Books by Alan Isler

Released: June 1, 2001

"A profound tale, with its profundity couched in irreligious humor."
The award-winning author of The Prince of West End Avenue (1994), among others, stays true to form with this immensely funny and sad story about the slippery road to identity. Read full book review >
Released: June 1, 1997

Four precise, elegant novellas, depicting, with wit and anger, the efforts of beleaguered Jews to come to an understanding with a hostile Gentile world. Isler (Kraven Images, 1996, etc.) has a remarkable gift for catching the small telling details of a character and for creating intelligent, distinctive voices. In ``The Monster,'' set in the Jewish ghetto in 16th-century Venice, an aged, unnamed moneylender recollects his disastrous attempt to recover the money lent an Italian nobleman, and his inadvertent part in the death of Mostrino, a hulking though harmless misshapen orphan jokingly identified, with disastrous consequences, as a golem—a legendary defender of the ghetto. We gradually realize that the narrator is in fact Shakespeare's ``Merchant of Venice,'' and that we are hearing, at last, the merchant's own view of events. In the title story, Cardoza, a maker of superb violins, an uneasy resident of England in the 18th century, describes his long affair with the Gentile girl he had sheltered from an abusive father. She becomes first his housekeeper, then his lover, and, over the course of several decades, his great solace. In the wake of her death Cardoza muses, believably and with a moving, muted passion, on his life. ``The Crossing'' follows the bitter education of young David Gladstone during a sea voyage to America in the company of such luminaries as Oscar Wilde. David discovers that his intelligence, his elegant precision of speech and manner, count for little in a world that sees him as a dangerous alien. ``The Affair,'' a funny, unsparing tale set in contemporary New York, describes the horrified reaction of an actor to a friend's production of ``Dreyfus: The Musical.'' By turns angry, deeply inventive, and unsettling, these novellas are a penetrating and original meditation on the vexed question of identity and a pointed reminder that Isler is swiftly becoming a writer of very considerable powers. (Author tour) Read full book review >
Released: April 1, 1996

Nicholas Kraven, the middle-aged British protagonist of Isler's savagely funny second novel (after The Prince of West End Avenue, 1994), would seem to have it made. He has an undemanding job as a lecturer in English literature at Mosholu College in the Bronx, classrooms of stolid students to hector, patronize (and, when a particularly alluring young woman catches his eye, seduce), and a longstanding adulterous liaison with a highly inventive neighbor. There are, of course, the occasional indignities: He must turn out scholarly articles and even appear to take seriously the seemingly crackbrained discovery of an elderly student (that Merlin was not only a historical figure but a Jew). Still, life isn't bad. And then, in an instant, it turns hilariously awful. His lover's husband deserts her. He adapts his student's idea about Merlin, taking credit for it himself, at first receives extraordinary praise, then is reviled as a plagiarist. Worst, in a deft moment that sends the novel soaring in an audacious new direction, Kraven is revealed to be an impostor. Raised in England in an extended family of German Jewish ÇmigrÇs, Kraven could in fact never afford to attend a university. When the loathsome cousin he had helped through school died, just before embarking for America, Kraven had usurped his job and his name. Now, he flees home, returning to London only to discover that his enemies and his past are not so easily eluded. Isler has a wonderful appetite for satire: his portraits of prissy academics, boorish students, and smarmy administrators are unsparing, convincing, and very funny. But his talent can equally meet the demands of sensitively portraying Kraven's suffering as, back home, he begins painfully to sift through the ruins of his life, the identity he artfully constructed and the older identity he fled. This sly comedy becomes, in the end, a subtle, profoundly moving meditation on identity and responsibility: an ambitious, stirring work by a very promising young writer. Read full book review >
Released: May 17, 1994

Memories of past sorrow and misspent passion come unbidden to an elderly Holocaust survivor in this elegant novel, when a woman bearing a resemblance to an old love joins the staff at a retirement home located on Manhattan's Upper West Side. While most of the residents of the Emma Lazarus home are busy squabbling over the casting and the direction of Hamlet, Otto Korner, challenging ghosts of his own, feels appropriately cast as the Gravedigger. A published poet at 19, and unable to serve in the army, he is sent to Zurich by his family at the advent of World War I. There he meets a thoughtful, bookish Lenin, an ``unmannered oaf'' named James Joyce, and is an unhappy midwife at Tristan Tzara's birthing of the Dadaist movement. It is there, too, that he becomes obsessed with the high-spirited, scornful Magda Damrosch, whose likeness he sees 60 years later in the ``dull, empty-headed'' physical therapist from Cleveland. His placid, unreflective life at the retirement home, already shaken, is further disturbed when a prized letter from the poet Rilke, praising his ``precocious talent,'' is stolen. Someone begins sending clues in verse— ``charades,'' he calls them—and they tax both his literary and personal memory. Isler moves smoothly from war to war and to the present, with Korner moving among memories of his youth; of his two wives (``both...were cremated, only one of them by her own request''); of his emigration in 1947 to New York, where he found his sister hanged in her kitchen (``I stuffed Lola's memory high on the closet shelf with the rest of my past and closed the door tightly''); and of his quiet, uneventful years at the New York Pubic Library where, ironically, he was placed in charge of materials published in Germany between 1929 and 1945. A delicious, evocative, gentle debut, written in prose to be savored and cherished. Read full book review >