Leslie Epstein Essay - Critical Essays

Epstein, Leslie


Leslie Epstein 1938–

American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

Epstein is a promising new writer whose fiction ranges from the farcical Russian spy spoof P. D. Kimerakov (1975) to the historical novel King of the Jews (1979). This latter, based on the Jewish experiences within the Polish ghetto of Lodz during World War II, examines the moral dilemma faced by the leader of the doomed population in his efforts to deal with the Nazi terror. Critics are divided in their estimation of the novel's place in Holocaust literature. While some critics have expressed admiration for Epstein's willingness to write about such a painful subject, others feel that his persistent use of satire creates an impression that he is trivializing the horrors of that time. Epstein has also drawn strong disapproval for failing to censure the Germans.

Epstein's recent novel, Regina (1982), deals with the spiritual crisis of a middle-aged Jewish woman. Regina resolves to free herself from those things and people that have restricted her growth in the past. In doing so, she finds herself and the solution to many of her problems.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

Anne Marie Stamford

If you can imagine a Woody Allen movie with the screenplay by Kurt Vonnegut, you'll have a good idea of what [P. D. Kimerakov] is like. Unfortunately for us, Mr. Epstein lacks the Vonnegut wit and the spontaneity of Woody Allen to pull it off.

It seems to me that Mr. Epstein has written a spoof on all the Russian spoofs of the sixties (pre-detente era). Pavel Donatovitch Kimerakov, "our hero," is a Russian scientist who is doing secret research on the aging problem that is afflicting Russian astronauts in space. He is sent to America for a gerontologists' convention…. Russian and American agents pop in and out in a myriad of unlikely guises, and some very funny slapstick scenes result. The problem is that these little comedy gems are buried in pages of interminable descriptions, such as two pages on a spider spinning a web, which reminded me of a physics textbook.

The book is narrated by an insidious Russian, who is never really fully identified. He constantly extols the virtues of Communism and spouts Russian wisdom, such as "A pig wearing trousers will roll in the mud." The narrator is good, and he preserves the absurd flavor of the novel, but he jumps around dizzily from one scene to another and at times becomes confusing.

My final verdict on this book is that it is funny, but simply not interesting. It might be enjoyed by adults who delight in a really nonsensical farce.

Anne Marie Stamford, in a review of "P. D. Kimerakov," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1975 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 35, No. 5, August, 1975, p. 162.

David Bromwich

[In "P. D. Kimerakov"], a Russian scientist—like Nabokov's Pnin but even more muddled and less adept at concealing the muddle—finds himself drafted for cultural exchange and loses his heart to an American dancing girl who is managed by an improbable, mayhem-loving C.I.A. operative called L. T. Kapp. Hilarity is always ready to score in this sometimes over blown book, and it often sounds forced. This defect may be a sign of Leslie Epstein's honesty; he cannot hide the essential grimness of this particular corner of history, and he knows that pathos will be at war with buffoonery throughout his story. Unfortunately, the result leaves him with a narrative tone that is vague and in-between and not really comprehending. Yet there is an ease and warmth in the telling, and a nice crowding of the plot with minor characters, which make one read on….

Kimerakov's oppressive life at home and his urge to invent models, religions, truths, his tireless and fascinated observation of spiders as they too grow old, his fiercely checked seduction of Larisa—comes through marvelously in the nervy and elegant style Epstein has chosen for it. He imparts a grandeur, not quite expressible, touchingly awkward, to this hero who "walked a bit like a waiter, smoothly, balancing instead of dishes a delicate heart."

The opening scenes in Russia show Epstein at the top of his form. And these are repeated, with something of their original force, near the close of the novel, when Kimerakov discovers his laboratory in disarray and finally is expelled from the Academy of Sciences, U.S.S.R. The American interlude,...

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Katha Pollitt

If writers got gold stars for the risks they took, Leslie Epstein would get a handful for the title story of this collection of short fiction. "The Steinway Quintet" belongs to that rare and difficult genre, the story that is in some sense "about" large intellectual and philosophical problems. Two gun-waving, pill-popping Puerto Rican J. D.'s break into the Steinway Restaurant on Rivington Street—once a favorite haunt of Sarah Bernhardt and Einstein, but now the lonely relic of a vanished Jewish community—and hold the aged waiters, patrons and members of the restaurant orchestra hostage for a huge ransom and a plane to China.

The setup is almost too convenient for the conflict Epstein wants to illuminate between culture and violence, but as narrated by the pianist Goldkorn, self-proclaimed free-thinker and occasional tippler, "The Steinway Quintet" manages to be deft, original and very funny. At once shrewd and wide-eyed, Goldkorn is the perpetual optimist….

Through Goldkorn, Epstein recalls with an affectionate but unsentimental playfulness the passionate intellectuality of the Eastern European Jews. But for Epstein the claims of reason, in which those Jews placed their faith, are of as little avail in the Steinway Restaurant as they were in Hitler's Germany. The puniness of reason in the face of horror becomes comic: "What is the cause of this fear of death?" asks one of the customers, a Freudian analyst, as the hoodlums prepare to murder everyone. "Let us think of it in a rational manner. Is it not in reality the childish fear of losing the penis? Of being cut off from this source of guilty pleasure? Notice how when we recognize the source of our anxiety it at once disappears....

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Ruth R. Wisse

Leslie Epstein's novel, King of the Jews, is loosely based on events in the ghetto of Lodz under the German occupation of World War II. (p. 76)

Although its central character, I. C. Trumpelman, is based on the actual chairman of the Lodz Judenrat, and though the book's descriptions of the local conditions derive from documented ghetto history, King of the Jews does not attempt a historical interpretation of either the ghetto Elder or of the ghetto itself. The book bears the same relation to the Holocaust as M∗A∗S∗H does to the Korean war. Its flat caricatures, cabaret style of narration, and stylized theatrical staging for all the main events of the plot belong to the category of farce. Like other American war farces, Epstein's book isolates the moral angst of the situation from the historical conditions in which it originated: from the aggression of totalitarian regimes or, in this case, from the articulated program of genocide. True evil seems not to be a suitable subject for this genre. Thus the Germans, under euphemistic designations, remain outside the "problem" of this book, which concentrates on the destruction of the Jews as an internal Jewish matter. To use the kind of fairytale analogy in which Epstein delights, this is like the story of Red Riding Hood, but without the wolf. The wolf's lurking presence is admitted as part of the atmosphere, but the real subject is the credulity of Red Riding Hood, and the nature of her guilt in directing the wolf to granny's door.

The book's main thematic concern is with what the jacket copy calls the "excruciating moral dilemmas" of those charged with executing German orders, and of those not so charged whose initiatives had still to be weighed against the threat of collective reprisal. To dramatize this moral plight of the Jews, the book is studded with relevant debates…. There is even a debate … on whether children being deported to their death should be lulled with bright dreams or told that "Oswiecim is the homeland of the Jews." Hannah Arendt's thesis of the...

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Jane Larkin Crain

Fictionalizing the experiences of those 160,000 Polish Jews who were first herded into the ghetto of Lodz and later deported to the Nazi death camps, this novel rehearses yet again the question of Jewish "complicity" in Hitler's war against the Jews. In mannered and inflated prose, meant to evoke the narrative voice of Eastern European folklore, King of the Jews attempts to represent life inside the ghetto in terms that will fairly bristle with moral meanings and ironies. At the heart of this tendentious enterprise is one I. C. Trumpelman, head of the ghetto's Judenrat, a strutting, half-mad, power-hungry tyrant, and his cohorts on the council—venal, self-pitying, spineless Jews who at best passively...

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Neal Ascherson

The plunge attempted by Leslie Epstein in King of the Jews required not merely courage but a degree of self-confidence approaching the suicidal. Epstein has written a novel about the Holocaust, a monumental study of the leader of a Judenrat. The scene is the Ghetto of Lodz, in Nazi-occupied Poland, and the central character is based on Chaim Mordecai Rumkowski, that legendary figure who ruled the ghetto, terrorized its inhabitants into passivity and submission, and persuaded them that a policy of "co-operation"—of letting one category after another be rounded up and driven into the trains bound for the gas chambers—offered a chance of survival for the dwindling remnant.

It isn't...

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Robert Alter

Making novels out of the holocaust has proved to be a hopelessly self-contradictory enterprise for most writers. The conventional novel, with its formal coherence of beginning, middle and end, betrays this subject, which by its nature destroys coherence in our understanding of history, theology, moral choice and human character. Leslie Epstein's quietly controlled, eerily lucid novel ["King of the Jews"]…. is remarkable for choosing an aspect of the subject and developing a special narrative mode that overcome the intrinsic difficulty of coping imaginatively with genocide….

Mr. Epstein intelligently focuses his narrative not on the obscene mechanisms of mass murder itself, but on the morally...

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Edith Milton

[King of the Jews] is elegantly written, paced like a Burger-King commercial, and arranged with a very cunning eye for irony; its cumulative effect is that of an intricate artifice built on the grave of total horror. I am not accusing Epstein of bad taste; it is not really a question of that. Epstein's novel is somehow outside the range of taste, in the same way a novel might be if it were written by a dolphin…. Parts of the book are astonishingly beautiful; a scene, for instance, where doomed, starved boys act out, for a school exercise, the motion of the planets. Parts of it are disturbingly real; a game of naked leapfrog forced on the new leaders of the ghetto before they are shot. But I cannot recognize...

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Kirkus Reviews

As critics have often noted, Epstein's fiction—especially P. D. Kimerakov … bears a large resemblance to Saul Bellow's. And this disappointing new novel [Regina] is the most Bellovian of all: a sociological/spiritual mosaic that could conceivably be subtitled Mrs. Sammler's Revival. Regina Glassman is a divorced, 40-ish movie-and-drama critic, in her youth an actress. On leave from her New York writing job at a magazine, she's unexpectedly called back to the stage: a revival of The Sea Gull, the play in which she'd had her tyro triumph. Blindly, vainly, she believes that she's been again tapped for the part of young Nina, only to arrive at rehearsal to find out that she's been cast,...

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George Stade

We know from Leslie Epstein's previous fiction—two novels and a collection of stories—that he has both a social conscience and masterly skills. We also know, especially from his last novel, "King of the Jews" …, that he has an imagination of catastrophe.

His new novel, "Regina," is set in New York City in the 1980's, where inner catastrophes confront their external counterparts. One counterpart is the weather. It's midsummer; there's a heat wave and a drought…. Somebody in the neighborhood (the Upper West Side) is killing women who, as it turns out, remind him of his mother. He stabs each of his victims exactly 27 times. Relations between the sexes and among parents and children are awry. "It...

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Susan Lydon

Despite the countless thousands of words expended on the soul of the middle-aged Jewish male (now plumbed nearly to exhaustion), his generational counterpart, the middle-aged Jewish female, has languished in a fictional limbo…. [She's] the last invisible woman. Or was until Regina Glassman sprang full-grown from the pen of Leslie Epstein [in Regina].

Regina would be the first to admit that her obscurity isn't due just to insensitive novelists: she has passed most of her life in a somnambulistic stupor, from which she is only now beginning to awaken. And her monkey-in-the-middle-age dilemma exists in life as well as art; caught between the intense egocentrism of her incorrigible teenage sons...

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