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.
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.
SOURCE: "The Readiness Is All," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 8, 1994, p. 5.
[ In the following review, Schoenbaum notes...
(This entire section contains 884 words.)
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 be found in Mineola. Currently a production of Hamlet is in the works. The star, to guard against a midnight hunger pang, secreted away a lump of sugar, which he choked on in his room. Thus he discovered how sweet it is to die. Korner is set to play a Ghost or a Gravedigger, in any event a spectral presence. The text of Hamlet is savored with a plethora of allusions and quotations. For Korner is a literary gent, employed before retirement by the New York Public Library.
Reared in a comfortable middle-class Jewish Berlin household, some years before Schindler compiled his list, young Korner seemed destined for the literary life. A precocious poem by him elicited an encouraging letter from the great Rilke. Korner held on to his tattered letter even in an extermination camp of the Third Reich. Unlike his first love, Magda Damrosch, whose short life was snuffed out in a gas chamber, Korner is a Holocaust survivor. Not until late in the novel is the number on his wrist commented upon. The Rilke letter, by now almost undecipherable, mysteriously disappears at the Emma Lazarus. So what? It is only an old handwritten letter from what's-his-name. Ultimately it resurfaces.
The other woman in Korner's life is Mandy Dattner, a youthful Ph. th. (physical therapist) from Shaker Heights Community College in Cleveland, who works with him at the Emma Lazarus. Her presence reminds him of Magda, in part because of the analogous disyllables of their names.
In Korner's memory, celebrated personages make their entrances and exits at a Zurich restaurant, where a cadaverous-looking man with thick eyeglasses sits with others singing songs and telling jokes in sundry languages. Magda lifts her glass to toast him. Korner thinks him an unmannered oaf. He looks like a down-at-heels dandy: "A lifetime later," Korner observes, "leafing through the photographs in Ellman's [sic] classic biography, I discovered to my surprise and embarrassment that this 'unmannered oaf' had been the great Irish writer James Joyce, even then, in 1916, at work on his incomparable Ulysses."
Also in Zurich he chatted and had a drink with Lenin at the Cafe Odeon. Zurich, Lenin, and Joyce—shades of Tom Stoppard, a very different presence and literary talent from Isler.
"If it be now, it is not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now, if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all." So Hamlet to Horatio, who has well-justified misgivings before the culminating duel with Laertes in the final scene of the play. "The readiness is all"—it is the last sentence of the novel. In time Korner becomes the director of the Emma Lazarus Old Vic and plays Hamlet. The Prince of West End Avenue becomes the Prince of Denmark.
And who is Alan Isler? A Brit by origin, he hobnobs with ex-colonials in the Big Apple. A member of the English Department at Queens College of the City University of New York, he is currently renewing acquaintance with the old country. I expect that The Prince of West End Avenue will deservedly delight many readers. Isler is a novelist to be watched.
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.
If Korner moved cautiously on the fringes of a changing world, Magda was in the thick of events, holding court at the Cabaret Voltaire with the artists Hans Arp and Max Oppenheimer and the poet Tristan Tzara. In Korner's memories of Magda, we witness the birth of the Dada movement.
The exiled Korner also met and had a drink with Lenin: "What did we talk about, Lenin and I? Not about political economy or the rights of the proletariat. You will scarcely believe me if I tell you that we spoke of love—or, rather, that I spoke of it." Korner even spent an evening listening to a noisy and unimpressive James Joyce. But what did such meetings mean? They were, Korner concludes, like much of life, to be considered merely coincidences.
Moving back and forth from the world of his memories to the present world of the Hamlet production, Korner finds only turbulence and change. With the death of Adolphe Sinsheimer, who was both the play's director and its Hamlet and the only Emma Lazarus resident with professional acting experience (as "a Ruritanian soldier in the movie The Prisoner of Zenda), the stage is set for new intrigues. Cabals form at Goldstein's Dairy Restaurant, with plots to take over the floundering Hamlet.
Mr. Isler displays a sharp and original wit, with touches of black humor. Some jokes are genuinely funny, as when the play's self-appointed replacement director, who fears offending Orthodox members of the audience, changes the line "Is she to be buried in Christian burial?" to "Is she to be buried in Mineola?" But at whom are we laughing?
Although the other émigrés are skillfully drawn, not one holds the fascination of Otto Korner. And the men, like Korner's friend Benno Hamburger, have a depth and complexity not shown by the residence's vocal and conniving women, who seem more like stock characters. Korner's second wife, the Contessa, whom be marries during his early retirement, is an exception as we spy on his recollections of their failed physical union, we wince as he cruelly describes her aging body.
Gradually, though, The Prince of West End Avenue emerges as a paradoxical tale of how to make peace with an unbearable past and the sin of pride. In a powerful scene toward the end of the novel, when Korner at last speaks at length of his first wife, Meta, and his son, the pettier concerns of the Emma Lazarus home abruptly diminish. It is then that we realize how much Otto Korner's story is able to haunt us.
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. Their star has departed for another stage, but the show will go on.
While the situation seems designed for comedy, resident Otto Korner is not only an extremely articulate observer but a man with an acute sense of irony. The result is a rich and complex novel; a meditation on age, love, loss and the enduring guilt felt by those who survived the European catastrophe.
Before the war, Korner was a promising poet and literary journalist, happily married and the father of a son. Like many others with powerful ties to their homeland, he was reluctant to leave, ignoring the pleadings of his wife until flight was no longer possible.
His tragic personal story is revealed only gradually, when long-suppressed memories are aroused by a new young physical therapist at the Emma Lazarus house, a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to his first, lost love. Each encounter with Mandy Dattner opens another locked door into Korner's past, reminding him of the dazzling Magda Damrosch and then, inevitably, of the family who perished in the Holocaust.
The fragments accumulate and slip into place, putting Korner in the foreground of the European artistic ferment between the wars. Introduced by the free-spirited Damrosch to the vibrant cafe life of Zurich before the First World War, Korner meets the avant-garde writers, artists and political figures of the era, encounters that continue to shape his view of the world. He treasures only one relic of his past—a letter from the great German poet Rilke praising Korner's youthful efforts in verse.
The mysterious disappearance and subsequent recovery of that letter will thrust Korner still further into the present, making it possible for him to relinquish his chosen role of Ghost and take the part of Hamlet. As the reader discovers, the parallels between the cynical 83-year-old refugee and the young Prince of Denmark are inescapable.
Although the subtext of The Prince of West End Avenue is profound, the tone is kept buoyant by the interaction among the Emma Lazarus residents, whose intrigues, passions and arguments provide a counterpoint of levity.
You may forget you're reading a serious novel after encountering the lusty and sardonic Benno Hamburger and the unregenerate Bolshevik nicknamed "the Red Dwarf." After you've attended one of the impromptu philosophical seminars led by the relentlessly cerebral Hermione Perlmutter and watched as Tosca Dawidowicz transforms herself from a pudgy virago into a superb Ophelia, you'll think for a moment that the author has intended only to entertain you with a cast of gifted, if inadvertent, comedians. The coffee hours in Goldstein's Dairy Restaurant are hilarious; the rivalries and romances among the actors continuously diverting. Otto Korner's thoughtful commentary, still cadenced with European formality, keeps the humor firmly under control.
As Korner tells us at the beginning of this supremely original book, his subject "is not amateur theatricals, it is art—or, more accurately, anti-art: in brief, dada." An ideal metaphor for the insoluble riddles of the 20th Century.
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 Lazarus Hamlet got to opening night and a series of flashbacks that follow him through his European past as he meets and interacts with the likes of Tristan Tzara (founder of Dadaism), Lenin and James Joyce.
The result is a novel dripping with cultural richness and generous measures of wit. When he encounters a young physical therapist who resembles a woman he wooed unsuccessfully 60 years earlier, Korner uses the occasion to engage in a series of speculations that, by increments, unblock his heart and send a torrent of regrets to the surface.
Not surprisingly, his affinities with Hamlet play a role in this process:
Perhaps my objection to Lipschitz' [the director that Korner eventually replaces] mutilations has to do with the fact that in the Prince of Denmark I see much of myself. It is not to Hamlet's nobility of mind that I refer, not to the "courtier's, soldier's, scholar's eye, tongue, sword" or to "the glass of fashion and the mould of form," but to his hesitations, his vacillations, above all his egregious eagerness to play the antic. In this mirror that he holds up to nature, I see my own reflection…. No one would want to argue that Hamlet was good for women, whether the young Ophelia or the matronly Gertrude: one way or another, their deaths were on his head. As for me, both my wives were cremated, only one of them, the Contessa, by her own request.
Indeed, Korner has much to grieve about—not only for loved ones who met their deaths in the Holocaust but also for the way his articles urging German Jews to "stand fast" ("As a matter of right—legal, moral and religious—we belong on German soil") helped seal their fate. As he puts it: "How many besides my own flesh and blood have I on my conscience? I should have screamed from the rooftops, 'Jews, run for your lives!'"
What Korner discovers only at the moment before the curtain rises on the retirement-home Hamlet is that the present is infinitely precious: "What can we do but grasp the fleeting moment? For me, in this now, that moment is our play. I want to be Hamlet. And I care not a whit for the comical figure I shall cut."
In The Prince of West End Avenue, the play's the thing—and a thing of dazzling verbal richness and human complexity it is. Old age and love, loss and redemption, have seldom been cobbled into such an enormously satisfying whole.
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 New York and Sag Harbor, Mr. Isler is spending most of a leave in his native London.
Twenty-five years ago Mr. Isler read a newspaper article about a home for the aged in Brooklyn whose residents were preparing a production of Macbeth. "They had gotten the essence of the play," he said, "but had otherwise rewritten it."
Mr. Isler said he felt that "something had to be done with the idea," but he was writing for scholarly journals and the "voice" that ultimately dictated the book, Otto's voice, was not nearly as insistent as it became later.
Until there was a voice there was no story, Mr. Isler said. But once the voice grew distinct and persistent, he said, the story, which had been in gestation for more than 20 years, spilled out in "no more than 15 months."
For a time, Mr. Isler recalled, Otto Korner seemed to whisper in his ear every night. "It was almost as if I woke the next day and it was there in my head, just waiting to be transcribed," he said. "It was a marvelous experience, very exciting, the happiest time of my life."
In the novel it is Hamlet that the denizens of the Emma Lazarus are rehearsing, squabbling over and tampering with as Otto, who has been cast as the Ghost, begins his journal.
The bonds of old age and Judaism notwithstanding—the "open-door policy" at the home is interpreted to mean that "all Jews are welcome"—the residents are anything but homogeneous. They feud over sexual rivalries, jockey for position and power on stage and off, nurse oversize egos and cultivate petty resentments.
Tosca Davidowicz, orthodox and exquisitely sensitive to anything that might make her appear otherwise, is prepared to go to the mats over Shakespeare's reference to a Christian burial for Ophelia. Unless the offending line is eliminated and replaced with, "Is she to be buried in Mineola?" La Davidowicz, as Otto invariably refers to her, will not play the part.
An erstwhile poet and intellectual, Otto is horrified at the idea of altering Shakespeare. His closest friend, Benno Hamburger, is mutinous. The "Red Dwarf," resident anarchist and trouble maker, is gleeful. "That's it," he says. "Don't knuckle under to the fascists."
The crisis is another in an apparently endless series of contretemps that threatens to delay the production permanently. Death, the ultimate contretemps and an impatient presence at the Emma Lazarus, has already claimed Hamlet's original director, who is buried in Mineola and could strike again at any moment.
Mr. Isler said he chose Mineola as the permanent resting place for his characters, and the favored substitute for Shakespeare's offending reference, not for any logical reason but because he liked the sound of the name. "I have no idea if there is a cemetery there," he said. "But I do know that Long Island is replete with them."
His characters, by contrast, were created from more personal material. With roots in the emigre culture of New York and England, they are based, albeit rather broadly at times, on real people whom the writer has known.
"They are a composite of many, many people whom I met over the years," Mr. Isler said, "people who could claim backgrounds similar to Otto and Benno, particularly the German-Austrian émigrés."
This was the circle in which his parents and their friends moved in London in Mr. Isler's earliest childhood, he said, "people who managed to flee Austria in 1938."
Later, in the 50's, after Mr. Isler had left England to come here at the age of 18, he found an émigré community molded by the same forces on the Upper West Side. He remembers sitting as a young guest at dinner tables "awed by their cynical worldliness and cultural savoir-faire, their casual references to the genuine articles and the big names, many of whom they actually knew."
Drawn into the past by the shock of seeing Magda in the person of Mandy, Otto moves back and forth in his journal between past and present. Painful memories surface—of his failure as a poet, of cruelties born of bitterness and frustration and inflicted on people he loved, of a terrible arrogance and pride that had the most terrible consequences for his family.
He gives himself little quarter and can find no "grand purpose" in the seemingly random, often ugly events of his life. What has kept the blackness from engulfing him has been his ability to live in the moment. "For the last 30 years I have existed in the present," he writes, "disposing of my life a day at a time."
The shifting focus from tragic past to comic present also keeps blackness from engulfing Mr. Isler's readers. The examined life goes on, after all.
At the Emma Lazarus, despite the byzantine plotting and scheming, life is filled with the unexpected and fraught with ambiguities. It does not surprise him, Mr. Isler said, that the word "gentle" has appeared in early reviews of his book.
True, he has spared his characters few of old age's unbecoming infirmities, but he also said he believed that he had created in them "a much livelier group of people than you would actually find in such a place."
"This is the world in which we live," Mr. Isler said. "There are certain absolute truths."
Given those unavoidable truths, what he admires most, he said, is a certain combination of awareness with an appreciation for the uncertainties that finds expression in amusement and laughter.
Certainly Otto, with his unvarnished view of his own behavior and unsentimental attitude toward the foolishness of his friends, possesses it. Nor does it seem likely that Otto will ever rid himself of a certain deep-rooted ambivalence that colors his outlook, try as he might. And in that, Mr. Isler said, he resembles his creator.
"There is a lot of Korner in me," he said. "Like him, I love the old verities. On the other hand I also admire the youthful Dadaists and their impudent disturbing of the status quo."
Not surprisingly, the voice that waited so long before it was ready is now refusing to be silenced. The book, which found a publisher "serendipitously" though East End connections who recommended to Bridge Works in Bridgehampton, has been completed for a couple of years now, Mr. Isler said.
And yet, he added: "The voice is still very much alive in me. I have to fight against it, because I don't want it in my next work of fiction."
The new book, now in "the revisions stage," according to Mr. Isler, is something that he prefers not to talk about at the moment, except to say, "It grows more obviously out of my experience than the first one."…
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 is the fact of their survival, although the hero and narrator, Otto Korner, may not appreciate this particular irony. He is wise enough, however, to realise that he has no choice in the matter.
The Emma Lazarus Retirement Home in Manhattan, a comfortable establishment which we might well do to emulate over here (excellent cuisine, resident doctor, cultural activities) is inhabited by elderly parties whose wits and appetites have remained intact. In the intervals of breakfasts at Goldstein's Dairy Restaurant they are preoccupied with their forthcoming production of Hamlet, for which a particularly close reading of the text is undertaken by Otto Korner. Cast first as the Ghost, then demoted to Gravedigger, he longs to play Hamlet himself. Never mind that he is 83 years old: he has the experience. He is, or rather was, a man of letters; not only did he have a volume of poems published in his native Nuremberg, which brought him a treasured letter from Rilke, he was a student in Zurich at the epochal moment when Lenin was speaking in one part of town and Ball, Tzara, Arp and friends were performing in another. Indeed he may even have invented the term Dada for which the group became famous. Certainly he remembers a shambling figure with thick glasses who turned out to be James Joyce.
The letter from Rilke and the memory of his own literary efforts give Korner an added incentive to direct the production, a task which eventually becomes his by default, since the occupants of the Emma Lazarus home are occasionally overtaken by mortality. His ruminations on the play are surprisingly worthwhile, and mark him out as a genuine man of letters. At the same time he has to contend with the day-to-day life of the home and the vagaries of his companions. These are all dealt with sympathetically, and here the comparison with Bellow is valid: the overdressed and plaintive widows, the cracked former communists, and the priapic elders of both sexes all emerge vigorously from their different backgrounds and are devoid of the vulgarity with which they might be charged by those not of their number. Since an additional motif of the novel is the life force this is not surprising.
Korner's story differs from those of his fellows only in being more extreme. By the time he is waiting in his room for the call to play Hamlet we have learnt all there is to know about him. The brevity with which the information is disclosed is admirable. Like Hamlet he is no hero—but perhaps, he reflects, Hamlet was ashamed of and irritated by that cuckolded father and his belated call for revenge? There are embarrassments so severe that they can be life-threatening. Korner's passage from the incomparable culture of the pre-war German Jewish bourgeoisie to the Emma Lazarus home might be accounted a logical progression, given the manner in which the century has evolved. But not all victims are innocent. It was Korner's literary ambitions which were his undoing, and even in the Emma Lazarus home there is a witness to accuse him. But accuse him to his face: even here there is no subterfuge.
This 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. All that is known of the author is that he is English by birth, that he moved to America when he was 18 years old, that he has taught at Queens College in New York, that he is 60 years old, and that this is his first novel. The good news is that he is working on another. His remarkable debut is a cause for congratulation not only for the author but for the small American press which originally published him and for Jonathan Cape for buying the book and bringing it out in trade paperback. All in all, a distinguished and creditable enterprise, and a reminder that big money is not necessarily a guide to the production of excellent work.