It is autumn 1978 and in the exclusive Emma Lazarus retirement home on West End Avenue, Manhattan, the quarrelsome residents are preparing to stage a production of Hamlet. One of them, Otto Korner, who affects to be above all the rows and backbiting, is our narrator, and the novel is of the mock manuscript type, with Korner describing the day-to-day wrangles of the various shifting cliques and sub-cliques as they happen. At one point the home's director, Dr Weisskopf, gets wind of the work in progress and corners Korner to check there is "nothing libellous" in it. The home is a business, after all.
The residents invariably call Weisskopf "the Kommandant", except to his face. Says Korner, "he rules with an iron fist. One shake of his head and we're out of the play, erased from the list of solo-ambulants, put on a diet of fruit juice and porridge." The joke, which is no joke, is characteristic of this deeply ambiguous novel: many of those well-heeled if wrinkly New Yorkers, Korner included, really are former inmates of the other kind of institution alluded to, and they have the numbers tattooed on their wrists to prove it.
While he reports all the overheated rivalry and gossip, Korner gradually fills us in on his own life and background. His subject, he says, "is not amateur theatricals, it is art or, more accurately, anti-art: in brief, Dada." He claims to have coined theanarchic movement's name himself while in Zurich in 1917, and he will reveal all eventually, when not distracted by the intrigues over Hamlet (the actor-director has just died, creating a struggle for the succession).
Korner is moved to embark on this reminiscence by the apparition of the gorgeous new physio, Mandy Dattner. She looks exactly like Magda Damrosch, who broke his heart in Zurich back then and "went up in smoke at Auschwitz in 1943." What with the similarity of names, he feels that through Mandy some higher "purpose" is calling him, "and now the truth must out. It groans for expression. If, as a result, my part on the world's stage appears inflated, so be it."
The outcome is not what he intended, as he ends up by recalling all those things he has deliberately forgotten till now. Sure enough we are given the Zurich story in brilliantly lifelike scenes, though many readers will find the view obscured by a blizzard of sparks from the lathe of Tom Stoppard when Joyce and Lenin put in cameo appearances.
(Alan Isler seems to acknowledge this problem: the only characters in Hamlet who receive no mention throughout the book, and thus gain a strange inverse prominence, are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)
But Korner was only in Zurich because, unfit for the army, he was an embarrassment to his bourgeois Jewish parents in Berlin. He was the merest hanger-on in the Dada group, no great player at all, and he confesses how, after the Great War, he joined his father's stationery firm and married his cousin Meta. This was rather a come-down for a young man who had a book of poems published at 19 and got a letter of praise from Rilke - which, by the way, has just been stolen from his room at the Lazarus.
Up to this point, Alan Isler has staged an excellent, intricate tragicomedy of old age and failed hopes, playing off the numerous cranky subplots of life in the home against melancholy glimpses of the past: not just Zurich, but Korner's arrival in America as a camp survivor in 1945, his second, sexless marriage and the small fortune he glumly inherited on becoming a widower. The middle part of his life, between the wars, is still a curious blank.
Isler now goes one step further and makes a very good novel into something more. The ground is so well prepared that it takes only a few pages to accomplish. We discover that Korner is not quite the decent, dignified stuffed-shirt we took him for, but a man of truly dismal shortcomings, eaten up by a bitterness he can never articulate and a sense of guilt he can never begin to assuage.
Korner did nothing downright evil, but in Isler's well-timed, understated telling there is still great power to shock, and the balance of sympathy and aversion is judged with uncanny ability. The overall effect, though the book teems with life, is to deprive us of any false feeling that things are "all right" now the Holocaust is over. They are not.
American critics have compared Isler to Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer. He could well reach that standard in future: this is only his first novel, though he is already in his sixties. There are some clumsy moments, like Mandy's awful malapropisms and the overweight irony of Korner courting Meta at Berchtesgaden; there is some thematic fuzziness and an excess of learned literary references; but there is far more that is insightful and compelling, and the complex structure is wrought with dab-hand skill. A masterpiece, strictly, is the work by which a new artist shows his fitness to rank with the best. This is one of those.