Leon Uris Uris, Leon - Essay

Uris, Leon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Uris, Leon 1924–

Uris, an American novelist, is the author of Exodus. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

I think it should be said directly that "Exodus" is a fine, perhaps a great novel about Israel. It is enlightening, horrifying, and heroic. It is a novel of social history and a social cause in the tradition of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "The Wall"—a tradition which has been missing in our literature of the 1950s. But in a sense the present theme is larger than that in either of this novel's direct predecessors, and its impact is more profound. Dealing with the origins and the establishment of a Jewish nation, "Exodus" revives our spirits about humanity in general.

On the literary level there are obvious faults in this narrative, as there were in Mr. Uris's much less impressive first novel, "Battle Cry." In the opening sections of "Exodus" we are particularly aware of these shortcomings. (p. 22)

If Mr. Uris sometimes lacks tone as a novelist, if his central figures are social types rather than individual portraits, there is also a kind of "underground power" in his writing. No other novel I have read recently has had the same capacity to refresh our memory, to inform our intelligence, and to stir the heart. (p. 30)

Maxwell Geismar, "Epic of Israel," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1958 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 27, 1958, pp. 22-3, 30.

Exodus [is] a novel of Israel's war of statehood, written by a battle-hardened, best-seller-proved American author whose agent knew a good thing when he saw one and convinced his client to make the pilgrimage for Doubleday and Company. Under this urging, Leon Uris (author previously of Battle Cry) arrived in Jerusalem armed with notes, pencils, khakis, typewriter, revolver and Bible; served as a war correspondent in the Sinai campaign, traveled through Denmark, Italy, Cyprus and Iran, and covered more than 12,000 miles within Israel's borders to "research" the story of Exodus. (Is it any wonder that the novel of Israeli life Americans have been waiting for had to be written by an American?) As promised by the jacket blurb, the story "sweeps ahead under its own plunging momentum and catches the reader up in the swinging vortex of a hundred shifting scenes and a thousand dramatic moments." It is, in short, written in Vista-Vision. (p. 318)

The characters are firmly type-cast, but their main function is to carry along the plot that history has already written, and in that service they do quite well. The plot is so exciting that the characters become exciting too; not because of their individuality or depth, but because of the historic drama they are involved in. Mr. Uris does an extraordinary job of weaving that drama together, reaching back to its roots in the Dreyfus case, in Nazi Germany, in Czarist Russia. He sometimes does it through flashbacks of his characters…. Sometimes he does it by stretches of purely historical narrative, deftly inserted after he has brought his characters to the edge of some cliff and the reader is hooked securely enough to read long accounts of the Balfour Declaration or the British White Paper or the Palestine Riots which he would probably never wade through if he found them in the Sunday supplement section. (pp. 318-19)

The real achievement of Exodus lies not so much in its virtues as a novel, as in its skillful rendering of the furiously complex history of modern Israel in a palatable, popular form that is usually faithful to the spirit of the complicated realities. That is no small feat…. (p. 319)

Dan Wakefield, in The Nation (copyright 1959 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), April 11, 1959.

The novel may not be dead in America, but it is certainly undergoing something very like transmigration. On the one hand, the booming pseudo-science of sociology is threatening, in its popular manifestations at least, to usurp large areas of what used to be seen as the novelist's business: quantities of recent novels and stories give one the feeling of having been composed after a proper study not so much of Man as of Riesman and William H. Whyte; fictional footnotes to theses…. On the other hand, there are danger signals from across the water that a retaliation is taking place, that the novelist is preparing to transfer his creative functions to material more properly that of the social or political historian. A few months ago we had the fictionised indictment of US policy in the Far East, The Ugly American, and now we have Mr. Uris's mammoth novel [Exodus] about the rise of the State of Israel…. What completely destroys one's confidence as the actual postwar narrative unfolds is the stultifying conventionality with which the principals—the good, tough Americans Mark and Kitty, the wicked British major, and the superb godlike Ari Ben Canaan—are presented. It is the same black-and-white simplicity we met in The Ugly American; Mr. Uris has incredibly devalued his heroic material by the vacuity of his interpolations. The law of libel and the rewards of fiction being what they are, we may have more such phoney documentaries before the fad passes, and it is necessary to see that a book of this order may do some social good, by creating debate and lengthening the convenient shortness of our memories, while recognising that the means it deploys are death, in the last resort, to all those qualities of intelligence, judiciousness, and charity that make literature itself something more than an exodus from life.

John Coleman, "Proper Study," in The Spectator (© 1959 by permission of The Spectator), July 10, 1959, p. 44.

Leon Uris writes Jewish westerns. In Exodus, the good guys were the Zionists, the homesteaders who fought for and founded the new state of Israel. The British and the Arabs were the bad guys, and no cattle rustler could be as sordid as the Arabs, "the dregs of humanity, thieves, murderers, highway robbers, dope runners and white slavers." In Mila 18, there are both good and bad Jews. The bad ones assist the Nazis in the systematic extermination of their fellow Jews of the Warsaw ghetto. The archvillains are the Germans—all cynics, slobs, sycophants and sadists….

The chief obstacle to reading Mila 18 is the reader's own memory. The novel all but duplicates John Hersey's The Wall. Author Uris even retains Hersey's slow device of telling whole sections of the story in the form of journal entries from the diary of a garrulous, intellectual archivist. If the color tone of Hersey's book was documentary grey, the hue of Uris' novel is stage catchup, the kind of theatricality that demeans the suffering that the book is meant to dignify….

To lift the sense of doom,… Uris relies not on comic but on sensual relief…. Throughout, Uris' dialogue conjures up hours of bad movie time.

Apart from the celluloid clichés, there is a legitimate drama to the whole monstrous crime, and Uris captures some of it. Unfortunately, the scale of racial mass murder dwarfs the individual. The enormity of horror resembles a cataclysm of nature like an earthquake or a typhoon, and the inequity of the struggle smothers the tragic sense, which demands a more equal conflict in which the hero duels with himself, with another man or with God. Man's fate as it unfolds in Mila 18 contains the hound-after-fox emotions of the chase and the kill, sometimes exciting, often poignant, but always oppressive.

"Back to 'The Wall'," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), June 2, 1961, p. 94.

The career of Mr. Leon Uris tells a curious literary and cultural story. It might at first not seem worthy of note that a gifted writer of hard-core trash should three times out of the last four have made the best-seller lists in America—even though the times have accustomed us to somewhat different standards of book popularity. It might also seem quite natural that sooner or later such a writer would turn his talents to blood-and-thunder novels about illegal immigration to Israel and Jewish resistance to the Nazis in Warsaw; these are exciting subjects which only, as it turned out, needed someone of sufficiently strong stomach to make fictions out of them.

Mr. Uris, however, has done a great deal more than merely wax rich and famous—possibilities, after all, open to any American whose commodity finds its proper market. He has become the master chronicler and ambassador of Jewish aspiration not only to the Gentiles but to the Jews themselves. His commodity has, in fact, found a market far out of proportion, numerically and sociologically, to its special quality. By now it is unlikely that more than a handful of literate Americans have not either read one of his Jewish novels or been engaged in at least one passionate discussion about him with someone who has. (pp. 117-18)

This reviewer must confess that she sat down one evening not long ago with a copy of Exodus—after adamantly refusing to read it for two years—and did not move from the chair until morning and the last page. Not only is one, with a book like this, relieved of all the nagging, whining, doubting of more current literature, and provided instead with the refreshment of characters who think simply and act, act, act all the time; one is also on every page succumbing to an irresistible kind of titillation. For Mr. Uris's work is pornographic—not in the sense of being about or arousing sex, but in applying the kind of prurience usually associated with sex to the other human passions. Like the ladies' magazine fiction from which it derives, it is a pornography of the feelings; and this, while perhaps not as universally affecting as true pornography, has much the same power to set off pure fantasies. (p. 119)

Nevertheless there remains the riddle of why these books by themselves have seemed to accomplish what years of persuasion, arguments, appeals, and knowledge of the events themselves have failed to do—why people have claimed to be converted to Zionism, uplifted, thrilled, enthralled by them. A standard answer, of course, is that novels make facts and ideas vivid. But to get involved in comparing the "vividness" of Mila 18 with that of, say, a Swedish documentary film called Mein Kampf would bring us to subtle and technical questions of social psychology.

The real answer to the riddle lies in the unwitting revolution Mr. Uris has wrought: he has for the first time brought off genuine trash about Jews. I say "unwitting" because Mr. Uris writes as he writes; whatever the subject, his sensibility remains what it is. But for his readers, particularly his Jewish readers, he has created the possibility of seeing Jews not as the troublesome and incomprehensible heroes that decent social conscience has always demanded but as the kind of heroes that middle-class dream life has conditioned us all to make our most immediate responses to. This is of course not to say that nothing bad has ever before been written about Jews under the Nazis or in Israel; in fact, almost nothing good (in a literary way) has. It is to say that nothing has been written about them before without the depressing demands of an inarticulate piety for Jewish experience in Europe; even novels about plushy Jewish life in America are shadowed by it somewhere. "Jewish fate" is always a hint to remind you that this is no easy or pleasurable matter—like the broken glass that is supposed to commemorate national destruction at every wedding. Plunging right into the heart of that Jewish fate at its most terrifying, Mr. Uris has nevertheless created a fantasy that all Americans can at the very least understand and at the most be considerably excited by. It is as if for years and years people who read about Jews had to keep one eye on the next world and now they have been paid off with something for this one. (pp. 119-20)

Midge Decter, "Popular Jews" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1961 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, October, 1961 (and reprinted in The Liberated Woman and Other Americans, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1971, pp. 117-20).

[Armageddon] is not serious literature but journalism, and his documentation is at times so straightforward and unadorned that he seems almost to have lifted papers from the files of the American Military Government. His characters are flat and one-dimensional, as if already prefabricated for the Hollywood movie in which they are bound to appear. Yet despite these inadequacies, Mr. Uris turns out a gripping and compelling story. He has a keen nose for the times and places where the important business of history is being done, and he is able to evoke the atmosphere and tension of major events. Nobody can put this book down without being convinced that the post-war years in Germany, culminating in the Berlin airlift of 1948, were a great testing ground of men and ideas. (pp. 135-36)

William Barrett, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1964 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), July, 1964.

Leon Uris is a storyteller, in a direct line from those men who sat around fires in the days before history and made the tribe more human. The subject is man, not words; story is all, the form it takes is secondary. So it is a simple thing to point out that Uris often writes crudely, that his dialogue can be wooden, that his structure occasionally groans under the excess baggage of exposition and information. Simple, but irrelevant. None of that matters as you are swept along in the narrative. Uris is certainly not as good a writer as Pynchon or Barthelme or Nabokov; but he is a better storyteller.

[In "Trinity"], which begins in the 19th century and ends in 1916, he has chosen to tell the tale of modern Ireland; that choice is itself audacious. The killing goes on as I write, the tribes of the Falls Road and the Shankill still locked in ancient bloody argument. Generations of writers, Irish and otherwise, have walked away from that wounded place in despair, hoping to make some fragment stand for the whole, or giving up and writing of other things. Uris has plunged into the killing ground, trying to clear some room for understanding. The novel sprawls, occasionally bores, meanders like a river. But when the story is finished the reader has been to places where he or she has never been before. The news items from Belfast will never seem quite the same again….

Uris is writing for the gallery, and he clearly wants everyone to understand what he is saying. It is easy to comb the book for barbarisms or even ludicrous passages. (One of the major Protestant characters actually says at one point: "I sometimes think we are slowly getting strangled in the web of our own intrigue.") Some characters, most of them women, seem as though they had been cast, rather than created. And the book ends in a dying fall, as though the subject had finally exhausted the writer. For all of that, the story has a kind of relentless power, based on the real tragedy of Ireland, and Uris's achievement is that he has neither cheapened nor trivialized that tragedy. (p. 5)

Pete Hamill, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 14, 1976.

Leon Uris's surprisingly good new novel, Trinity, is about [a] cycle of literature, law, and violent death, and it ends on a note that suggests that the cycle itself is the ordained eternal hell and glory of the Irish condition: "In Ireland, there is no future, only the past happening over and over."

An enormous theme, attacked in an enormous book. That in itself is no surprise, since Uris, like most writers little interested in words, uses a great many of them. What is striking about Trinity is that the subject matter seems to have pressed the author to a display of power hitherto unsuspected….

Uris concerns himself with the historical record of vast events, like the Hitlerian genocide or the Irish rebellions, and his passion is for documentation and detail. It's generally conceded even by those impatient with his work that he can direct the lava of fact along with his "storytelling power," instructing as he entertains. An honorable tradition—Dickens may be pointed to as the obvious grand master—but it's certainly the least artistically interesting form the contemporary novel can take….

To be sure, his characteristic shortcomings are intact here, and even magnified. He solves problems of construction by falsely assuming they will be swallowed up in length. He delivers his historical material in improbable speeches and distracting discursive essays. There is a first-person narrator so often shoved off-stage for so long that his reappearance is always a jolt. There are lapses in point of view (as when an 11-year-old peasant boy "attests to the omnipresence"). There are a lot of exclamation points! "Zenith" appears as a verb.

Add cliched characters (the crusading Fenian journalist, the profiteering aristocrat-industrialist, the English lady with a heart of onyx and a fierce nostalgie de la boue) to a prose style that would have been impossible before the Industrial Revolution, and you should have just another big, bad book. And Trinity is surely a raw novel. But it's a raw novel one keeps reading.

The reason lies in Uris's self-evident devotion to his material, apparent from his willingness to take on the complex roots of the question of Ulster. Instead of setting his story in contemporary Belfast for its immediate impact or the Easter rising for its romantic appeal, he confines his long book to the period from 1840 to 1916, when these tragedies were brewing.

Moreover, he is steeped in Irish folklore, and presents it, with no taint of quaintness, as a force as vital as the Church itself….

But Uris's partisan devotion to the republican cause has wholly triumphed over any historical impartiality he might have looked for…. To be sure, novelists aren't required to give multiple sides of a story, but a novel like this one, whose debt is to history and whose obsession is with fact, comes up a bit lopsided minus the attempt.

Still, that hot partiality is itself a measure of Leon Uris's seriousness of purpose. Also the author of a nonfiction book on Ireland, he has obviously plunged into this subject for love of it. The result is his best novel.

William C. Woods, "Fighting Irish," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 25, 1976, p. G7.

Cliche-master Leon Uris is back at us with another of his now-novels. Here it is, the ugly step-sister of nasty Topaz: Trinity. Having discovered the Irish as subject matter, Uris has divided the whole Anglo-Irish problem into triads. Uris would use the word "trinity" so that he could capitalize on the religious connotations….

Poor Leon Uris has no idea of how to write in an Irish voice. He suspects he's got to be sentimental. When the dialog seems nearly dead, Uris tries to prop it up with some tirade on the evils of England (of which there are many). Since Uris has no natural notion of what the grievances are, he injects paraphrased text book history prose into the mouths of his characters. The fake brogue his characters speak brings to mind a Sean O'Casey play recently produced in Houston, Texas….

The Irish don't need the sympathies of Leon Uris, his righteous fumblings and droolings. I'm sure Uris shall have a tedious movie from all this and the money will creep into his pockets from American box offices. Then, with the Irish firmly in his misty past (he'll recall Donegal and the Irish mistily; Yankees love to talk about the Irish mist), Uris will go on to discover some other now-situation he can contrive into a pseudo-novel. He'll hack right along into the history of some other people, perhaps the Blacks of Africa who will all have rhythm.

Paul Shuttleworth, "Do the Irish Need Uris?" in Pacific Sun Literary Quarterly, Summer Quarter, 1976, p. 5.