September 20, 2001
‘Errors’ in Judgement
A priest reflects on his Jewish roots and questions his beliefs.
"Clerical Errors" by Alan Isler (Scribner; $24.)
Aging priest, Father Edmond music is one of those people who puts off dealing with crises until it's just too late.
The world of literature is rife with such people -- think of Hamlet; Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Grady Tripp in Michael Chabon's "Wonder Boys." This is fortunate for us, because their lives reach a fascinating pitch just around the time their difficulties inevitably converge. In retrospect, it's clear that each misjudgment, unchecked impulse or venal act was destined to lead to another. In the best literary examples of that theme, the reader can watch a tidal wave of emergency roll in and over the poor hero-schmuck like in one of those tacky Hollywood disaster movies -- except that the difference between good literature and a film is that it is character (or lack of it) that always causes catastrophe, not the other way around.
Such is the fate befalling Music in the opening pages of "Clerical Errors," Alan Isler's third novel. Music is, quite consciously, a mass of contradictions that cannot, and should not have to, co-exist for long. For one thing, this is a priest who, for upward of 50 years, has also been an atheist. For another, he is actually Jewish; as a child in France during World War II, his parents had him converted just before they separately disappeared -- his mother into Auschwitz, his father to God knows where until he resurfaces in Tel Aviv long after the war.
Third, Music has been sleeping with his housekeeper, the lovely Maude, ever since the day she came to Beale Hall, the scholarly Catholic retreat that Music directs, almost half a century ago. And now, in her old age, conscience-stricken Maude is reverting to an almost fundamentalist Catholicism, shunning Music as worse than a sinner and blaming him for her probable consignment to an eternity in hell.
As if this isn't enough, Music's longtime enemy, fellow priest Twombly, has finally found the perfect weapon with which to do him in: He has discovered the theft of a rare book from Beale Hall and is threatening to expose Music as the thief. Maude is actually the culprit, but Music still loves her and would not think of betraying her, no matter how resentful and bitter she has become.
The question of Maude aside, however, Music is beginning to feel that he really is a betrayer, as toward the end of his life he belatedly questions all his motives. For not abandoning Christianity after the war; for, in fact, taking "on another layer of disguise, the priesthood, when disguise was no longer needful"; for refusing to notice as Maude's conscience ate away at her, making her alcoholic and ill; for never adequately mourning the death of his mother and the loss of his father; and for generally taking a cynical, path-of-least-resistance attitude toward his obligations throughout his entire life.
When, in 1963, he arrived at his long lost father's home in Tel Aviv dressed in priestly robes and was chased hysterically from the house, Music tried to put the episode behind him, assuring himself that his father had always been a weakling and a fool ("I looked at him and saw what one sees squirming when one lifts a stone"). But all these years later the memory will not leave him alone:
"What I betrayed ... was not the God of the Jews, not the ancient faith, but the Jews themselves, my own people. When, at first to save my life, I joined the enemy, hung the Cross about my neck, genuflected before painted idols, ingested and imbibed like a cannibal what I was told were the real body and blood of the Jew Jesus, I betrayed the six million, and the millions before them, and the many since. It doesn't matter that I believed none of it.... I knew myself to be a traitor."
So what's a traitor to do when it's too late to make things right? That's Music's dilemma, and "Clerical Errors" is his apologia, which ends, appropriately, with most of the specific problems resolved (though not neatly, never neatly) and Music himself as unresolved as ever. Music ends up sort of but not exactly reformed, not exactly penitent and not exactly eased in spirit.
Isler is a magnificently ironic writer, with superior knowledge of the way language reveals character, as well as absolute control over the situations in which he places his characters. The result is often hilarious, as in the dinner-party scene at which the guests are Music (with a seriously drunk Maude attempting to prepare and serve dinner), Bishop McGonagle and Music's lifelong enemy Twombly and his bitterly anti-Catholic friend W.C., who gleefully calls the bishop to account for various evils perpetrated by the Church. ("What shall we talk about?... Vatican help to fleeing Nazis? ... The pederasty of Archbishop Turpin of Wigan?")
Isler's first novel, "The Prince of West End Avenue," published when he was 60, won the 1994 National Jewish Book Award -- not a bad start for a second career. And he just keeps getting better. If you haven't discovered him yet, you've been missing something extraordinary.