Richard Elman Essay - Critical Essays

Elman, Richard


Elman, Richard 1934–

Elman is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, journalist, and critic. Most critics consider his trilogy of the Yagodah family—The 28th Day of Elul, Lilo's Diary, and The Reckoning—to be his most successful work. The trilogy tells the story of a Jewish family during the Holocaust, with each novel relating the same circumstances from the point of view of a different family member. These novels are unusual in that they do not idealize the victims of the Holocaust, but portray them as very human, fallible people. Elman is also the author of The Poorhouse State, a report on the welfare system that resulted from the two years he spent interviewing welfare recipients on New York's Lower East Side. He has also written under the pseudonym Eric Pearl. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Elie Wiesel

["The 28th Day of Elul"] touches on the most important human and philosophical questions of our time, although as a novel it may suffer from certain weaknesses which grow out of its use of literary devices: Yagodah's confession, for example, would have gained in simplicity if it were straight narrative—instead of a letter to an American lawyer on complicated inheritance matters.

Also, some erotic digressions—Yagodah's love scenes with his cousin—seen unnecessary or, at least, over-descriptive. If they are to prepare and explain his subsequent homosexual inclinations, the motivation strikes us as too obvious. An essayist and novelist of Elman's perception surely must know that Yagodah's problems carry weight only because of their metaphysical implications. His rebellion against nature covers more than his own instincts, more than his own past.

The strength of this book lies in its style, which is vivid, argumentative, poignant and moving. Sparing no one, he provides disturbing insight into the traumatic psychology of certain survivors—who, caught in webs of universal betrayal, are forced into total alienation. They are characters in search of their dead.

Perhaps the author is excessively severe with his hero, who, in turn, is unduly harsh with all the others who have adjusted to the world and have accepted it as their own. But who would dare to blame Yagodah for his bitterness and his confession for its lack in compassion? After all, that too is part of the tale. (pp. 4, 34)

Elie Wiesel, "Legacy of Evil," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 28, 1967, pp. 4, 34.

The Times Literary Supplement

[The hero of The 28th Day of Elul]—a Transylvanian Jew who loses his entire family [in the Nazi concentration camps]—is, by the standards of Dachau and Treblinka, a comparatively lucky man. This book is, as the blurb claims with exaggerated toughness, "not for the squeamish", but it is not for the connoisseurs of horror either. The worst atrocity in it is a moral one: in exchange for a dubious promise of escape from occupied Hungary in 1944, the family promises to abandon the hero's sweetheart-cousin, who lives under their protection and in their house….

What prompts Alex Yagodah to disinter such memories is a bequest from an American uncle of forty thousand dollars, provided that he is still "a professing Jew". From the grimy settlement in Israel where he works as an X-ray technician, Yagodah furiously spills out the story of his family's sufferings, trying to make his uncle's executors understand why such a request is obscene and ludicrous….

For an American writer to attempt such a Eurocentric spit in American eyes is an ambitious undertaking. The occasional cheap joke about two cars in every garage does not help. But for the most part Mr. Elman, helped by "a set of documents and some correspondence" which "came to my attention as early as 1960", has succeeded to an astonishing extent. Yagodah's background is a creation of almost Nabokovian density—though also suffering from some Nabokovian pomposity of style—and the creeping incursion of horror into this banal and cosy world is charted with a slow precision which puts the New York authorities on non-resistance in their place…. The erotic daydream in which Alex spent his youth, like the bourgeois snuggery which enclosed it, crumbles away. Their recreation is remarkable, sometimes overwrought but never overplayed: an exercise in moral restraint which "tells us more" than many head-on confrontations with the abyss, without being any dishonestly easier to bear.

"After the Deluge," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3421, September 21, 1967, p. 833.

Christopher Koch

We do not like the characters in Lilo's Diary—they have little to recommend them, but we enter their world gladly because Elman's development of them seems so important. The scene is Hungary in 1944, and Lilo's Diary explores the utter failure of their middle-class presumptions to deal with their conditions. (p. 504)

[This is the second novel of a trilogy on the Yagodah-Gero clan], and it makes clear that [Elman] is not only a fine writer but one whose ideas must be reckoned with.

It is a philosophical novel that forces us to abstract, to compare and generalize at every phrase. And it succeeds brilliantly because Elman's own philosophical agony infuses both the particular and the abstract with the passionate and terrifying questions that genocide demands: "How?" and "Why?"

Elman's major theme is the impingement of reality on a consciousness trained to abide by self-contained illusions, trained to maintain at all costs the facade of business as usual. In her first entry Lilo writes of "the particularly awful fate one imagines to be in prospect for the bourgeois clan Yagodah-Gero," but the formal phrase removes the sensuous overtones that make that fate terrible. To Lilo the war is at first only "soldiers, soldiers, always soldiers," and the whores she is attracted to and fascinated by. (pp. 504-05)

But Elman does not rest with the obvious. He probes further Lilo's own responsibilities. There are, in a sense, no enemies in Lilo's Diary, only arrangements. Elman confronts the problem of morality (of good and evil) directly, by denying its relevance….

The key to this novel may be in a phrase of Marx which Lilo records. "An invitation to abandon illusions concerning a situation is an invitation to abandon a situation which has need of illusions." This Lilo never manages….

Elman's ability to encapsulate the experience of World War II in a brief novel about one selfish girl, makes Lilo's Diary an important 20th Century work of fiction. (p. 505)

Christopher Koch, "'Lilo's Diary'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1969 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXXIX, No. 15, January 17, 1969, pp. 504-05.

Frederic Morton

[The] first few pages of "The Reckoning" convinced me that in Mr. Elman we have a born biographer of the bourgeois animal.

Significantly, his Newman Yagodah is a father, not a son, not an American but a European. I could almost say "naturally a European," because there's never been a true American bourgeoisie. (p. 5)

He makes a very moving character, this sinner in search of meaning, disclosing (beyond his place or time), the decay of a value system. Mr. Elman has textured his mind beautifully….

Toward the end of the book, it becomes plain that Yagodah and his family are destined for the gas oven. Yagodah can't absorb the prospect. What troubles me is that whenever Yagodah glimpses his fate, his humanity vanishes. Relatives, friends, enemies and lovers live richly in his journal. But the executioners, when they arrive, never emerge from behind a personal pronoun. "Already they are placing armed guards around the houses of some of our neighbors…." That is all we see or hear of them, and the reverberations they cause in an otherwise vital mind are curiously mechanical.

Strange Yagodah's middling triumphs and modest sins are wonderfully alive. His great agony remains abstract. It's like Eichmann in reverse. An ordinary burgher, a semi-intellectual, career-minded, "normal" and perfectly comprehensible until the moment of his collision with history. In Eichmann we must...

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Victor Burg

[The] conflict and disparity between word and thought, law and action, private concern and historical force, forms "The Reckoning" of Newman Yagodah.

He is a Hungarian Jew in his midforties as World War II is ending…. [He] is a moralist who sees the prospect of his death as making a parable of choices of his life….

But as the fact of his place in history begins to threaten these trappings in his life the moral issues start to acquire a life, too, as the people around him begin to be real to him in his mind and diary as well as in their demands….

A moralist unable to act morally confronts an absence.

This peculiar balance is a remarkable quality in this novel—that Mr. Elman may see the certain horror of Yagodah's death and the living death which was his life. The book is terse and faulted for its initial coldness, its lack of humor, its smallness in certain realistic respects. It is certainly the record, however, of such a life. It is striking as a whole, and within its historical context, far exceeds the potential banality of its immediate circumstances. The faults of Newman come to be the faults of the work of art in which he lives, but criticism of his lack of size must be directed elsewhere than against this good book.

Victor Burg, "A Diary—and a Book of Judgment," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1969 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), October 9, 1969, p. 13.

Joel Lieber

Richard Elman's third novel of the Yagodah family [The Reckoning], is as poignantly bitter as the first, The 28th Day of Elul, and as fragmented as the second, Lilo's Diary. A diary-chronicle of a man approaching the end of his life, The Reckoning bears the unmistakable Elman stamp: a painful honesty that makes you squirm with discomfort.

It is also a historical novel, set, like the first two, in the town of Clig, Hungary, in 1944, just before the Germans (ironically, hardly ever mentioned) move in to occupy the area. As an example of how a historical novel can come alive, Elman's book is a class of its own. The Reckoning takes us into the same story situation as...

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J. Mitchell Morse

An Education in Blood is psychologically valid. Bernard Eastover, having been convicted of murder three times and finally on a fourth try acquitted, has all but convinced himself that he is innocent. Stephen Tolmach, a journalist young enough to be his son, persuades him to talk out the story of his life: a story of hatred for a puritanical father, liberation in college, guilt, dates, guilt, courtship, guilt, marriage, guilt, delightful adultery, guilt guilt guilt, dutiful and increasingly irksome sex at home, guilt disgust guilt, parenthood, guilt, madness, guilt, murder, guilt, madness, guilt, madness, guilt … it becomes increasingly evident that he may very well murder his second wife … but...

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Alan Hislop

While [Fredi & Shirl & The Kids] won't be as popular as Roth's stand-up comedian turn [Portnoy's Complaint] it should have a similar interest for the connoisseur of macabre domesticity.

Elman's novel is an "autobiography in fables," we are told, and has a covering theatrical metaphor. "We played three or four neighborhoods in Brooklyn," it begins, and the last sentence is "Fredi & Shirl & The Kids are one of the longest running hits in show business, but nowadays I am no longer part of their act." When you see life as an "act," it suggests conscious make-believe, that people are actually quite different from what they are trying to make you think they are, or that, at...

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Paul West

Richard Elman, in his hybrid autofiction about coming of age in Jewish Brooklyn ["Fredi & Shirl & The Kids"], seems from a tender age to have been the captive animal in a series of parental humiliations (intended to make him sink, or swim, out of sight), and yet seems to have survived by breathing water.

Now he enacts upon the effigies of his parents this acerbic, raucous auto-da-fé. "Fredi & Shirl & The Kids" is not without belly-laughs, but for the most part it is exorcism, funny-retaliatory, rather as if a high-camp version of a Jacobean revenge-play were being done in tandem by a midget stand-up comedian and young Werther of Brooklyn. In fact, it's hard to decide where the...

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D. Keith Mano

Richard Elman's stories in "Crossing Over" are inconsequential, disgruntling…. The collection has been edited hopefully: to give the impression of a hardening, a growing into form. The least corporeal, most irksome stories come first—the ones with nameless characters that begin, "Once upon a time when he was a man and she a woman, they got lost somehow and couldn't find each other anymore."… The Part I stories are meant perhaps to have the force of parables, but they are wearisome, trivial at best; and humor, which might salvage expectation, occurs only in haphazard bursts.

By the last five dozen pages of "Crossing Over" there is some welcome specificity: people with recognizable traits, places...

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Stanley Ellin

["The Breadfruit Lotteries"] is a witty and steamily sensual narrative that shows what can happen to a relatively staid Columbia professor of history and politics when, vacationing with a lovely lady on the island of Jamaica, he finds his remote past as an O.S.S. operative catching up with him….

If I have any complaint to make about the book, it is the unusual one that it could have been longer, it is that entertaining. On the other hand, it's plain that Mr. Elman, who wastes not a word, hardly needs instruction in how to turn out a winner.

Stanley Ellin, "Secret Agents," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company;...

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Robert Lekachman

Like other of Richard Elman's enlightened and compassionate novels, The Breadfruit Lotteries is inventive and high-spirited, though uncertain in its tonal shifts from farce to serious politics and back again. The highly sexed, middle-aged hero, now a tenured academic but in time past an O.S.S. operative, vacations in Jamaica with his second-best graduate student and soon collects a peck of trouble…. The moral seems to be that we are all agents of one secret service or another, if not of several. Elman is high-spirited and probably not very serious about the whole affair, but cannot be said to have much expanded the genre of the tale of espionage. He probably didn't intend to. (p. 505)


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