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Figes [née Unger], Evafree

(1932–2012)
  • Eva Tucker

Figes [née Unger], Eva (1932–2012), feminist and writer, was born on 15 April 1932 in Berlin, the elder child of Emil Edward Unger (1904–1973), company director, and his wife, Irma Alice, née Cohen (1905–1991). On Kristallnacht in November 1938 her father was arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp, an experience about which he never talked. After his release he managed to escape to England in March 1939 with Irma, Eva, and her younger brother, Ernst. Eva was bewildered by the change from a life of affluence in Berlin to one of poverty in London: 'the ghost city of my childhood was full of blackouts and stupendous fogs, cars crawling, eerie lights' (The Guardian, 6 June 1983). This past haunted her for the rest of her life and found expression in her third novel, Konek Landing (1969), about a holocaust survivor who cannot come to terms with the present.

After struggling with her refugee status at primary school, once she got to Kingsbury Grammar School Eva Unger distinguished herself as top of the class in English. In 1953 she graduated from Queen Mary College, University of London, with a BA honours degree in English, determined to become a writer. (The college later appointed her a fellow, in 1988.) On 10 July 1954 she married John George Figes (1931–2003), then an undergraduate, later a businessman, son of George Albert Figes, master builder. They had two children, Kate (b. 1957), later a writer, and Orlando (b. 1959), later a historian. Eva and John Figes divorced in 1962 and she was left to bring up the children on her own, supported to some extent by her parents. She never married again though there were friendships—notably with Günter Grass (1927–2015), whom she met while he was in London during the 1960s working on Der Butt ('The Flounder'). The character of Sophie in that novel is based on Figes. He drew her with a flounder and that portrait was hung over the grand piano and mosaic dining table in her Fitzjohns Avenue flat. Grass described her as 'lively, graceful, occasionally capricious' (Grass to Eva Tucker, 14 March 2014). In May 2012, three months before she died, she visited Grass in Lübeck, accompanied by her son, Orlando. Their affection for each other remained undimmed.

Figes published her first book, Equinox, in 1966. In 1967 she won the Guardian fiction prize for her second novel, Winter Journey, about an old man dying in a council flat: 'All daydreams must go' (p. 107). Three years later, in 1970, she made the headlines with Patriarchal Attitudes, an indictment of women's standing in society. Embittered by her divorce, she insisted that 'marriage must eventually become a hollow sham' and that 'habits are perpetuated in that bastion of social conservatism, the family' (pp. 182, 169). In the preface to the 1986 edition, taking stock of the changes since 1970, she wrote: 'We have got used to the working wife, the house husband, the single parent, and even the couple who do not marry at all. Abortion is now widely accepted in this country'. She was able to conclude with some satisfaction that 'I count myself lucky to have written the right book at the right moment' (p. 6).

Though Patriarchal Attitudes remained her best-known work, it was with her ground-breaking experimental novels, in which inner and outer aspects of life are woven into a luminous tapestry, that Eva Figes made her most significant contribution to twentieth-century writing. Waking (1981) covers one woman's life story as she wakes from sleep over seven days. Figes's own favourite was Light (1983), based on one day in the life of Claude Monet. Echoing Virginia Woolf, she describes Monet as having 'broken through the envelope, the opaque surface of things' (p. 7). She felt that if she were remembered for nothing else, that would do. In the 1980s she was a campaigner for the rights of authors, and was one of the writers instrumental in getting publishers to observe a ‘minimum terms’ agreement that would outlaw flat fees without royalties.

London was Figes's home throughout her adult life and, although she retained the trace of a German accent, English was the language in which she thought, spoke, and wrote. Yet when she visited Berlin, sometimes by herself, sometimes with her family, walking along streets familiar from childhood—she found the ruined Gedächtniskirche particularly moving—she achieved a sense of coming entirely into herself that was perhaps always a hair's breadth out of reach in England. Her last book, Journey to Nowhere (2008), shortlisted for the Orwell prize for political writing, begins with the unhappiness of the family's Berlin maid Edith when she gets to Israel and ends as an anti-Israeli polemic.

It was in her penultimate book, Tales of Innocence and Experience (2003), dedicated to her four granddaughters, that Figes regained the freedom 'to see the world afresh' and to remember that 'once upon a time I was a child who lived happily from moment to moment' (p. 53). She interwove her experience as a grandmother—'With the birth of a child comes the opportunity to re-enter the kingdom of heaven' (p. 29)—with memories of her own grandmother telling her Grimm's fairy tales. In this book Eva Figes became again the whole and loving person that displacement and the alienation which comes with it did not always allow her to be. She died at her home, Flat 4, 24 Fitzjohns Avenue, Hampstead, London, of heart disease on 28 August 2012, and was survived by both her children.

Sources

  • E. Figes, Tales of innocence and experience (2003)
  • Hampstead and Highgate Express (6 Sept 2012)
  • The Times (17 Sept 2012)
  • New York Times (17 Sept 2012)
  • personal knowledge (2016)
  • private information (2016) [G. Grass]
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, documentary footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, interview recording

Likenesses

  • M. Gerson, photograph, 1987, Bridgeman Art Library, London
  • F. Guidicini, digital bromide print, 2008, NPG
  • O. Jones, photographs, Bridgeman Art Library, London
  • photographs, Camera Press, London