Blackadder's grand tour: Books
OP NON CIT by Alan Isler Cape pounds 12.99
Sunday 02 February 1997
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.
TVJamie's Sugar Rush reveal's campaigning chef's new foe
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 What marriage would look like if we actually followed the Bible
- 2 President Obama leaves touching comment on Humans of New York photo from Iran
- 3 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 4 The Chinese city where men have 'three girlfriends because there are so many women'
- 5 'Heartbreaking' Syria orphan photo wasn't taken in Syria and not of orphan
The Gamechangers trailer: Daniel Radcliffe stars in GTA movie
Star Wars: New action dolls launched on Force Friday ahead of The Force Awakens release
Ricki And The Flash, film review: Meryl Streep's rock'n'roll creation steals the show
Joan Aiken: Today's Google Doodle celebrates life of British fantasy novelist
Photographer captures the beauty and intensity of his girlfriend giving birth at home
Britain to take more refugees as Cameron bows to pressure after more than 250,000 back our campaign
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Refugees welcome: More than 250,000 sign Independent petition calling for Britain to 'take its fair share'