Bernard Kops Kops, Bernard - Essay

Kops, Bernard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kops, Bernard 1926–

Kops, an English playwright, novelist, and poet, is well known for his novels of East End Jewish life in the Thirties. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

The Hamlet of Stepney Green and Enter Solly Gold are opposite sides of the same coin. In the former, Kops takes himself seriously and fails; in the latter, he does not take himself seriously and succeeds. It is as simple as that, and the lesson for the Jewish playwright is inescapable. The Jew is apt to be extremely emotional and to have a sharp, self-critical sense of humor. Extreme emotion is dangerous on the stage at the best of times. It is successful only when it is entirely impersonal and objective, as in Shakespeare and in the Greek drama. The Jewish form of emotion, as portrayed by Kops, is, however, strictly of the breast-beating, mea culpa type, sung solo with wailing-wall chorus obbligato; and this makes for embarrassed rather than sympathetic audiences. Another drawback to Kops's serious plays is that serious plays require some sort of philosophical orientation. When a man writes a serious play he has to take a definite position with respect to his view of reality. Now, Kops, though a first-class humorist, is anything but a thinker. He feels that the world is really a wonderful place and that everything would be all right if people would only jiggle around flapping their arms and smiling through. To Kops reality is one long, manic vaudeville act.

George Wellwarth, "Bernard Kops: The Jew as 'Everyman'," in his The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1964 by New York University), New York University Press, 1964, pp. 244-48.

The talented English playwright and poet Bernard Kops, whose development as a novelist has been an intense, protracted effort to bring his gifts to full maturity, has achieved that goal with his fourth and latest novel. By the Waters of Whitechapel … is an enormously funny, macabre, and affecting account of how a pathetically trapped man wins freedom at the paradoxical cost of assuming the role of self-jailer. Kops writes here with greater artistic discipline and more stringent concern for the necessary precision of poetic language than ever before. He has attained a toughness of vision that enables him to evoke significant compassion rather than a mawkish sentimentalism such as that which mars some of his previously published writing, especially his first novel, Awake for Mourning (1958).

Kops deals again with material explored by him in drama and fiction—the past and present of Jewish immigrants in London's East End slums. Fortunately, he has reperceived these potentially redundant characters. They have been invested, accordingly, with a unified clarity, sympathy, and significance that elevate By the Waters of Whitechapel above the currently omnipresent kind of novel in which ethnic experience is opportunistically trotted forth as almost wholly vaudeville frolic, obsessively castigated as almost entirely traumatic nightmare, or otherwise reduced to misleading caricature.

The American novelist whom Kops most resembles is Bernard Malamud. The latter's career has also been marked by consistent literary experiment; his work contains a similarly deep vein of fantasy….

Kops has not yet demonstrated the intellectualism distinguishing Saul Bellow. It is probably mere coincidence that Bellow's recent Mr. Sammler's Planet and Kops's second novel, Yes from No-Man's-Land (1965), both employ the imminent death of an elderly Jew as a means for bringing characters together for fruitful interaction.

Brom Weber, "Half Ham, Half Hamlet," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 2, 1970, pp. 29-30.

Bernard Kops is no tyro. He has published poetry, novels, plays, an autobiography. Now comes another novel [The Passionate Past of Gloria Gaye] and I'd like to be able to welcome it. Alas!… Mr. Kops has opted neither for fact nor fantasy, but for an injudicious mixture. Somehow, they don't mix or at least not the way Mr. Kops tries to mix them. Yet it cannot be denied that bits of the novel are really funny.

Robert Greacen, in Books and Bookmen, December, 1971, p. 66.

It is easy to understand that, once having invented the enterprising Simon Katz, there really must have seemed to be very little else the author needed to do. Simon Katz, with his almost limitless capacity for self-delusion. Simon Katz, with a long lifetime of living off his wits behind him and a wardrobe of disguises to prove it—Ascot toff, funeral mourner, blind man, American tourist, rabbi, street photographer, suicide in shabby macintosh. Simon Katz, at sixty-nine still with his insatiable third leg, indignantly demanding cut prices for old age pensioners. Simon Katz with his cat called Nasser, something to kick whenever he feels like it. Simon Katz living alone in a derelict Soho house with the sepia photograph of his long-dead wife, there to admonish him when his courage falters, to give him strength to resist his long-suffering stockbroker son's ten thousandth plea that he should 'settle down'….

There, then, Simon Katz must have been, in his author's affectionate eyes a promising contender for a place in literature's already over-crowded gallery of lovable rogues. And out Simon Katz was sent, his 'Oy-oy!' honed to a fine cutting edge, to storm the bastions of respectability wherever they might be situate….

Simply to invent Simon Katz was not, after all, enough. He is not—no man could be—strong enough to carry the sometimes unfunny, sometimes implausible, sometimes down-right grubby situations his author rather cursorily devises for him [in Settle Down Simon Katz]. And his supporting cast, who might have helped him out, are given the sort of stock walk-on parts only very out-of-work actors would be seen dead in.

Even more seriously, the author's unquestioning love for his hero leads him into a fundamental carelessness—he never tells us how we, who do not know Simon Katz quite as well as he does, are meant to regard him. With affection, naturally, but with what else? Are we meant grudgingly to admire him, or feel sorry for him, or think him really rather horrid? In this we get no help: the writing zooms disconcertingly from crude farce, through tear-jerking pathos, and on to the cynical objectivity of the green-toothed layabout who comments on Simon's technique when swindling the ticket collector with one scathing word, 'Puny!'—which is what it undoubtedly is.

The reader is sadly tempted, in the absence of any other firm direction, to extend the word to all Simon's techniques, and indeed to Simon himself. Which is a pity. With just a little more help from his author, just a little more effort, he might easily have been right up there with Ron Moody. I mean, Fagin. No, I don't, I mean Ron Moody.

D. G. Compton, in Books and Bookmen, September, 1973, p. 82.