Eric Korn: Polymath whose work took in poetry, literary criticism, antiquarian bookselling and the 'Round Britain Quiz'

Korn, Miller and Sacks attended St Paul's School in London, where they became the heart of a group of Jewish intellectuals

Friday 19 December 2014 01:00
Korn: he left academia to take up book-dealing, which he deemed more pleasurable than real work
Korn: he left academia to take up book-dealing, which he deemed more pleasurable than real work

When Stephen J Gould wrote that "...every classroom has one Sacks, one Korn, or one Miller, usually a lonely child with a passionate curiosity about nature and a zeal that overcomes pressures for conformity," he was warning of the danger of overlooking individual merit while purging elitism. He was also making a private joke; for one remarkable classroom did once hold Oliver Sacks (neurologist and author of The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat) Jonathan Miller (Beyond the Fringe, The Body in Question, and celebrated director) and Eric Korn.

Korn, Miller and Sacks attended St Paul's School in London, where they became the heart of a group of Jewish intellectuals on a quest for a secular gnosis. Under their inspirational master Sid Pask they shared a love of biology and a passion for Darwin. They formed a literary group that was banned for sedition by the school authorities, and a lifelong friendship. All three pursued a study of science, but were all perhaps more romantic than practical scientists, finding the search for truth in the world of the mind more than in the microscope lens.

Eric was born into a Jewish immigrant family in London, the youngest of four children; his father ran a gold and jewellery business. He spent his National Service at the Joint Services School for Linguists. He learned Russian alongside Alan Bennett, who went on to work with Miller on Beyond the Fringe, and Michael Frayn, with whom he edited the school's magazine, Samovar. Afterwards he continued his scientific pursuits, teaching marine zoology at Southampton, Toronto and Liverpool, with a typically eyebrow-raising side study of the neuropathology of snails. In 1957 he married Marianne McDonald, with whom he had two sons, myself and my brother David.

At Oxford he had studied natural sciences, but left academia to become an antiquarian book-dealer, which he deemed more pleasure than real work. He became highly regarded not so much for his stock, which was widely viewed as often fascinating but usually shabby; more so for his unusual T-shirts, and a deep knowledge of books. His passion for Darwin became his speciality, and this expertise was called upon when he worked to recreate Darwin's library at Down House. He frequently teamed up with the Dylan Thomas specialist Jeff Towns at North American book fairs, where the pair became a notoriously colourful presence.

A love of language expressed itself in his writing; he was a talented if undisciplined poet, and literary critic for a number of papers. A love of HG Wells (his collection is now the University of Calgary's Eric Korn HG Wells collection) steered him into reviewing science fiction. He made a foray into theatre with a 1988 translation of Racine's Andromache for Jonathan Miller at the Old Vic, which baffled critics expecting a more deferential treatment.

Korn wrote the Bibliophile column for The Guardian, covering the book trade with his erudite whimsy, but was best known for the popular Remainders column for the Times Literary Supplement. There he indulged in wild transports of intellectual fancy. A collection was published by Carcanet Press in 1989.

Radio 4's Round Britain Quiz brought his humour and knowledge to a wider audience. He and Irene Thomas formed the London team, competing with regional teams to uncover cryptic links between apparently unconnected subjects. Korn and Thomas were so nigh-unbeatable that they were often docked points just to keep things interesting.

Lewy Body Dementia eroded his linguistic legerdemain in his final years. Though he bore his illness with grace, his decline from whimsical logodaedaly into the murk of aphasia was a bitter irony. Michael Frayn described Korn as "...perhaps the sheerly cleverest human being I have ever met". Korn never achieved the fame of Sacks and Miller, but he made an indelible mark on the intellectual life of Britain, as well as the antiquarian book trade.


Yes, the cleverest human being I ever met – I think that's probably about right, writes Michael Frayn. At the age of 12 (so he told me) he had decided to master the whole of human knowledge. He proposed to do this by reading every single volume in the EUP Teach Yourself series, and he had got halfway through before he began to feel that even this might leave a few gaps. By the time I first met him, some seven or eight years later, on the Services Russian interpreters' course in Cambridge, he had one way or another pretty much got there. Or so it seemed to me, as he took my education in hand, and introduced me to modern science and modern literature. A very considerable part of what little I now know I first learnt from Eric.

He introduced me to cybernetics, comparative philology, John dos Passos and Bud Schulberg, and later to Wittgenstein. Back in London I was dazzled by the brilliance of the Jewish intellectual world in which he moved. He had no religious belief, but he explained Jewish customs to me, and showed me the austere beauty of Bevis Marks, the Orthodox synagogue in the City.

He was also interested in Christian mysticism; he made me read the Four Quartets and explained about St John of the Cross and the dark night of the soul. In Cornwall we hunted for the Holy Grail, which he had been persuaded was a pre-Christian cult object. We never found it, but the search charged the whole West Country with magical significance.

In London we walked round the West End, he mostly talking, me mostly listening. We often made a detour through Fortnum & Mason, because one of the tailcoated floorwalkers there thought he recognised Eric and always bowed to him. This was particularly surprising because one of the skills in which Eric excelled was the scruffiness we had all learnt to affect through the attempts of the armed services to smarten us up. He was attached to an elderly and exhausted clip-on bow-tie, which was not quite so firmly attached to him as he was to it. In some Malayan or Philippine restaurant one night, while he was explaining Mazdaism, or Gertrude Stein, or wave-particle duality, the tie lost its faltering grip on reality and fell into his soup. Without pausing in his disquisition or even glancing down he fished it out, shook off the soup and clipped it back on his collar.

Eric Korn, antiquarian bookseller, writer and broadcaster: born London 6 November 1933; married 1958 Marianne Macdonald (two sons), 2006 Olga Shaumyan; died London 7 October 2014.

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