Clerical Errors, by Alan Isler (Random House)

 “One cannot really be a Catholic and grown-up,” George Orwell said once. I’m a Catholic of sorts, and grown-up too, but as usual, Orwell is right. Father Edmond Music, the 70 year-old protagonist and digressive narrator of Alan Isler’s novel, is considerably more Catholic and grown-up than I am, but one senses he would agree with Orwell, too. Edmond is “a bundle of not-exactlies”, a Jew, a Catholic priest without religion, who defends the faith in theological contests with his neighbour, the retired Major Catchpole, an ardent atheist of similar vintage. Catchpole is, despite his protestations, desperate to believe in the God Edmond has long ago privately renounced, and their arguments are one of the many complex ironies that saturate this novel.

Edmond is the Director-General of Beale Hall, an English estate bequeathed to the Church by a lover from long ago. He lives there in connubial comfort with Maude Moriarty his housekeeper of forty years (the priestly vow of chastity is such an irrelevance in this novel that Edmond doesn’t even bother to dismiss it).

The chief glory of Beale Hall is its library, repository of many first editions, among them a possibly authentic, previously unrecorded volume of “Dyuers and sondry sonettes” by “W.S.” The plot’s machinations centre on this elusive volume, illegally sold by Maude to an unscrupulous antiquarian bookseller to pay for her hip replacement. Another priest with old scores to settle is on the volume’s trail, intent on Edmond’s downfall.

In less assured hands this would be dull stuff, but Isler’s narrative skill, his knowledge of some of literature’s more obscure byways, and the zest and humour of his central character, keep the story afloat and on course. His epigrammatic style well befits Father Edmond, who is scholarly, worldly, and ironical; a latter-day incarnation of that most ironical of clergymen, Sydney Smith. But whereas Smith’s irony was a manifestation of his self-confidence, Edmond’s is a defence, deflecting attacks from his many points of vulnerability – above all, from his Jewishness.

At novel’s end, Edmond has both won and lost; his enemies retired from the field, but those closest to him also gone. In short, he is old. His – or his author’s – humour is too effective for the pathos of his situation really to come off, but this farce has unexpected depths.

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets