Set in a Jewish retirement home in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1978, The Prince of West End Avenue is a haunting yet often hilarious novel that follows Otto Korner, an Auschwitz survivor who is directing his fellow retirees in a retirement-home production of Hamlet. Despite their age, the staging of the play features all the jealousies, in-fighting and petty squabbling you would expect from an amateur theatre production.
Otto has initially been cast as the Ghost, a role he feels particularly well suited to as he is battling with ghosts of his own. The Emma Lazarus Retirement Home has recently hired a new physical therapist who bears a striking resemblance to Otto’s first love Magda Damrosch. Her appearance has sent Otto in to a tailspin as he struggles to keep on top of the chaotic production of Hamlet, find out who has stolen his prized signed letter from Rilke and keep from being overwhelmed with thoughts of his past.
Isler displays a sharp wit and certain black humour in his depiction of the day-to-day shenanigans in the retirement home. There are sexual escapades, grudges and fights that would not be out of place in a high school. Cliques are formed in the next-door restaurant – Goldstein’s Dairy – where every dish is named after a Jewish Hollywood star and the retirees cause as much enjoyable mayhem as a gang of children.
We produce only the classics at the Emma Lazarus. Of course, you have to make allowances. Last year, for example, our Juliet was eight-three and our Romeo seventy-eight. But if you used your imagination, it was a smash hit. True, on opening night, when Romeo killed Tybalt, it was Romeo who fell down and had to be carried on a stretcher from the stage.
These escapades alternate with Otto’s flashbacks to his formative years as a young man in Zurich. A published poet at 19, and unable to serve in the army, he was sent there by his family at the advent of World War I. In Zurich, he is involved on the fringes of the Dadaist movement, talks love with Lenin and disparages an ‘unmannered oaf’ called James Joyce.
However, it is his beloved but scornful Magda to whom his memories keep returning. If Otto was on the fringes, Magda was the wild beating heart of the Dadaist scene, performing at Cabaret Voltaire with Max Oppenheimer and giving Otto just enough encouragement without any commitment.
As Isler smoothly moves through Otto’s memories of his life, nostalgia and humour give way to a darker, hidden pain. Otto remembers his two wives; his job in the New York Public Library and the death of his sister Lola, who hanged herself on the day Otto arrived in the United States.
If mutability is a condition of human existence, my life has been exemplary. The trick is not to confuse Change with Chance (a great temptation) but to allow the individual thread to merge into the varicoloured fabric, where it takes its place in the harmony of the whole.
Gradually and subtly, The Prince of West End Avenue emerges as an exploration of how important it is to reconcile the trauma of our past in order to find a way forward, to find what Otto has always been looking for – a ‘greater purpose’. As Otto’s memories finally turn to his first wife, his son, and their fate – which is only revealed in the final pages – the depth, scope and ambition of this elegant book finally comes to fruition.
The Prince of West End Avenue is a deceptive book, revealing its layers and meanings as Otto reveals his memories. The book itself is perfectly structured and Otto is a wonderful creation; intelligent, articulate and passionate and his ruminations of death, love, old age and war are as illuminating as they are universal.
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