The Goldkorn of Leslie Epstein's title is an octogenarian Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis in the late 1930s and became an American citizen in 1943. He introduces himself as follows: "Good evening, my name is L. Goldkorn and my specialty is woodwind instruments, with emphasis on the flute. However, in 1963, on the Avenue Amsterdam, my instrument was stolen from me by an unknown person and has not in spite of strong efforts been to this day restored. This is the reason I play at the Steinway Restaurant the Bechstein piano and not the Rudall & Rose-model flute, with which my career began at the Imperial and Royal Hof-Operntheater Orchester."
Thus at the outset the tone is immediately set. Goldkorn's voice is wry, self-mocking, rueful, and he speaks in the accents of the East European Jewish e'migre' -- accents with which we have long been familiar through the work of I.B. Singer, Bernard Malamud and other writers who are usually characterized, however simplistically, as "Jewish-American." Leslie Epstein is in this tradition, and clearly by choice; aspects of Jewish life and tradition are the central, indeed obsessive, concerns of his work, "Goldkorn Tales" being no exception.
It's a charming, if somewhat weightless, book that contains three novellas, all of them narrated by Goldkorn. A substantial explanation for its charm is that Goldkorn, though well into his eighth decade, retains an ample measure of the youthful innocence of his Vienna boyhood. Yes, he acknowledges that "I drink sometimes schnapps, for example, and . . . I do not possess a religious temperament," but he celebrates life and music with the soul of a child:
"I tell you I feel myself to be now the same person who received the gift of a Rudall & Rose many years in the past; and like that young boy I am still filled with amazement that merely by blowing upon such an instrument, and moving one's fingers, a trained person may produce such melodious, such lyrical sounds. You are no doubt aware that with the flute the breath passes over the opening, and not into a mouthpiece, as with other woodwinds. Its music is, therefore, the sound of breathing, of life. It is the most ancient of instruments, and the most basic, too. A boy can make one with a knife and a hollow twig. This is what shepherds did, playing to sheep."
Goldkorn celebrates life against a ceaseless string of adversities both large and small. The latter are the immediate business of "Goldkorn Tales"; they include the collapse of the Steinway Restaurant, where Goldkorn earns a meager living playing with the Steinway Quintet, and an uproariously botched performance of "Othello" by the newly revived Jewish Art Theater. But the larger losses of his life always lurk in the background; these include the death of his infant daughter and his flight from his beloved Vienna, spurred by the hatred of a fellow musician whom he had bested in a competition.
Goldkorn's talisman is his stolen flute, which had been presented to him in 1916 by the aged Franz Josef I, emperor of Austria and king of Hungary. The flute -- "The Magic Flute," as Epstein calls it in the title of the concluding novella -- is not merely the emblem of Goldkorn's innocence, but the instrument by which his world is made whole, by which the Goldkorn of New York and the Goldkorn of Vienna are connected. For it is connecting in which Goldkorn most passionately believes, as he told his fellow musicians in Vienna:
"My friends! . . . Let us learn from the experience of these simple beasts, the larks, the milch cows, who do no harm to each other, who are not separated by language, by religion, and who from the beginning of time have communicated with every other member of their species, like speakers in the L.L. Zammenhof system. Forward! Together! To the Temple of Wisdom! The Temple of Reason! The Temple of Nature!"
Poor Goldkorn: How little he knew. The response of his colleagues in Vienna to that plea was to pillory him as a Jew, to exile him from their midst, at last to drive him from his native land -- to teach him that "only a child, an infant, an ignoramus could think men might live as brothers." Yet it is Goldkorn, not his persecutors, who in the end triumphs. His resources are meager and his wife is gravely ill, but he is given a magical gift, and his faith is restored. It is a grace note on which Epstein ends a graceful book.