I first read The Education of Hyman Kaplan many years ago and have just enjoyed a re-read. Leo Rosten’s book was first published in 1937. It’s set in the Beginners’ Grade of the American Night Preparatory School for Adults in New York, where a motley crew of European immigrants try to master the complications and contradictions of the English language and to distinguish between ‘v’ and ‘w’. “Two words spelled one way?” moans Olga Tarnova, in the chapter Oh heartless homonyms!
Top of the class is shy, unassuming Miss Mitnick. The keenest student and in his own eyes, the star, is H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n, as he styles himself in all written work. His mistakes are innumerable, correction impossible, as he has an answer for everything. Criticised by Miss Mitnick for writing "if your eye falls on a bargain, pick it up.", Mr Kaplan looks surprisingly pleased with himself and eventually ripostes, "Mine oncle…has a gless eye." He is the despair of his teacher, Mr Parkhill (or Pockheel, as Kaplan calls him) and often irritates the rest of the class beyond bearing: "Oh, this mon, this mon!" "Keplen, give an inch!"
As with Molesworth, there is something rather poetic about Kaplan’s language and it has its own strange logic. Take these examples: "Bad, worse, rotten"; "Fail, failed, bankrupt." If wordplay amuses you, if you’d like to meet those fascinating characters Jakesbeer, Judge Vashington, Abraham Lincohen and Gary Baldy, this book is for you.
I’ve only just learned that Leo Rosten, whom one assumes is Mr Parkhill, was himself an immigrant who became the complete Anglophile. Unfortunately, the book and its sequel seem to be out of print. There are a few second-hand copies on Amazon and AbeBooks, some of them surprisingly expensive. I have fond memories of a reading by Kerry Shale on Radio 4 in 1988. Only audio tapes are available and they too are rather expensive.
I can’t do justice to The Education of Hyman Kaplan without quoting most of the book; I’ve had to leave out the thoughts of ‘Julius Scissor’, for instance. I’m sure many people would like to read this book, so how about a reprint?