Richard Elman Joel Lieber - Essay

Joel Lieber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Elman's third novel of the Yagodah family [The Reckoning], is as poignantly bitter as the first, The 28th Day of Elul, and as fragmented as the second, Lilo's Diary. A diary-chronicle of a man approaching the end of his life, The Reckoning bears the unmistakable Elman stamp: a painful honesty that makes you squirm with discomfort.

It is also a historical novel, set, like the first two, in the town of Clig, Hungary, in 1944, just before the Germans (ironically, hardly ever mentioned) move in to occupy the area. As an example of how a historical novel can come alive, Elman's book is a class of its own. The Reckoning takes us into the same story situation as the first two books—which were told, respectively, from the viewpoints of Alex, the son, and Lilo, his cousin-fiancée—and now that we see how it looked through the eyes of the father, Newman Yagodah, we are reminded all the more of the challenging Durrell-like approach Elman has undertaken.

Newman's diaries reveal a pompous businessman, sensitive yet insensitive, neutral yet smoldering, efficient yet foolish. (p. 39)

Newman is a compendium of weaknesses: he is sneaky, venal, crude, vindictive. He is a Jewish anti-hero of the holocaust period…. Newman Yagodah is bound to incite the audience of protesters who prefer a history of martyred Jewish supermen to any hanging out of emotional dirty linen. (pp. 39-40)

The Reckoning backs and fills, explaining and confusing Lilo's and Alex's diaries. There are snatches of conversation, self-searchings, journeys into the past, regrets, pieties. A rare event occurs in this book: a human being emerges. Not a lovely or moral or righteous one, but a man so real that his voice will echo in your ears for many, many days. (p. 40)

Joel Lieber, "Fiction: 'The Reckoning'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LII, No. 41, October 11, 1969, pp. 39-40.