Richard Elman The Times Literary Supplement - Essay

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The hero of The 28th Day of Elul]—a Transylvanian Jew who loses his entire family [in the Nazi concentration camps]—is, by the standards of Dachau and Treblinka, a comparatively lucky man. This book is, as the blurb claims with exaggerated toughness, "not for the squeamish", but it is not for the connoisseurs of horror either. The worst atrocity in it is a moral one: in exchange for a dubious promise of escape from occupied Hungary in 1944, the family promises to abandon the hero's sweetheart-cousin, who lives under their protection and in their house….

What prompts Alex Yagodah to disinter such memories is a bequest from an American uncle of forty thousand dollars, provided that he is still "a professing Jew". From the grimy settlement in Israel where he works as an X-ray technician, Yagodah furiously spills out the story of his family's sufferings, trying to make his uncle's executors understand why such a request is obscene and ludicrous….

For an American writer to attempt such a Eurocentric spit in American eyes is an ambitious undertaking. The occasional cheap joke about two cars in every garage does not help. But for the most part Mr. Elman, helped by "a set of documents and some correspondence" which "came to my attention as early as 1960", has succeeded to an astonishing extent. Yagodah's background is a creation of almost Nabokovian density—though also suffering from some Nabokovian pomposity of style—and the creeping incursion of horror into this banal and cosy world is charted with a slow precision which puts the New York authorities on non-resistance in their place…. The erotic daydream in which Alex spent his youth, like the bourgeois snuggery which enclosed it, crumbles away. Their recreation is remarkable, sometimes overwrought but never overplayed: an exercise in moral restraint which "tells us more" than many head-on confrontations with the abyss, without being any dishonestly easier to bear.

"After the Deluge," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3421, September 21, 1967, p. 833.