Books: Underappreciated

Leslie epstein’s latest novel is a sad end to a very funny ride.

Gustav Mahler 521 (Do not use) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Gustav Mahler 521 (Do not use)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again: Leslie Epstein is the funniest, most imaginative and most underappreciated living American Jewish novelist I know of.
Not that Epstein, 74, has exactly remained under the critical radar. His 1979 novel The King of the Jews won great acclaim. But despite more than a half-dozen novels since then, King remains by far his best-known work. This is more than a shame, it’s a puzzlement, because over the last 30 years Epstein’s recurrent character, Leib Goldkorn, has become the author’s greatest creative achievement, his most endearing and enduring comic legacy.
The fictional Goldkorn was born in 1901 in Iglau, Czechoslovakia, was trained as a classical musician in Vienna, and was forced to flee that city when the Nazis marched in. After arriving in the US in 1938, his career took him from performing in a café on New York’s Lower East Side to scoring themes for Hollywood films to playing musical water tumblers on a street corner in Harlem, with much in between.
All of this is chronicled in the Steinway Quintet Plus Four (1976), Goldkorn Tales (1985), Ice Fire Water (1999) and now in the present volume under review.
So, what’s so funny? Three things: first is Goldkorn’s voice, expressed in a mangled English that is as hilarious as it is inventive. (Example: “When I was a weanling, there was not in the streets of Iglau a single automobile. Mingled with the smell from the tobacco monopoly that hung over our rooftops was that which rose from the cobblestones – I speak of the ejectaments of good dobbin. The odor of ordure.”
Second is Goldkorn’s invariable talent for misapprehending absolutely everything that goes on about him. (The least of his misunderstandings is his recollection of the NBC orchestra as the National Biscuit Company orchestra.) The third is his romantic entanglements with such real-life 1940s film stars as Esther Williams, Carmen Miranda and Sonja Henie.
It was a more contemporary real-life figure, however, who caused much grief for Goldkorn and not a little notoriety for Epstein. In Fire Ice Water, Goldkorn developed a passion for Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic for The New York Times. Goldkorn had yet to meet Kakutani, who purportedly reviewed his memoirs favorably, but got it into in his head that (a) she adored him and (b) she was a tall, willowy blonde of Finnish extraction. Kakutani, who is Japanese-American, was not amused by Epstein’s hijacking her as a fictional character and a serious contretemps, including threatened legal action, blew up between the two.
Goldkorn skates on thin ice yet again in Liebestod (Love Death, the name comes from the title of an aria in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde). Our hero in this alluring but flawed fantasia is now almost 104 years old, still enamored of the times book critic (though forbidden by court order from contacting her or mentioning her name in print). Goldkorn is diverted from his passion by the sudden arrival of an invitation from the town fathers of his birthplace, acclaiming him as the last surviving Jew of Iglau, and inviting him to be the guest of honor at their upcoming holocaust memorial festivities. Plane tickets and $500 are included. the impecunious Goldkorn promptly accepts the invitation and flies off to one misadventure – and misunderstanding – after another.
Of the latter, perhaps the most amusing is that Goldkorn never quite twigs to why the town fathers, even while feting and flattering him, are forever seeking his signature on a certain document.
(It would relinquish any claim Goldkorn would have on the hundreds of acres of fields that his father had owned and which are now at the center of the town.) Nor does Goldkorn ever figure out the identity of the crowds of tattooed, shaven-headed young men who dog him everywhere.
And when he discovers a group of visiting Jews secretly kneading something in a basement at midnight, he assumes they are preparing for him a surprise birthday cake. Oh, wait, the cake has the shape of a giant man with the Hebrew word emet (truth) written on its forehead! A gingerbread man – Goldkorn’s favorite! But all this pales to insignificance when Goldkorn discovers the secrets of that other noted Jewish musical genius and native of Iglau, Gustav Mahler. Not only does our hero discover that Mahler was his true father, he also comes upon the manuscript of Mahler’s early foray into opera, Rubezal (whose libretto, Epstein tells us in an afterword, exists in the rare manuscripts department of the Yale University library but whose score Mahler evidently abandoned). Goldkorn, accordingly, believes Mahler left the work specifically for his secret love child to translate and bring to the world.
Goldkorn indeed translates the text. (One of his more accomplished couplets is: “Ah, there she is, the fawn, the deer. / Will you come with me and have a beer?”) Then, with the help of Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Renee Fleming, the Satmar Rebbe and Condoleezza Rice (oh, don’t ask), Goldkorn prepares to premiere the work at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
But here, it must be confessed, Liebestod spins wildly out of a control, building to a climax that is decidedly unfunny and even in seriously bad taste (hint: it involves international terrorism). This is a pity, because up until its final scenes, this wickedly inventive and erudite novel had utterly charmed and delighted me.
What can I say? Through four volumes of Goldkorn stories I hung onto the carousel with glee at every crazy twist and turn. But the end of Liebestod firmly announced it was time to get off, for this fan and maybe for the author as well. It’s a sad end to a very funny ride.