Robert Kotlowitz Critical Essays

Kotlowitz, Robert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kotlowitz, Robert 1924–

Kotlowitz is an American editor and novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

Robert Kotlowitz's "Somewhere Else" is a first novel of tense, dry brilliance, remarkable for the immensity of its scope and the individual power of its characters….

"Somewhere Else" is a bitter, beautiful book, unsentimental about the tragedy of caring too much and the greater tragedy of not caring at all.

Josephine Hendin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 5, 1972, p. 4.

[It] takes a certain amount of chutzpah to challenge such a master as Isaac Bashevis Singer on his home grounds. But Kotlowitz hasn't fallen far short of the masterly achievement of The Family Moskat and he has done better than Singer did in The Manor and The Estate in telling what is essentially the same story, of the breakup of the traditional shtetl life of the isolated Jewish communities in Poland under the impact of modern ideas and the technology which made transmission of those ideas so easy.

Michele Murray, "Old Wine in a Bright New Bottle," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 12, 1972, pp. 4, 10.

The journey from Lomza to London, in the period just prior to the First World War takes a rabbi's son the way of many a classic novelistic journey. [In Somewhere Else] Mendel is the young man from the provinces out to confront the great world, his province is a shtetl in Poland, and his journey from there to a larger world is the matter of which great novels once were made…. It is not Mendel alone we are given to know here, but the generation before him, in whose descendants an ineradicable ancestry will continue to assert itself in every generation, albeit in the disguises that the changing times dictate. There were irresistible pressures that caused the inhabitants of the shtetl to leave. Somewhere Else is about that as well, but it is primarily about character, the one true business of the novelist above all others. The nature of the characters drawn here is such that one willingly pursues them in the meanest details of their lives. For here is that thing one had not ever hoped to see again—a novel in which a milieu is created with a novelist's loving and discursive relish for detail. There is that charm here that comes of the lingering and sympathetic attention true writers confer on their characters. Indeed, the East European milieu Mr. Kotlowitz has caught in this book is of that immediacy which catches at the memory, which reminds us that this is what a novel once was, at its best.

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in World (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 21, 1972, p. 62.

Robert Kotlowitz's first novel tells a story which in its every aspect is commonplace. The description of Lomza, the Polish shtetl at the turn of the century where the novel begins and to which its title alludes, is commonplace; and Mendel's journey from Lomza to London, the odyssey of a young Jew in search of a larger, more cosmopolitan, and hospitable society, is equally commonplace. But Kotlowitz, through his aesthetic distance from the material and a rare mastery of the novelist's craft, transforms common facts and events into a novel uncommon both for its elegance and for its honesty.

The extent of Kotlowitz's achievement is all the more remarkable in light of other recent attempts to evoke Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust and the near-universal failure of such attempts to come to terms with shtetl life in its essence. More than any other force, the shtetl created and determined the modality of all subsequent Jewish culture in the Diaspora. Significantly, however, efforts to capture it in fiction have either tended to emphasize the grotesque and the demonic side of its religious life, as in the novels of I. B. Singer, or have succumbed to a pervasive sentimentalism marked all too often by ignorance and unimaginativeness.

By contrast, Kotlowitz strikingly succeeds in recreating shtetl life precisely because, in his utterly unsentimental way, he takes the shtetl for what it was—neither the best nor the worst of all possible worlds….

As a triumphant acknowledgment of the sublime ordinariness and persistence of Jewish life, Somewhere Else is nothing less than its author's celebration of his own, and our, roots.

David Stern, "Odyssey of a Jew" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1973 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, January, 1973, pp. 102-03.