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Clerical Errors

Reading Group Guide

    A Scribner Paperback Fiction
    Reading Group Guide
    Clerical Errors
    From the highly acclaimed author of The Prince of West End Avenue comes Clerical Errors, a wickedly funny and genuinely moving novel about faith, love, and transgression. Despite a severe lack of piety and the inconvenient fact of his Jewish birth, Edmond Music chooses the priesthood as a career. Thanks to the generosity of a former lover, he is now entrenched at an English estate with a fabulous library, much to the Vatican's chagrin. There he plays chess with his friend W. C. Catchpole -- who lost his faith during wartime and now rails against Catholicism -- and carries on a clandestine affair with his longtime housekeeper, Maude Moriarty. He would rather immerse himself in studying an eighteenth-century Jewish mystic known as "the Pish" than contend with the growing interest in a Shakespeare folio gone missing on his watch. The arrival of his nemesis, the American priest Twombly, and Maude's religious revival force Edmond to reexamine his identity and confront his past.
    Discussion Points
    1. Consider the epigraph of the novel -- a poem called "The End of the World," by Archibald MacLeish, in which a lively circus is interrupted by a more imposing spectacle. How does Isler's narrative echo MacLeish's poem?
    2. "Sipping a Calvados in a bar in the rue de Malengin...I discovered to my surprise that I had just died" [p. 11]. At the outset of Clerical Errors, Father Edmond Music relates how a fatal automobile accident has resulted in the misapprehension that Music himself has been killed. How does this set the tone of the novel and hint at the themes that follow?
    3. Throughout the novel, Edmond seems to be speaking directly to the reader as he narrates his tale. Although his language is sophisticated, his tone is conversational: "But where was I? Ah, yes, my parents" [p. 21]. What effect does this intimate voice have on our experience of Edmond's story?
    4.Consider the humor in Clerical Errors. What makes it funny? In what ways does the humor serve the author's more serious purposes?
    5. Edmond periodically gets together with his good friend W. C. Catchpole, who lost his faith in the Church when he was a major stationed in North Africa during the war. What do you think is Catchpole's role in the novel? Does it change over time?
    6. Father Music spends a good deal of his time studying the Jewish mystic Solomon Falsch, also known as "the Pish." Why does Edmond feel such an affinity for Falsch? What are the parallels between their lives, and how do these unfold over the course of the novel?
    7. The narrator speaks of his upbringing only briefly, and often with a matter-of-fact tone. But increasingly we sense the significance of his traumatic family history. How does Edmond's visit to Israel -- when he locates his father and finds his mother's name on a Holocaust memorial -- affect him, both immediately and in the long term?
    8. Father Fred Twombly is Edmond's arch enemy, and though he is surely a comic character, at times he poses a genuine threat. But what other roles does he play in the story? Does he ever seem a sympathetic character?
    9. The missing Shakespeare folio occupies a central place in the plot, though it is only near the end that questions about its authenticity come to the fore. How does the debate over the manuscript echo the central themes of Edmond's life?
    10. For much of the novel, Father Music's lack of piety and his casual attitudes on faith and sin are a source of humor. But when Maude undergoes a kind of religious revival, his skepticism and waywardness take on a different tenor. Why and how does Maude force Edmond to question both his behavior and his beliefs?
    Copyright © 2001 by Alan Isler

About the Author

Alan Isler
Photo Credit: Jerry Bauer

Alan Isler

Alan Isler was born in London in 1934. He taught English literature in New York City for twenty-five years. His first novel, The Prince of West End Avenue, won the 1994 National Jewish Book Award and was one of five fiction finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is also the author of Kraven Images and The Bacon Fancier: Four Tales. He died in 2010.