Forget kindly, selfless Father Flanagan - his antithesis is Father Edmond Music, a priest gone far astray. He finds joy in celebrating the pleasures of the flesh with his housekeeper, Maude, is involved in the disappearance of a thought-to-be Shakespeare manuscript, was born a Jew, and worst of all, he's an unabashed atheist. Let's say up front that some will be offended by what they may consider blasphemy; it's pure Isler who won the 1994 National Jewish Book Award for "The Prince Of West End Avenue." He's satirical, laugh out loud funny, exquisitely literate, and touching. He's also unwilling to be reined in by "popular constraints." Thanks to a much earlier love affair with the robust Kiki, who gave the church her family home, Beale Hall, Father Music is contentedly assigned to be the Hall's director with the stipulation that it be used as a spiritual retreat. Regrettably, the priest's laissez faire attitude has earned him a persistent enemy, one Father Twombly who is determinedly investigating the disappearance of a valuable manuscript from the Hall's library. Thus, at a rather advanced age Father Music is forced to try to outwit his vengeful nemesis. Mr. Isler laces his text with ruminations on life, love, and faith - not longueurs but substantial food for thought offered with sly winks and witty prose pictures. "Clerical Errors" is a rich rabelaisian feast.
It’s high time I wrote another oppie for the DLS (Dooyoo Literary Supplement). The reason I haven’t done so for a while is not that I haven’t read anything, I have, but nothing I wanted to review. I was sure I’d write on Stephen Fry’s The Stars’ Tennis Balls, I had looked so forward to this book, but I was disappointed and when I learnt that it’s a rewrite of The Count of Monte Christo even more so. All German bookshops offering English books get them from a firm in Hamburg, so when I browse through one I find the choice of a choice, first the people in Hamburg decide which books to import at all, then the bookshop people decide which to take. When I come across an author I haven’t heard of so far, it can be one YOU find in all your highstreet shops at the moment or someone rather obscure the German bookshop people have chosen randomly. Alan Isler is such a one; I had never heard of him before. The cover of the book isn’t attractive, the reason why I've chosen Clerical Errors are the words ‘sumptuous’, ‘rambunctious’ and ‘lugubrious’ used in the blurbs. I can’t say that I know exactly what they mean (too lazy to look them up), but they appealed to me at once! On the whole I’d say that blurbs are silly and not helpful at all, sometimes outright misleading, but in the case of this book I’d underwrite every word. The synopsis, or rather the beginning of same, did wet my appetite. ‘Edmond Music, Catholic priest and director of Beale Hall research institute, has a secret: he doesn’t believe in God. And that’s not all. For the past forty years he has shared a bed with his housekeeper. In fact Edmond Music isn’t even Edmond Music. He’s Edmond Musi`c´, French child of Hungarian parents - and a Jew...’ And then the first sentence of the book: it’s SO important, isn’t it? ‘
;Sipping a Calvados in a bar in the rue de Malengin and reading an English newspaper left on the seat by its previous occupant, I discovered to my surprise that I had just died.’ Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? Well, it did to me. The story is told in the first person perspective; Edmond Music, now in his seventies, looks back upon his long and eventful life. He was sent by his parents to a Catholic school in occupied France to save his life, his mother was deported and killed in a concentration camp, his father could escape to Israel. Why Edmond didn’t leave the Catholics and Catholicism when the danger was over is something he himself can’t explain - inertia, not enough ‘proactiveness’, no self-assertiveness? The reason why he’s director of Beale Hall is his first lover, the heiress ‘who had no interest in the property’ (she drifted away to California to become a New Age freak). ‘She gave it to the Church, but with certain provisos: Beale Hall, its accommodation, peerless library and grounds were to become a scholarly Catholic retreat...Its first Director General was to be Father Edmond Music, whose tenure was for life....He had absolute control over the estate short of selling it.’ What he does all day long besides admiring the wonderful collection of artefacts and reading the books of the library, mostly first editions, is enjoy a passionate love affair with his Irish housekeeper Maude. If you like juicy, fruity descriptions, you’ve got them here. Then he studies the writings of a certain Solomon Reuben Hayyim Falsch (1720?-96), ‘kabbalist, sorcerer, scallywag and sometime adventurer, who, reformed...became known to his disciples as (here two Hebrew letters follow), the Pish, a word formed from the acronym of his supposed attributes: (more Hebrew letters) - roughly, Exalted and Prudent Advisor and Giver of Judgement. Falsch in his time
blossomed into the Ba’al Shem of Ludlow.’ Falsch is dealt with extensively and what we read about him seems to be a story within a story at first glance, but later we understand that this character is vital for the plot. The action is set in motion when Maude, not long after her arrival, sells the only extant copy of a collection of sonnets ostensibly by Shakespeare behind Edmond Music’s back, not at once, though, when she commits that crime against the rules set down for the library of Beale Hall, she only puts the seed into the soil, so to speak. Only decades later does the fruit ripen when Fred Twombly appears on the scene, professor of English in Illinois, USA, and half-century-long enemy of Edmond‘s. He’s a bigoted sourpuss if ever there was one and determined to destroy him. At last he sees his chance... (From a critique in the Guardian): ‘The characters come so much from a certain ripe farcical stock...that I suspect Isler wants to make sure that we do not read too much into his tale. For this, while it has the resources of intellect behind it, is a deliberately light read, albeit a light read that keeps the brain ticking over nicely.’ What makes our brains tick? Not only the subjects dealt with - life, death and everything in between - but also the way they’re presented. The language is very elaborate and I’m betting the content of my piggy-bank (Euros!) that the average dooyooer does not know all, I mean ALL (as in 100%), the English words used here! Edmond Music is a highly educated man, eloquent in several languages, he writes English with Hebrew letters, but not from right to left as it should be done, but from left to right. Why? Because it amuses him. The text is sprinkled with Latin, French, Italian, German and Hebrew words and expressions, but never do we get the feeling the author might do this to show off how much he knows, it all comes naturally,
the text reads wonderfully well. As the blurb from the Independent On Sunday points out ‘...the true hero of Clerical Errors is the story itself.’ Gosh, again a blurb I agree with! I’ve never written ‘If you’re going to read only one book this year, it should be this one’ and I never will, I don’t write book reviews for people who only read one book a year. If you asked me, however, to what kind of readers this book might appeal, I’d say that readers who’ve enjoyed Yeats Is Dead! Y8s = +! might like this book, too. If you can’t stand the occasional swear word or blasphemy, however, you’d better stay away. From the Guardian again: ‘...the book is a sly yet vehement denunciation of the Catholic church, particularly regarding its treatment of the Jews over the years, and the devout may be offended. But then they usually are.’ I haven’t mentioned Stephen Fry for nothing at the beginning of my op, I was indeed expecting something like Clerical Errors from him, I’m sure he could write such a book if he liked, he’s got the same kind of wicked humour, is highly educated and writes wonderful English. In an interview Isler was asked, “How do you hope a reader might feel after finishing Clerical Errors?” To which Isler replied, “Ideally, my readers would find themselves amused, thoughtful, perhaps a little disturbed, above all entertained.” I have been all that. “They should be disappointed that the book has come to an end“ I am. “and eager, if they have not read me before, to seek my other books out”. Will do.
Edmond Music, Catholic priest and director of Beale Hall research institute, has a secret: he doesn't believe in God. And that's not all. For the past forty years he has shared a bed with his housekeeper, Maude Moriarty from Donegal. In fact Edmond Music isn't even Edmond Music. He's Edmond Music, French child of Hungarian parents - and a Jew. As he sees out his days in his Shropshire mansion, devoting his time to kabbalistic studies, his buried pasts threaten to end the charade. Fred Twombly, professor of English from Joliet, Illinois, and half-century-long enemy, has arrived, determined to destroy him. What may be Shakespeare's lost masterpiece has disappeared from the Hall's famous library. Edmond must be to blame.