Blackadder's grand tour: Books

OP NON CIT by Alan Isler Cape pounds 12.99
Afew years ago, in the north of England, an aubergine was cut in half and its seeds found to resemble words from the Koran. The vegetable attracted pilgrims in the same way that, more recently, a vision of the Madonna on the side of a Florida office-block drew a crowd of thousands. It is a truism that in this empirical age we continue to invest coincidence with significance and are all too eager to discern the familiar. Consider how warmly we embrace E M Forster's over-used dictum "only connect".

Op Non Cit, Alan Isler's third book in four years, is a quartet of novellas which could be said to be highly connected indeed. The title, a typical bit of Isler literary play, is a useful key. Each story offers an intervention with one of these famous but unidentified "works not cited", adding a sub-plot that raises questions of plagiarism, attribution and the prickly matter of writers taking, without permission, from other people's words and life.

The novellas are also linked through their human subjects: Jews from four different centuries negotiating the non-Jewish world. As Isler considers the assumptions and distortions of their literary treatment, social and artistic ethics are shown to have been poorly applied throughout. Isler concentrates on the casual application of prejudice, even its comic aspects, wisely leaving the drama of inequity and vulnerability to take care of itself.

All this suggests a well-organised book and it is that. Isler's aims are so carefully stated, his allusions so heavily drawn, that there is no pleasure to be gained from their identification. Without any schematic surprise or suspense, we expect more from the stories and they in turn are disappointing, as if secondary to the literary conceit.

"The Defender of the Jews" begins with a baby found in a basket in the Venetian Jewish ghetto. This particular association is made for us: he is Moses and has his prophetic role confirmed by the fact that he was born circumcised and waves three fingers in the shape of the Hebrew letter shin. Isler plays with the absurdity of this eagerness for omens and spins a story around this boy, who grows up as the village idiot only to be killed by a catapult (cf Goliath).

Plenty of clues encourage us to deduce that the narrator is Shylock, the moneylender in The Merchant of Venice. A gentle farce is played out in which more serious anti-Semitic acts come casually to light. A boy has been abducted and forcibly converted. A rabbi travelling between cities has, unremarkably, disappeared. The Pope has decreed, on a whim, that all copies of the Torah in the city are to be burned. The killings will not be questioned or redressed.

Somehow, the comedy and tragedy in these novellas do not cohere. Each part is convincing but the individual stories, and the book as a whole, fail to add up. There is a staginess about them. Characters and voices are recognisable from books but not identifiable in life. The English fop who tries to include the Jewish ghetto in his Grand Tour is laden with Shakespearean demotic. He has 16 words for prostitute, suggesting Blackadder more then Henry IV. There are also touches of the corny lewdness that gave Isler's last novel, Kraven Images, its scenes of tired bedroom farce.

The title of "The Bacon Fancier" is an awkward pun on the Jewish Cardozo's craving for his cook's non-kosher puddings, and his fondness for the works of Francis Bacon. The main literary reference this time is "Kubla Khan" and so Cardozo, an instrument-maker, meets Coleridge in Porlock while delivering a dulcimer. Coleridge steals a phrase from him before running off to the privy. "The Crossing" has a Jewish foundling adopted by Gladstone crossing the Atlantic on the same boat as Oscar Wilde, to whom he unwittingly donates the idea of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Each of Isler's four central Jewish characters has opportunities. There is a time in each of their lives when greatness seems possible. What survives of them, though, is unintended and otherwise attributed. "The Affair" is the starkest illustration of this, a contemporary story of New York opera politics in which a struggling supernumerary sees his essay on Dreyfus turned into a musical ("If you were the only Jew in the world" / "And you were the only goy").

The Prince of West End Avenue, Isler's charming comedy of a staging of Hamlet in an old people's home, succeeded because its style was ideally suited to its subject. The crabby, pedantic narrator, ornate ironies and old-fashioned innuendo were exactly right. In Kraven Images, more modern and satirical, the same formula was misapplied. Op Non Cit is a better book than its predecessor, but it is not, sadly, as good as Isler's debut.