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Please, someone ask me what my favourite kind of literature is! Ah, good, you really want to know? I’ll tell you: it’s the one Alan Isler produces. What kind of literature does he produce? Let me answer with a little story. I’ve got a colleague, also a teacher of English, who likes telling me silly, absurd, weird jokes, he always begins with the words, "You’ll like this one." And do you know what? He’s always right. That has led me to the assumption that we’ve also got the same sense of humour literature-wise and has made me give him Alan Isler’s book ‘Clerical Errors’ to read. I was expecting him to thank me on his knees that I had helped him discover that author, but when he gave me back the book I saw a sour look on his face. "Profound thoughts", he said, "but dealt with too light-heartedly. Serious subjects must be treated accordingly." I couldn’t believe it! A teacher of English! That’s so German and that’s what makes us turn to English authors. Or so I thought. ‘Clerical Errors’ is Isler’s second book, ‘The Prince of West End Avenue’ is his first. Here, too, the main protagonist is a Jew (as is also the case in the other two books by Isler). Why’s that? Some years ago the Dutch author Leon de Winter read from his latest novel in a bookshop in our town. Most of the people who had come had already read one of his earlier novels, the local newspaper had portrayed him, a leaflet with his biography was lying in the bookshop. Yet one young man, uninformed, naive and friendly, asked the author, "Why do you always write about Jews?" Everybody held their breath, but de Winter answered calmly, "If I were a horse, I’d write about horses." When I got interested in Isler , I searched the net for his biography, but everywhere I looked I only found sparse i
nformation: Born in London in 1934, spent his war years in Harrogate. In 1952, at the age of eighteen, he emigrated to New York, where he taught English Renaissance Literature at Columbia University and Queens College. Back in London where he lives as an author. Winner of the National Jewish Book Award. I’ve already written several times that the biography of an author isn’t important for the evaluation of a piece of literature, nevertheless I searched again hoping some more info might have been added. That’s not the case, but I found that the second entry for Isler is the dooyoo category for this author, and on the third site I found my own op on ‘Clerical Errors’ (‘Ugly Cover, Silly Title, Brilliant Book’) as an extra entry. WOW forward and backward! (I knew about dooyoo being on google, but I only thought that if I typed ‘consumer platform’, ‘dooyoo’ would appear, nothing else. So if you’d like to experience the same sensation, look yourself up!) Why this interest in the author’s biography then? He was born in London in 1934, had his family emigrated from Germany? The main protagonist of ‘The Prince of West End Avenue’ introduces himself on the first page, "My name is Otto Korner. Dropping the umlaut over the ‘o’ was the first concession to America." Have the German Eisler family become the English Isler family when arriving in England? ‘The Prince...’ has so many allusions to German literature and way of life that this idea has come to my mind. It isn’t necessary to be German and/or know German literature to enjoy reading this book, but it certainly heightens the pleasure. Back to Otto Korner. "I celebrated my eighty-third birthday at the Emma Lazarus (which his friend calls the 'Enema' Lazarus), a retirement home on West End Avenue in Manhattan. Eventually you‘ll find
me just south of Mineola, Long Island, where I will be taking up permanent subterranean residence". The residents are rich Jews, mostly from Europe, survivors of the Holocaust. They have health problems, of course, but that doesn‘t hinder them from enjoying their lives, thinking and talking about and having sex and having arguments. Every year they stage a play. "Of course, you have to make allowances. Last year, for example, our Juliet was eighty-three and our Romeo seventy-eight. But if you used your imagination, it was a smash hit. True, on opening night, when Romeo killed Tybalt, it was Romeo who fell down and had to be carried on a stretcher from the stage. Look for him now in Mineola." This year‘s production is to be 'Hamlet'. Otto was cast as the Ghost, but since the actor of 'Hamlet' and director of the play died suddenly and Otto in secret has learned the Prince‘s role, he might as well become leading actor and director if he can survive the habitual squabbling and wrangling concerning who‘s going to play what opposite whom and so on. A former Soviet Bolshevik turned American millionaire, "Some of us are losing our patience. The imperialists are stomping on our backs. We intend to topple the fascist hyenas from their thrones, in particular that people‘s traitor Lipschitz, the Zionist expansionist, and his lick-spittle running dog Dawidowicz, and transform the Emma Lazarus Old Vic into an organisation run on sound democratic socialist principles and answerable to the people." Life is not boring in that retirement home! But the narrative present of the staging of 'Hamlet' is only one level of the novel. "After an absence of sixty years, Magda Damrosch has reentered my life and my system is in turmoil". A young therapist has come who resembles his one and only love. "No, I‘m not senile, I‘m not mad. I know as
well as you that this child from Cleveland is not - cannot be - the Magda who broke my heart in Zurich all those years ago. 'That' Magda went up in smoke at Auschwitz in 1943." He decides to write down the story of his life in order to come to terms with the past. We follow Otto to Zürich where his parents have sent him from Berlin to study economy, he does so only for a short time, and then he does anything but. He meets the most interesting people of the time; one night he walks the exiled Lenin home after a meeting, they don‘t talk politics, though, Lenin advises the young man, "Find yourself a pretty girl." He sees Joyce at a table in a café, he invents the word DADA for a group of wild anti-everything characters. We hear about his futile love to Magda. Otto also tells us something about his late second wife, an American Jewess, whose money enables him to live in the expensive retirement home and how he got to America at all after being liberated from the concentration camp. He does so before he tells us something about his first wife, strange, isn’t it? When he does, we’ve already fallen for him, we like that man, so that what he has to say about his first wife, no, what he confesses about his behaviour towards her, comes as a shock. From the few quotations you might already have got an idea about the style of the novel. Quite at the beginning Otto remarks, "You must by now have noticed my command of the English language, of which I am not unreasonably proud. I use it with a certain flair...a certain panache that is distinctively my own." Very clever, that trick, Mr Isler! By putting the blame on the show-off Otto the readers can’t accuse you of using words only the Thesaurus people have ever heard of! I’ve picked out 6 at random : ‘pachyderm, priapic, meretricious, halcyon, portcullis, concomitant’. Ha! Of course YOU are in love with the E
nglish language, no, with language as such. And I like you for it! And I’m going to order your other books now! Isler is no David Lodge, another university professor turned novelist, who can’t forget his first job. Isler doesn’t teach or preach, nor does he tell us how to read his books; he’s a highly educated man who entertains us in an educated and highly enjoyable way (on only 246 pages!). This is my 22nd book review, up to now I’ve never felt the urge to cry out: READ IT! READ IT! READ IT! I do now. But to tell you the truth, if you don’t, I don’t bother, I (capital letter, underlined) have read the book, so what do I care? The loss will be entirely your own.
A comedy set in a Jewish old people's home in New York. The story follows Otto who is directing his fellow residents in a chaotic production of Hamlet. He reminisces on his past in Germany and Zurich (where he met Lenin and inadvertently invented Dada), Auschwitz and America.