Alan Isler The Prince of West End Avenue
Isler is an English-born American novelist and educator.
A production of Hamlet in a retirement home in New York City provides the setting in which Isler, in the voice of his narrator Otto Korner—a once-promising poet and survivor of the Auschwitz death camp—explores memory, old age, and twentieth-century history. Korner becomes the play's leading man and director upon the death of Adolphe Sinsheimer, another resident at the home. When a cherished letter, in which the poet Rainer Maria Rilke praised his writing, disappears, and when a new physical therapist arrives at the home who looks like his first love, Korner is stirred to recall his experiences before and during World War II and the Holocaust, and thereafter in America. Critics note that Isler treats this potentially somber material with gentle wit and insight. As Anita Brookner commented: "[The Prince of West End Avenue] is an excellent novel, not merely because every sentence is alive but because the reader might be persuaded that what is on offer is a mere comedy of manners. In fact Isler is several steps ahead of that reader on all counts, and it is his craft that one finally salutes."
SOURCE: A review of The Prince of West End Avenue, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 11, March 14, 1994, p. 63.
[In the following review, the critic favorably assesses The Prince of West End Avenue.]
Set in a retirement home in Manhattan's Upper West Side in 1978, Isler's haunting first novel [The Prince of West End Avenue] features Otto Korner, an Auschwitz survivor, who is directing his fellow retirees in a retirement home production of Hamlet. Otto blames his smug refusal to heed his first wife's desperate pleas to flee Nazi Germany for the tragedy that befell his family in the Holocaust. To keep his sanity, he searches everywhere for signs of a "greater Purpose," which constantly eludes him, even when the retirement home's new physical therapist turns out to be a dead ringer for Magda Damrosch, an old flame who broke his heart in Zurich in 1916. The retirees' sexual escapades, feuds, and political debates alternate with Otto's flashbacks to Hitler's Germany, or, much more often, to Zurich, where as a young literary journalist and emigré German poet, he met Lenin and mingled with Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp and their Dadaist circle. Isler, who teaches English literature at Queens College, has created a deeply cultured, fiercely articulate protagonist whose ironic voice hooks the reader as he ruminates on death and old age, love and libido, Mozart and the madness of history....
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SOURCE: A review of The Prince of West End Avenue, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXII, No. 6, March 15, 1994, p. 324.
[In the following favorable review, the critic recounts the plot of The Prince of West End Avenue.]
Memories of past sorrow and misspent passion come unbidden to an elderly Holocaust survivor in this elegant novel [The Prince of West End Avenue] when a woman bearing a resemblance to an old love joins the staff at a retirement home located on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
While most of the residents of the Emma Lazarus home are busy squabbling over the casting and the direction of Hamlet, Otto Korner, challenging ghosts of his own, feels appropriately cast as the Gravedigger. A published poet at 19, and unable to serve in the army, he is sent to Zurich by his family at the advent of World War I. There he meets a thoughtful, bookish Lenin, an "unmannered oaf" named James Joyce, and is an unhappy midwife at Tristan Tzara's birthing of the Dadaist movement. It is there, too, that he becomes obsessed with the high-spirited, scornful Magda Damrosch, whose likeness he sees 60 years later in the "dull, empty-headed" physical therapist from Cleveland. His placid, unreflective life at the retirement home, already shaken, is further disturbed when a prized letter from the poet Rilke, praising his "precocious talent," is stolen. Someone begins sending clues in...
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SOURCE: "The Readiness Is All," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 8, 1994, p. 5.
[In the following review, Schoenbaum notes some of the historical references in The Prince of West End Avenue and praises Isler as "a novelist to be watched."]
Yesterday, the narrator of this novel [The Prince of West End Avenue] tells us, he celebrated his 83rd birthday. The year is 1978. Eventually, he wryly observes, we'll find him just south of Mineola, Long Island, where he'll be taking up his subterranean residence. Otto Korner is his name—dropping the umlaut over the "o" being his first concession to America. These days he resides at the Emma Lazarus Retirement House on West End Avenue in Manhattan.
Who was Emma Lazarus? Students of New York's history and probably few others will know of her as a spokeswoman and forgotten poet ("Songs of a Semite") remembered, if at all, for a sonnet about the Statue of Liberty, "The New Colossus," which is engraved on the pedestal of the statue in New York City harbor. "That is no country for old men," begins a celebrated early modern poem. Korner is an old man, but he has not sailed to Byzantium but to the New World.
Constipation besets him, as it does other elders: A local wag calls their little home the Enema Lazarus, a witticism from the house specialist in coprological humor. In house-lingo Korner appears in a daily list...
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SOURCE: "Shakespeare Meets Emma Lazarus," in The New York Times Book Review, May 29, 1994, p. 9.
[Pesetsky is an American novelist, short story writer, critic, and educator. In the following generally positive review, she notes that although Isler's novel has considerable emotional power, only Otto Korner, the narrator and protagonist, is a fully drawn character.]
Alan Isler uses to advantage the mythic power of the theater in his first novel The Prince of West End Avenue. But it turns out to be a distinctly unconventional sort of theater. As the story begins, a production of Hamlet is in rehearsal by a troupe whose actors are drawn from the residents of the Emma Lazarus retirement home on New York's Upper West Side. The fate of the play itself is uncertain, and chaos reigns. Death, you see, has already decimated the cast and threatens to do so again. In addition, all the contretemps involved in putting on a play are present—jealousies, casting problems, politics.
The Emma Lazarus is a world largely dominated by an émigré culture rich with allusions to the past, yet also with romances and rivalries, with the sense that life is definitely not over. There is a kind of nostalgia in Mr. Isler's depiction of his characters and the complex web of their memories. But curtains are drawn over parts of their lives, shielding nightmare events they cannot bear to examine too...
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SOURCE: "A Rich Meditation on Old Age, First Love and Tragic Loss," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 13, 1994, p. E5.
[In the following review, Kendall offers a positive assessment of The Prince of West End Avenue, noting that although "the subtext [of the novel] is profound, the tone is kept buoyant" by the interaction of the many colorful characters.]
The year is 1978, and the residents of the Emma Lazarus retirement home are planning an ambitious in-house production of Hamlet.
They're a spirited crew despite advancing age and encroaching infirmity, and although their theatrical backgrounds run a short gamut from nonexistent to sketchy, the drama society performs only the classics. Last year's Romeo and Juliet was a triumph, even after Romeo fell after killing Tybalt and had to be carried off-stage on a stretcher. But as our narrator Otto Korner tells us, you have to make allowances.
This year, however, making allowances may not be quite enough. The man who was to have played Hamlet has just died and a substitute must be found at once. Still, the people who live at Emma Lazarus are experienced at dealing with adversity.
Several of the cast members fled Europe just before the war, while others were not so fortunate and barely escaped with their lives. To them, a dead Hamlet is merely a challenge. They've overcome far worse....
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SOURCE: "A 'Prince' of a First Novel," in Books Today—Chicago Tribune, June 14, 1994, p. 5.
[Pinsker is an American scholar, poet, and author of several books on contemporary American literature, including the critical study Between Two Worlds: The American Novel in the 1960s (1978), and two books on the works of novelist Philip Roth. In the following highly positive review, Pinsker notes the lessons learned by the novel's protagonist/narrator.]
Alan Isler's impressive first novel, The Prince of West End Avenue, is a tale of a group of retirement-home thespians trying to mount a production of Hamlet—against the long odds of death, failing health and internal bickering—that ultimately becomes an extended metaphor of our nightmarish century and the human race's capacity to survive its worst brutalization.
The novel's protagonist-narrator is Otto Korner, a Holocaust survivor, one-time poet (his book of poems, published in Germany when he was 19, was praised by none other than the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke) and currently an 83-year-old resident of the Emma Lazarus House on West End Avenue in New York City.
Although he had been given the role of gravedigger, events conspire to make him mount the stage as Hamlet, the man of existential doubt and over-exercised mind.
Korner's narration is at once a history of how the Emma...
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SOURCE: "25-Year Journey to Find Otto's 'Voice'," in The New York Times, July 10, 1994, sec. 13, p. 14.
[In the following article, Cummings discusses Isler's background and his writing of The Prince of West End Avenue.]
In Alan Isler's first novel, The Prince of West End Avenue, it is the arrival of the luscious Mandy Dattner at the Emma Lazarus retirement home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that throws Otto Korner into a state of emotional turmoil and prompts him to start keeping a journal.
A physical therapist from Cleveland, the "unbearably beautiful" Ms. Dattner, is a dead ringer for the passion of Otto's youth, Magda Damrosch, the toast of Zurich's Cafe Voltaire in 1916 and the darling of the Dadaists, who made it their headquarters.
Ms. Dattner's appearance at the home for the aged, where Otto is a resident some 60 years later, sets off for him a flood of long-repressed memories. Otto is an Auschwitz survivor, and his flashbacks provide a counterpoint to his account of the comic opera that is life at the Emma Lazarus.
Mr. Isler's inspiration for writing the novel ostensibly written by Otto in the form of a journal was a much slower process. The seed for the idea was planted 25 years ago, the writer said in a telephone interview.
A professor of English literature at Queens College who usually divides his time between...
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SOURCE: "Hamlet, Though Not Meant to Be," in The Spectator, Vol. 274, No. 8691, February 4, 1995, pp. 28-9.
[Brookner is an English novelist, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following review, she praises Isler's craft as a novelist and agrees with those critics who have favorably compared The Prince of West End Avenue with the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Saul Bellow.]
Since new talent invariably comes garlanded with prepublication encomia the potential reader is advised to adopt an attitude of caution. Alan Isler's novel [The Prince of West End Avenue], first published in America, has been compared with the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Saul Bellow: Cynthia Ozick has added her commendation. Can it possibly live up to such praise? It can, it does. The comparisons are not odious but they are very slightly wide of the mark. Singer is a mystic, Bellow an intellectual ruminant. Isler is a sharp-witted novelist who knows how to beguile his readers, and also to lay traps for them. Since the action of his story takes place in a Jewish retirement home, stuffed with argumentative and essentially like-minded characters, the result might have been intolerably self-regarding. Yet what emerges from this account of their affairs, and after considerable and masterly delay, is an awful dignity. These people, roughnecks some of them, are nevertheless and at the same time sophisticates. That...
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