“Don’t you have any jolly books for me to review?,” I plaintively ask this newspaper’s editor. The books he has sent my way in recent weeks are all about the Shoah, and none of them are brilliant enough to make up for their grimness.
Then I have a happy – you could say a jolly – thought. Why must a book column focus on new books? Why not reread – and recall to the reading public – delightful older books, giving them a longer (book)shelf life?
So I settle on a book I remember fondly from childhood, “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N* K*A*P*L*A*N*.” After all, I was a Kaplan long before I was a Boroson.
By Leonard Q. Ross, the pseudonym of Leo Rosten, best-known these days as the author of “The Joy of Yiddish,” the 1937 book contains stories – many had me laughing out loud – that he wrote for The New Yorker about an imaginary night school for immigrants. Or maybe not so imaginary: In addition to the usual disclaimer about “persons…living or dead,” the author writes, “Readers who think they discern some resemblance between Mr. Kaplan and the man who lives upstairs are merely grasping at straws.”
For those who are not familiar with the truly inimitable Mr. K*A*P*L*A*N*, he writes his name “in large, firm letters with red crayon. Each letter [is] outlined in blue. Between every two letters [is] a star, carefully drawn, in green.” His approach to the English language is equally idiosyncratic. It reminds me of Douglas Adams’ flying instructions in “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”: “Throw yourself at the ground and miss.”
A lot of the book’s humor depends on the immigrants’ struggles with English pronunciation, K*A*P*L*A*N*’s in particular, and some of it has not worn well. Most of us would no longer think funny, for example, if we ever did, K*A*P*L*A*N*’s “fervent speech extolling the…performance of an operetta by two English gentleman referred to as ‘Goldberg and Solomon.'”
And we may cringe at the recitation by Miss Caravello, another student in the class, “ona Garibaldi… [J]oosta lak Washington! Firsta da war, firsta da peace, firsta da heartsa da countrymens!”
We are talking hindsight here, not political correctness. These students are admirable. They work at difficult, often dirty jobs all day and come to school at night to learn to be Americans. It takes a certain amount of condescension to laugh at them.
And yet, of course, that laughter may be affectionate and tinged with nostalgia. Those of us with immigrant relatives may recognize, with a smile, such phrases as “Vould you be so kindly?”
If all Mr. K*A*P*L*A*N* did was mangle the English language, he would not endure. (Indeed, he would be unendurable.) K*A*P*L*A*N*, though, has a life off the page. (So does his long-suffering teacher, Mr. Parkhill.) While the other members of the cohort are mostly sketched in black and white, K*A*P*L*A*N* is multi-hued, like his signature. As Parkhill recognizes, “Mr. Kaplan was no ordinary student….Mr. Kaplan was no ordinary mortal, for that matter. In his peculiar linguistic universe there was the germ of a new lexicography. To Mr. Kaplan, an instrument for the repair of plumbing was ‘a monkey ranch’… [and] the most attractive women were ‘female ladies with blondie hairs and blue or maybe gray ice – like Molly Dietrich.’ Mr. Parkhill sometimes wondered whether Mr. Kaplan might not be some sort of genius. Isaac Newton, after all, had been considered dull-witted by his teachers.”
One of the most stunning examples of K*A*P*L*A*N*’s “genius” is his explication of the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” passage from “Macbeth” (the teacher’s experiment in introducing the students to poetry), which he confuses with “Julius Scissor”:
“[H]is eyes filled with a strange enchantment. ‘I see de whole scinn. It’s in a tant, on de night before dey makink Julius de Kink fromm Rome. So he is axcited an’ ken’t slip. He is layink in bad, tinking: “Tomorrow an’ tomorrow an’ tomorrow. How slow dey movink! Almost cripps! Such a pity de pace!….De days go slow,… like leetle tsyllables on phonograph records from time.”’
“Anxiety and bewilderment invaded Mr. Parkhill’s eyes….
“‘An’ Julius Scissor is so tired, an’ he wants to fallink aslip. So he hollers, mit fillink, “Go ot! Go ot! Short candle!” So it goes ot.'”
There is more, “‘de pot I like de bast,'” K*A*P*L*A*N* says, concluding, “‘Life is a tale told by idjots, dat’s all, full of fonny sonds an’ phooey!'”
Speaking of Shakespeare reminds me of his line “A sad tale’s best for winter.”
Sometimes, though, a jolly one is better.