasks."

The subject matter showed a Central European eclecticism, ranging across all the arts (ADAM is an acronym for Arts, Drama, Architecture and Music), and included contributions from Wells (on PEN), Thomas Mann ("Racialism, Germany and Pacifism"), Stefan Zweig ("The Mission of the Intellectuals"), George Bernard Shaw and Cecil Day Lewis. A lifelong Francophile, Grindea also determined that the magazine should carry articles in both English and French, "as a tribute to enslaved but fighting France". A second issue, devoted to H G Wells, appeared later that year, but paper shortages meant that there were no more until after the war.

Shortly after the birth of his daughter in 1943, Grindea heard that his mother was dying in Bucharest. Against all advice, he set out by train - a Jew, crossing Nazi-occupied Europe in the middle of wartime - to see her, reaching the Romanian capital just a day too late. Some acquaintances speculated that he could not have made the journey, and returned unharmed to London, unless he had been a spy. There is no evidence for this, but whatever the truth, the episode is a measure of the man's determination, courage and unshakeable nerve.

It was this sheer chutzpah that obtained him entry into the Anglo-Saxon, Oxbridge-dominated world of English letters, with its ingrained snobberies and casual racism. "You have to remember how different, and how insular, the literary world was in those days," Rachel Lasserson explains. "There was no Salman Rushdie or Zadie Smith. He was a complete outsider."

Grindea himself described his magazine as an "act of provocation and impertinence", but the literary establishment flocked to his cause. Cyril Connolly and J B Priestley joined the editorial board, but allowed Grindea a free hand to pursue his enthusiams. And when the relaxation of paper rationing finally allowed issue 154 of ADAM to appear in 1946, T S Eliot contributed an article, "Reflections on the Unity of European Culture".

ADAM then began to appear with greater frequency, with as many as 10 editions appearing in some years. While other literary magazines - Eliot's Criterion, Connolly's Horizon, Stephen Spender's Encounter - fell by the wayside, ADAM continued to flourish against all the odds. Its contributors, all unpaid, included G B Shaw, W H Auden, Spender, E M Forster, Graham Greene, Anthony Powell, Lawrence Durrell and even Winston Churchill.

Grindea hunted out and published two undiscovered short stories by Chekhov, unpublished manuscripts by Gorky and Dickens, as well as letters from Katherine Mansfield to Virginia Woolf and Bertrand Russell. There were monographs on composers such as Mozart, Chopin, Berlioz and Stravinsky. Cocteau, Miró, Chagall and Picasso all contributed original drawings.

French literature remained a cornerstone of the magazine - Grindea returned to the subject of Proust time and time again - but it also championed other, less well-known national literatures, including those of Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, India, Sri Lanka, and the Caribbean, and introduced a British readership to the work of major Latin American writers such as Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges. And a 1971 edition devoted to the literature of Israel was unique in its day in setting Jewish and Arab writings side by side.

The flat at Emperor's Gate remained an outpost of Mitteleuropa, where Grindea held salons at which literary lions such as Robert Graves would rub shoulders with unknown writers. These were high-minded occasions; disapproving of heavy drinking, Grindea was sparing in the provision of alcoholic refreshment.

While he regarded the literature of his adopted country as second to none, Grindea did not always find its literary culture congenial. "He came from a culture where the intellectual was important," his grand-daughter recalls, "to these prosaic shores where people's pets were more important than their library." The lack of any cultural haunt comparable with the Viennese café was a constant source of frustration. "I can't conduct literary commerce in a pub," he complained. "I can't drink pint after pint. In this respect I remain an outsider."

This did not prevent him from befriending Dylan Thomas, who plied the abstemious editor with beer in a Hammersmith pub while perversely sticking to orangeade himself. When Thomas died in 1953, a memorial issue of ADAM featured two unpublished chapters of the poet's Adventures in the Skin Trade, and contributions from Stravinsky, Augustus John, Edith Sitwell and Hugh MacDiarmid.

As Grindea's English became more fluent and his vocabulary more recondite, his editorials grew longer and more discursive. Dip into them at random and you will be sure to come up with some penetrating insight, infuriatingly wayward pronouncement, or deliciously gossipy reminiscence.

Fascinated not just by the work but also by the lives of writers and artists, Grindea was a great collector of people. He tracked down almost everyone still alive who had known Marcel Proust, discovering the novelist's favourite waiter from the Paris Ritz in an old people's home in Brighton.

A visit to Samuel Beckett ("the man who has been punished with hundreds of dissertations and monographs over the years") in Paris in 1954 dispels the myth of the reclusive misanthrope, as the two men spend a happy afternoon comparing the merits of various pianists' interpretations of Chopin.

In a 1975 edition commemorating Cyril Connolly, Grindea wonders why his old friend was held in disdain by many in the literary world, and cannot resist a sally at Henry Miller: "When, in 1970, I visited Miller at his luxurious villa on the hills of Los Angeles overlooking the Pacific, one of the questions the over-fatigued sage fired at me (while at the same time enjoying the luscious choreography of his latest Japanese naiad) was, 'And how is dear old Cyril?'"

Despite its distinguished contributors, ADAM survived on a shoestring. Unable to afford paid staff, Grindea was assisted by his family and a succession of volunteers. For much of the time, the household was sustained by Carola's earnings as a concert pianist and music teacher. In 1951, even T S Eliot ("a very good friend to ADAM") thought the outlook so bleak that he wrote to Grindea suggesting he find alternative employment.

But Grindea relished the struggle. "There is no true editorship," he declared, "when everything is prosperous. It is the essence of a literary magazine's life to be always uncertain of tomorrow... to run the gamut of monthly printers' bills and yet to be determined never to give up the fight."

Fortunately, individuals and institutions came to the rescue. Eliot himself had donated part of his Nobel Prize money to the magazine, and for a while, it was supported by the University of Rochester (New York) and by the Curwen Press. In the 1960s, Grindea was persuaded to sell ADAM to the publisher Frank Cass. But, while he retained editorial control, losing ownership of the magazine left him so bereft that his wife feared he would lose the will to live, and he bought the title back again - for more than he had been paid for it.

Despite the demands of ADAM, Grindea managed to contribute to a range of other periodicals, including the Times Literary Supplement, The Listener, the New Statesman and, in France, Le Figaro and Les Nouvelles Littéraires. Through the 1970s and 1980s, he continued to encourage and provoke successive generations of writers, including Maureen Duffy, Wolf Mankowitz, Frederic Raphael and A N Wilson.

Towards the end of his life, the fall of the Iron Curtain made it possible for him to visit his native land once more, as a Romanian television crew took him back to his birthplace, and to the old ADAM office in Bucharest. Miron Grindea remained indefatigable well into his eighties. "I remember when he was very elderly," Rachel Lasserson recalls, "driving him to parties in Kentish Town where Harold Pinter and Alexei Sayle would be trying to drum up support for Mordechai Vanunu."

It is fitting that the last piece he wrote, finished just two days before his death on 18 November 1995, was a review for the London Evening Standard of Mary Hockaday's life of Kafka's lover Milena Jesenska. He was working on the 500th edition of ADAM at the time.

For half a century, ADAM provided a direct link to the old, cosmopolitan Europe, and a vivid chronicle of the literary world of post-war Britain. During that time, many important manuscripts, artworks and letters passed through Grindea's hands and were blithely sold, often for a fraction of their market value, to meet the printers' bills. Fortunately, enough has remained to provide a literary archive of unique interest, now housed at King's College, London.

One other item survives from ADAM's heyday: a drawing, made by Picasso on a paper napkin, showing Miron Grindea as Don Quixote. And if his stalwart defence of humanist values and passionate quest for the very best in at times took on a quixotic air, they profoundly enriched the literary culture of his adopted country.

'ADAM: An Anthology of Miron Grindea's ADAM Editorials' (2 vols), selected and edited by Rachel Lasserson, is published by Vallentine Mitchell (£45 hbk/£19.95 pbk per vol). To buy copies, with free p&p, contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or post your order to them at PO Box 60, Helston TR13 0TP

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