Alan Isler Essay - Critical Essays

Isler, Alan

Introduction

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."

Criticism

Publishers Weekly (review date 14 March 1994)

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.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 March 1994)

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 verse—"charades," he calls them—and they tax both his literary and personal memory. Isler moves smoothly from war to war and to the present, with Korner moving among memories of his youth; of his two wives ("both … were cremated, only one of them by her own request"); of his emigration in 1947 to New York, where he found his sister hanged in her kitchen ("I stuffed Lola's memory high on the closet shelf with the rest of my past and closed the door tightly"); and of his quiet, uneventful years at the New York Public Library where, ironically, he was placed in charge of materials published in Germany between 1929 and 1945.

A delicious, evocative, gentle debut, written in prose to be savored and cherished.

S. Schoenbaum (review date 8 May 1994)

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 of solo ambulants rather than sedentary residents, so he can still walk about and have coffee and play dominoes at Goldstein's Dairy Restaurant on Broadway, a short distance from the Emma Lazarus. Certainly Korner is not burning and raving at close of day (as another poem would have it); but he is not going gentle into that good night, either.

He is haunted by memories. Twice widowed, he finds solace taking part in the Emma Lazarus Old Vic, which specializes in performing the classics. In their recent production of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet was 73 and Romeo was 78. When Romeo killed Tybalt, it was Romeo who fell, and had to be carried on a stretcher from the stage. He can now...

(The entire section is 884 words.)

Bette Pesetsky (review date 29 May 1994)

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 closely. The darkness of the past animates their present.

Otto Korner, an engaging and erudite retired librarian, is the novel's narrator; originally, he is cast as the ghost in Hamlet. The octogenarian Korner, once a published poet and writer of articles on literary subjects, now keeps a journal, whose aim is to clarify once and for all certain truths about "anti-art: in brief, Dada." A Holocaust survivor, he has lived, since his rescue, in search of a purpose.

Korner's memories are rattled by the appearance of young Mandy Dattner, a newly hired physical therapist. Can she be a reincarnation of the beautiful Magda Damrosch, who perished at Auschwitz? Recollections pull Korner back to the early decades of the century when, unable to serve in the Kaiser's army in World War I and thus a visible target for sentiments directed against his family in Germany, he was sent to Switzerland to continue his studies. It was on the way to Zurich that he first glimpsed the unattainable Magda and fell in love with her.

(The entire section is 1080 words.)

Elaine Kendall (review date 13 June 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 721 words.)

Sanford Pinsker (review date 14 June 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Mary Cummings (essay date 10 July 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1348 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 4 February 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 925 words.)