Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 700
[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 the experience which produced the book; it comes from an alien sensibility….
The book has ample, documented foundation in fact. But it is written as a sort of folk-tale, a legend whose characters are caricature. Trumpelman has flowing white hair and wears a Dracula cloak; his wife, Miss Lubliver, favors skirts slit to the knee. The style is conversational, the tone of someone telling stories to children, but it sounds vaguely as though it is in translation, an English version of Sholem Aleichem. In the best Yiddish story-telling tradition, Epstein frequently stops to address us directly. (p. 94)
For me that sort of familiarity, not my favorite device even in genuine Yiddish fiction, here grates horribly against the enormity of the subject matter. Epstein seems constantly, quaintly, to be tugging at one's sleeve, demanding attention for himself, reminding us to admire his verve, his wit, the clever twists of his story line. The questions Epstein asks are very like [William Styron's in Sophie's Choice], existential questions of choice and the value of commitment to survival: what is collaboration? It the choosing of who will die equivalent to murder? But Styron cares about his answers or his lack of answers, and lets his story grow from his own flawed perceptions and feelings in complex and sometimes messy grandeur. Epstein keeps things cool and tidy. One sees the creative writing class behind the brisk construction, which springs more from a talent for experiment than from the prodding of emotion and experience.
Well—the flaws of youth. There is in fact something green and adolescent in Epstein's writing. At its best this shows itself as a freshness of imagery so intense that it is poetic. At its worst, it appears as a total insensitivity to the textures of European life and Jewish ritual, which it reduces to an ethnic joke. The scene of a ghetto performance of Macbeth is Tom Jones with a touch of Molly Picon; rumors and rattlings of war seem made in Hollywood, circa 1943. (pp. 94-5)
There is one oddness of King of the Jews which seems worth the mention here: the Germans are never called the Germans—or the Nazis, or the SS, or Krauts, or any other name known to history. Epstein gives them names out of some comic-book Valhalla. They are "the Others," "the Blond Ones," "Totenkopfers." Hitler, in some pretty funny jokes about him, becomes Horowitz. An eccentricity which Epstein explains as a game, unfortunately, works against the novel. By removing the Germans into comic abstraction, Epstein takes them away from serious participation in the action, and lifts their weight from the scale of responsibility. The novel becomes an angry fairy tale, an adolescent fantasy in which the outside world exists dimly, somewhere beyond the forest, and all guilt, all fault, and all control belong to the immediate family. In this case, using these materials, such distortion is an atrocity.
But one can scarcely fault Epstein for trying. Armageddon is hard to write about, especially these days when popular sentiment runs in favor of its being a civil war in the first place, and a bore as well. Epstein's novel, whatever its flaws and my moral qualms about it, tackles a ghastly subject and, God help us, makes it fun. (pp. 95-6)
Edith Milton, "Looking Backward: Six Novels," in The Yale Review (© 1979 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LXIX, No. 1, October, 1979, pp. 89-103.∗
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