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.
After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violencefilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC
- 2 Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
- 3 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 4 A third of employers never check job applicants' qualifications, survey finds
- 5 James Foley beheading: Fox news presenter Megyn Kelly annoyed by Ferguson update during broadcast about murdered journalist
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC
The Top Ten: Horrible buildings
JK Rowling writes new Harry Potter story on Pottermore: Introducing 'Singing Sorceress' Celestina Warbuck
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Celebrity Big Brother 2014 line-up: Meet the contestants from Lauren Goodger to Kellie Maloney and Audley Harrison
Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
Bin bag full of cats' heads discovered near Manchester's Curry Mile
Disgusting, frustrating, but intriguing: how the country really feels about its politicians