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The Bacon Fancier
Alan Isler

The Bacon Fancier
Alan Isler
London 1998

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The Bacon Fancier consists of four stories, described in the fly-leaf as ‘novellas’ but hardly long enough to warrant even that description. Neither could they really be satisfactorily called short stories, as each of them lacks the brevity, succinctness and self-containedness of the best examples of that genre. Instead they read as if they are fragmentary parts of a larger narrative. They are, in fact, and it is the narrative of Jewish history or, more specifically of Judaism’s survival as a culture within a hostile non-Jewish world. What Alan Isler has done is to present history in the form of a series of tableaux, and when read together these four short tales have the scope and depth of an epic novel.

Isler’s book opens with The Monster, a tale set in the Jewish Ghetto of Venice in the seventeenth century. His prose is literary and referential throughout, and with this story he shows us the flipside of Shakespeare’s Venice, behind the walls of Shylock’s ghetto. Isler writes his own ‘pound of flesh’ contract to show how the image of Jews as greedy and ruthless has been inflicted upon them by Christian culture. He reverses the attack by evoking other stereotypes, such as the pompous, foolish ‘Englishman abroad’ and does so with high irony and an arch sense of the ridiculous. Although cruelty and persecution are at the heart of his project, it is in this kind of writing that his talent for comedy transcends the seriousness of his subject matter.

Throughout the book, Isler creates characters that are as comic as they are revolting, but underpinning his brilliant wit in each of the four episodes is the running theme of injustice. This most frequently manifests itself in the treatment of Jews by Gentiles but Isler is not running a single issue campaign. The Bacon Fancier explores the injustice of congenital deformity, of injury, even of the death of a lover. In the third tale, The Crossing, the figure of Oscar Wilde makes an appearance, and his own persecution at the hands of ‘respectable’ Christian society is implicit in the narrative. This is a book that champions the outsider, whether that be a Jew, a homosexual aesthete or a charming Cockney prostitute posing as a Romanian gypsy. For all that, however, Isler’s writing shows no trace of self-righteousness or didacticism. His prose is dense but invariably subtle, intelligent and warm.

Although the four stories are set centuries apart, there is a geographical thread that links them, moving from Venice, north to England, then to an Atlantic crossing and arriving finally in late twentieth century New York. Having witnessed in the first three narratives the struggles of three Jews against the force of irrational and violent hatred, from this last piece alone the reader might detect something of a triumph. The protagonist here is not reviled and ostracised as were his predecessors. He is a respected professional, he can carry on his amorous affairs freely with a Christian woman. In short he can live as uninterrupted and openly as any Western man. But Bruno Sorge is a post-Holocaust Jew. Isler’s narrative has bypassed the horrors of Nazi rule and the death camps but, as in the Oscar Wilde episode, The Bacon Fancier deliberately relies on history so that which it doesn’t say can be as powerful and as much a part of the story as that which it does say.

There is tragedy in each of his four stories and Isler, quite brilliantly, illuminates the wider tragedies of history through individual loss. He is a very, very fine writer whose wit and breadth of human sympathy might seem more at home in the nineteenth century than in the fast, sharp and self-referential world of postmodern fiction. The Bacon Fancier is a complex and remarkable book and it is very difficult to do it justice. The best that I can do is to wholeheartedly recommend it.

Reviewed by Polly Rance


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