Before there were migrants, immigrants and asylum seekers, there were émigrés – a fancy word that could embrace anyone from fleeing French aristocrats to displaced Jews. Elena Lappin is the child of Russian and Czech émigrés and speaks, reads and writes five languages. Translator, teacher, novelist and publisher of the One imprint at Pushkin Press, she has undergone a journey that is both emblematic of an era and extraordinary.
Lappin’s family moved from Soviet Moscow in the early 1950s to Prague at the time of the fateful Prague spring, to post-Nazi Hamburg, to Israel then (in the author’s case) to Canada, America and Britain. She describes her life as “five languages in search of an author”, and her journey, written with humour, intelligence, insight and deep emotion, is one that will resonate with anyone who has become temporarily or permanently deracinated.
Hers is a life of mysteries and ironies. In middle age, she learns that her biological father is not the man she believes. Before she married, her mother had been with another partner, Joseph – whose American grandfather was an undercover agent for the Soviet Union. Lappin’s mother found herself, a Jewish Armenian student at Moscow University, unmarried and pregnant by Joseph. It could have proved the end of her studies, but in Soviet Russia, unlike most places, declaring yourself as a single mother meant she could continue without prejudice; when her mother then met and married her Jewish Czech husband, it meant that they could move to a much better life in intellectually vibrant and comparatively liberal Prague. Both worked as Czech-Russian translators. But then came the brutal invasion by Soviet tanks, Lappin’s awakening into adult politics and the chance to emigrate to the west.
Each time Lappin’s family moved country, they had to leave behind the comfortable life earned by translating and begin again with no possessions but their skills. The children had to learn a new language at school. Somehow, her parents and grandparents made the young Elena’s life full of warmth and a sense of security, even if her younger brother Maxim, now a distinguished German author, claims he was traumatised by leaving Moscow.
Lappin describes a process that will be familiar to anyone who has moved country as a child: total silence in school for two months, followed by fluency in another language. To Russian, Czech and German, she adds French and English. A new world and literature open up: later, as a student and teacher, Lappin becomes fascinated by Noam Chomsky’s theories of the universal deep grammatical structure of basic semantic relations, and by Vladimir Nabokov’s claim to dream in images not words. Nabokov, though he became one of the masters of prose in our language, mourned the loss of the “untrammelled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English”. Lappin, by contrast, felt that English gave her permission to fulfil her vocation as a writer. Her supple prose is infused by warmth, tenderness and ebullience. Family love, linguistics and Jewishness triumph over the oppression of dictatorship. It’s an uplifting story, if not the whole one.
Underlying this, she says, is the “lifelong sadness” that all émigrés feel once they have got over the “small death” of leaving their country, and the short-lived euphoria when it seems as if they have been blessed with freedom. That “void” is something nobody would choose, unless their existence was in real peril, and it will never, ever be filled. In the days to come we who are lucky enough to be rooted in both Britain and Europe can’t remember this too often.