Richard Elman Christopher Koch - Essay

Christopher Koch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

We do not like the characters in Lilo's Diary—they have little to recommend them, but we enter their world gladly because Elman's development of them seems so important. The scene is Hungary in 1944, and Lilo's Diary explores the utter failure of their middle-class presumptions to deal with their conditions. (p. 504)

[This is the second novel of a trilogy on the Yagodah-Gero clan], and it makes clear that [Elman] is not only a fine writer but one whose ideas must be reckoned with.

It is a philosophical novel that forces us to abstract, to compare and generalize at every phrase. And it succeeds brilliantly because Elman's own philosophical agony infuses both the particular and the abstract with the passionate and terrifying questions that genocide demands: "How?" and "Why?"

Elman's major theme is the impingement of reality on a consciousness trained to abide by self-contained illusions, trained to maintain at all costs the facade of business as usual. In her first entry Lilo writes of "the particularly awful fate one imagines to be in prospect for the bourgeois clan Yagodah-Gero," but the formal phrase removes the sensuous overtones that make that fate terrible. To Lilo the war is at first only "soldiers, soldiers, always soldiers," and the whores she is attracted to and fascinated by. (pp. 504-05)

But Elman does not rest with the obvious. He probes further Lilo's own responsibilities. There are, in a sense, no enemies in Lilo's Diary, only arrangements. Elman confronts the problem of morality (of good and evil) directly, by denying its relevance….

The key to this novel may be in a phrase of Marx which Lilo records. "An invitation to abandon illusions concerning a situation is an invitation to abandon a situation which has need of illusions." This Lilo never manages….

Elman's ability to encapsulate the experience of World War II in a brief novel about one selfish girl, makes Lilo's Diary an important 20th Century work of fiction. (p. 505)

Christopher Koch, "'Lilo's Diary'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1969 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXXIX, No. 15, January 17, 1969, pp. 504-05.