The fine ear, the elaborate—and rather unenlightening—simile, the self indulgence, both verbal and moral, are all characteristic [of The Fencing Master]. What the story has to say about the cost of involvement is plain, but [Rogin] goes to excessive trouble to find radical images to represent his meaning. The feverish overtones of Conrad and Golding seem to be there only to make an arbitrary and wholly "literary" ambiguity seem to have a point. But that it does have seems doubtful.
Rogin has read his Bellow too. When he writes in that master's manner (as in "Chico King Popular Singer") the edge gets harder, there is manic comedy and even some tenderness which is neither mocked nor overamplified. [For] Rogin, unlike Bellow, the whole absurd and awful business of living a life reduced to a series of slogans passed back and forth between people ends up more pathetic than savage.
Three stories in the collection, in which Rogin's sorry young man is named Howard Lesser, have something in addition to the rewards of a fine mimetic ear…. It is no mean accomplishment to describe a good person, and though Lesser often proclaims his father's goodness in extravagant terms, the reality of it comes out with moving simplicity in the old man's conversation and diary…. But the reconciling presence of the father, with his imagined virtues ("Prudence! Justice! Temperance! Fortitude"—Lesser half-ironically sees them as noble abstractions) and his demonstrable gracious human kindness, brings passages of order and truthful simplicity to a display of writing full of grace and intelligence, but often puzzling and disappointing. (p. 29)
Eve Auchincloss, "The World Is Not a Wedding," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1965 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. 5, No. 6, October 28, 1965, pp. 28-30.∗
The short story is a convenient and dangerously attractive form. Convenient because of its neatness, dangerous because it encourages fragmentary and unresolved excursions into the writer's contingent world, allowing him to dispose of the odds and ends from his notebooks. Gilbert Rogin's collection of stories, The Fencing Master, despite its stylistic brilliance, exemplifies the dangers of the form. Mr. Rogin's hero, who assumes various roles and several names, the most frequent of which is Lesser ("less-her"?), is a passive victim of circumstance, of his mistress, or of his new wife's children. To the phantasmagoric desolation of the motels, apartments, and casual relationships of America, Lesser adds his own anxious fantasies. Yet despite Mr. Rogin's very real ability to explore the surreal anxieties of the alienated, middle-aged male, his talents are notably unfocused in this collection. We end with something less than a novel, whose separate parts nevertheless continually thrust unsatisfyingly beyond the short story.
"Shorter and Lesser: 'The Fencing Master and Other Stories'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1966; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3381, December 15, 1966, p. 1178.