Bernard Kops, who is now 87, is best known as a vivid chronicler of the Jewish East End. But, in Bernard Kops: Fantasist, London Jew, Apocalyptic Humorist (Rowman & Littlefield, £39.95) William Baker and Jeanette Roberts Shumaker offer a view of the vast range of a fearless, fascinating writer.
The book deals with Kops’s writing of memoir, novels, stage and radio plays and poems, and examines themes such as Jewish identity, aging, family, sex and mental illness. Kops sees the latter as a form of imprisonment, most notably in his 1981 play, Ezra, which has poetic-genius-turned-wartime-antisemitic-propagandist Ezra Pound ranting inside a literal cage.
Kops himself was institutionalised for a period, when he wrote poetry that Baker and Shumaker describe as a means of portraying characters who “escape their pain through destructive self-delusions”. Delusion is a word that often occurs in discussions of Kops’s prolific output and, in this regard, Baker and Shumaker quote one critic’s observation that reality for Kops is “one long, manic vaudeville act”. Kops can certainly switch rapidly — from prose to poetry, fantasy to realism, theme to theme --- and not always waiting for his audience to keep pace.
All is underpinned by a sharp-edged humour bred in the harsh but warm conditions of his beloved East End. And, even though he has moved some way from The Hamlet of Stepney Green, his first play, it is as part of the “new wave” of 1950s dramatists along with fellow Jewish writers Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker, that his reputation rests. Baker and Shumaker’s book is a useful guide into the much broader territory that Kops inhabits.