Since evil will always be with us, denunciation must always have an honored place in human affairs. In literature, though, wit, tenderness and sheer high spirits may be more effective.
These three qualities shine out in Alan Isler's "The Bacon Fancier." Its four tales feature a clear evil--anti-Semitism--as it manifests itself toward four Jewish protagonists of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries respectively. In each there is an injustice at work, diminishing in violence though not in sting from century to century.
Isler, who published the appealingly quirky "The Prince of West End Avenue" two years ago, does not brood over his theme, nor does he trivialize it. He is not concerned to make his Jews, in their very different ordeals, particularly admirable. His 19th century character, a wealthy young Englishman, is a vain fop though plucky; his 20th century exemplar, a New Yorker, is a pain and his Jewish problem is decidedly abstract.
What the author is after is not virtue but humanity. Except in the first tale, set in 17th century Venice, what the characters principally suffer from is not sanctions and holocausts but denial of their human condition. Isler's recourse is to make them energetically and untidily human. His tales are alluring, buoyant and unexpected. They lurch, digress and wobble; they describe the erratic course of a dog that has incautiously got hold of a lit firecracker.
"The Monster" is a spectacular lopsided explosion, strewing about fragments of story. One fragment is the Shylock version. Antonio Bassanio (he merges the two Shakespearean characters) borrows money; when the narrator, vilified as a usurer, offers it interest-free it is Bassanio who as a "joke" insists on pledging a pound of flesh. When he fails to pay, his lawyer persuades the judge to punish Shylock for threatening a Christian's life. Shylock sensibly hires the same lawyer for an appeal; this time--a lovely, sardonic, modern touch--he wins.
All this is only a digression, though. Most of "The Monster" is about the larger oppression undergone by the Venetian ghetto. Books are burned, and some Jews are forcibly converted. The story is told in a variety of tones; there is a splendidly comic episode of an Englishman on the grand tour who comes to the ghetto to engage in a disputation about the divinity of Christ; mainly he wants material for a picturesque chapter in the journal he plans to publish. He is routed by the local "monster"--a huge but friendly deformed man who, Shylock explains, is the community's golem, and will no doubt tear the visitor limb from limb.
Skipping--for the purposes of this review--to the present, "The Affair" tells of Bruno, a peevish New York Jewish intellectual who lives with Olga, a bouncy and loving Catholic. He makes a meager living performing with semi- professional opera companies in Greenwich Village. His big chance comes with an offer of the lead role in a musical about the Dreyfus affair in France. The script is a hilarious mishmash of Broadway cliches; and Bruno, to whom Dreyfus was a heroic victim of anti-Semitism, righteously refuses. When it becomes a hit he accepts a small but lucrative role: show biz can digest anything.
"The Crossing" places anti-Semitism in a 19th century British context. It takes place on the Atlantic crossing of a luxury liner, where David, the spoiled scion of a wealthy Jewish family, finds himself the butt of a series of finely calibrated snubs. Calibration is necessary since his father is a major shareholder in the line. David suffers stiff-lipped; then he gets a hilarious lesson in how to be an outcast from Oscar Wilde, a fellow passenger. The irrepressible Wilde magnificently demolishes the ship's captain when the latter rashly attempts to outdo the master in an exchange of verbal put-downs.
As with the late Isaac Bashevis Singer, of whom Isler is something of a contemporary version, the currents of wit, outrage and tenderness are in continual interplay. Jewish pain is important and specific, but it is a variation on other kinds of human pain. The loveliest, and perhaps the wittiest of the stories, is the 18th century title piece.
Cardozo, a master violin maker, moves to England from Italy to escape the remaining traces of oppression. He lives free, if an oddity, in the village of Porlock, in the lifelong company of Queenie, an English waif he rescued. Their love story is comic and touching; he teaches her to read but if he is the mentor, she is the nurturer. At night they read aloud the essays of Francis Bacon. It is a wider world for both of them; in a sudden, sparkling twist Isler expands "Bacon Fancier" from parochial to universal.