Dalton Trumbo Stefan Kanfer - Essay

Stefan Kanfer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Trumbo's decency and restless intelligence were evident in his pacifist 1939 novel, Johnny Got His Gun, and they enliven portions of his last book, Night of the Aurochs. Unhappily, portions are all there are. Trumbo never completed the novel…. It cannot have been an easy or pleasant task [to edit Trumbo's notes]. For one thing, the subject—the Holocaust—is too monumental to be apprehended in fragments, if at all. Second, Trumbo's idea—the investigation of evil—seems to have been too demanding for his fading powers. (p. 32)

Anyone who has read or thought about Germany's past has wondered about the nature of guilt and whether a whole nation can be condemned….

Wondering, however, does not produce art. Nor does it engender craft. The resonances and implications of the Holocaust are too large for a work whose center is a collage, not a character. Again, I am aware that it is unfair to judge what amounts to a fetus as if it were a man. But what is presented here seems to be a double tragedy, the intended one of [the protagonist] Grieben and the implied one of Trumbo. Doubtless if he had lived the author would have improved some of his bumper sticker prose: "The worst criminals on earth are those who toy with love." Whether he would have presented a convincing case history remains a tantalizing conjecture. Manifestly, the man could write and he could think. But he wrote too little and he thought too late. It is this sorrow that Night of the Aurochs most movingly reveals. (p. 33)

Stefan Kanfer, "'Night of the Aurochs'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 24, December 15, 1979, pp. 32-4.