Yoram Kaniuk Essay - Critical Essays

Kaniuk, Yoram


Kaniuk, Yoram 1930?–

Kaniuk is an Israeli novelist who writes in Hebrew. His complex narratives examine the changes wrought in Jewish consciousness by historical and political realities.

Herbert Kupferberg

"The Acrophile" is a story touched by hallucination and abounding in symbols. One does not always comprehend [the protagonist] Daani's motivations, follow his thought convolutions, or sympathize with his self-torment. But one respects his search for sanity in an unbalanced universe, and one reads his story suspense fully to its unexpectedly wry climax.

Even if the world Mr. Kaniuk depicts is more than slightly out of joint, it is populated by some strangely appealing beings…. [They] are fleeting characters, half real, half seen through Daani's strange imagination, yet all weave in and out of the story as human beings whose story is at once lifelike and fanciful….

This is a curious sort of book, part novel, part parable, part—one suspects—autobiography. It deals with people who are rootless, unhappy and lonely. Since its events are viewed through the eyes of one who is bedeviled by doubt and remorse, and has an impossible ambition to satisfy, it doesn't pretend to see life whole and see it plain. But, with sensitivity of insight and simplicity of language, it creates its own picture of the strange twists of soul and mind that bring human beings together, and set them apart.

Herbert Kupferberg, "Symbolic, Wry Tale of Israel," in New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), February 26, 1961, p. 34.

Lionel Abel

["The Acrophile" is] a personal fantasy that is touching, diverting, comical, even wise, and, to this reader at least, irresistible.

The hero of "The Acrophile" tells his story in snatches of memory; in monologues that are interrupted by other characters (who often borrow his rhetoric and continue his fantasy); in absurd and sometimes unbelievable encounters with strangers; in dreams, proverbs, meditations, jests. There is a total disregard for normal narrative order in this book and the beginning of the story is much closer to the end than is the middle. Kaniuk has made a game of what is silly in serious novels and thus found a form for his own troubled probing into the larger question: how can what was once the seriousness of life seem to be so silly? And what are you to do when you have found out that it is? How do you get married, go to your mother-in-law's funeral, fight properly with your wife, pursue a scholarly project, rise to a high academic post, or even eat a meal in a Lebanese restaurant? How are any of these far from abnormal activities possible to a person who has not unlearned to recognize nonsense when he comes across it? Kaniuk's hero has not unlearned, and never will unlearn, that nonsense is nonsense no matter how useful it may be not to regard it so. Now I believe there are a great many young people all over the world who are in this very difficulty, and I think that Kaniuk's hero speaks for them….


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Samuel I. Bellman

Yoram Kaniuk is a youngish Israeli novelist of enormous talent, both as an artificer of plot and as a virtuoso of language. He is an existentialist who writes somewhat in the manner of Camus, although his work shows a sophisticated awareness of many other writers and their special literary modes. On the basis of his first novel, The Acrophile … and to a lesser extent the new one, Himmo, one might argue that Kaniuk could some day—if he stays on the job—join the ranks of important world authors.

The Acrophile was a fantastically good story with all the verve, inventiveness, and assured mastery of idiom one expects from such writers as Amado, Borges, Queneau, Böll, and perhaps Nabokov. Even in translation the book showed literary craftsmanship on every page.

Kaniuk's existentialism, which in The Acrophile was of a wild, zany, carnival-of-the-emotions sort, is in Himmo a somber conscience-twisting that demands impossible action under the most adverse conditions. And, as with the earlier novel, the English-speaking reader can't help wondering whether there are subliminal tones in the original Hebrew that the best translation could never pick up.

Himmo might have been subtitled "The Nurse's Dilemma." During the Arab siege of Jerusalem in the winter of 1948 an Israeli girl named Hamotal [worked as a nurse in a hospital]…. [Of her patients, the] most seriously hurt is Himmo Farrah, not yet nineteen, who was once the acknowledged "king of Jerusalem," at least with the ladies. Now blind and maimed, he calls desperately for someone to shoot him. Only his mouth has been left unmarred, and it is beautiful to Hamotal….

Hamotal dedicates herself exclusively to Himmo and seldom leaves his side…. But Himmo's real problem is beyond the reach of Hamotal's tender loving care. He wants to die….

The painful resolution, which is not very satisfactory, is probably intended to leave the reader with a psychological puzzle he can keep turning over in his mind.

Samuel I. Bellman, "Macabre Union," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LII, No. 7, February 15, 1969, p. 35.

D.A.N. Jones

Adam Resurrected concerns a deranged patient in an Israeli hospital: he was a famous clown in pre-war Germany and, when he was arrested by the Nazis, he was made to entertain fellow Jews, including members of his own family, on their way to the gas chambers; he was also made to share a food bowl with a dog belonging to the commandant of the concentration camp. This information is shovelled onto the page in a raving New York style (translated from the Hebrew) together with sick jokes and morbid fantasies. Reading Adam Resurrected was a chore…. [Kaniuk's earlier novel] The Acrophile dealt poetically with race-political guilt, isolation from the world and escape into clownishness. Adam Resurrected is a reworking of the same themes, but so smothered with rant and repulsive detail that the governing concepts are not seen and the connections not made.

D.A.N. Jones, "Bags" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1972; reprinted by permission of D.A.N. Jones), in The Listener, Vol. 87, No. 2238, February 17, 1972, p. 221.∗

Anatole Broyard

Yoram Kaniuk seems to think that to give in to a manic impulse is the same thing as having a burst of creative energy. The good things in "Rockinghorse" are a reward for patience. If the ideal fiction reader were to be imagined as the kind of person who likes to go for long walks in the rain, then "Rockinghorse" might be described as a hail storm.

Here's a sample of Yoram Kaniuk's style: … "We found a girl's exercise book. On the ground. In the yard of the Freund Hospital. Worms had gnawed the exercise book. It was old and yellow. Hidden pimples of puberty between the words. We leaf through it."

On the surface, it sounds like Louis Ferdinand Céline's "emotive subway," an intense sputtering broken by clusters of three dots; but usually, in Kaniuk's case, there is no ostensible reason for it. Céline often wrote, and felt, like steam escaping from a pot, and his style was perfectly adapted to this feeling. It is difficult to see the justification for Kaniuk's broken phrases, unless we assume that he is ashamed of them….

In "Rockinghorse," the style is the mode, or à la mode, literary fashion owing more to the stand-up or Borscht Belt comic than to literary necessity.

And it is too bad, because, when the occasion is right, Kaniuk's manic energy is infectious and appealing. He's all over the reader with his story, embracing him like a long-lost friend, squeezing, exclaiming. Sussetz, his hero, is an unsuccessful Israeli painter living in America…. Sussetz takes refuge in the delight … of defeat.

Like a true modern artist, Sussetz decides to fashion a triumph out of his defeat, "to succeed in the story of his failure." He goes to Israel to make a film of his birth and of his ailing father's death….

The film of Sussetz's birth and his father's death is pure Yiddish theater, a rich concoction of schmalz and profundity…. It is a classical quest and "Rockinghorse" sometimes reads as if the author were going to bring it off. If he weren't such a nudnick, he might have.

Anatole Broyard, "Some Good Moments," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 20, 1977, p. 14.

Thomas R. Edwards

Adam Resurrected is a moving and highly original novel. Adam Stein was spared from the Holocaust because his death-camp commandant recognized him as a famous circus clown and kept him alive to entertain the other victims—including Adam's wife and daughter—who were on their way to destruction…. The sign of his degredation is his ineradicable memory of playing dog to amuse Commandant Klein….

Adam Resurrected is filled with the tensions between the native-born pioneers who created Israel and the immigrant survivors who came to it for refuge. Though [Adam,] who becomes a dog and destroys his family, finally regains sanity through his love for Uriel, the dog-child he finds in the...

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George Klin

Yoram Kaniuk prefaces his novel Rockinghorse with a quote from Jorge Luis Borges: "Writing is but a guided dream." It is an exact description of a book that reads like the notes of an endless nightmare. The dialogue is terribly intent and cryptic. Intellectuals gravely intone philosophical nonsense. Trivial objects have transcendental meanings. Macabre figures behave eerily. Rockinghorse is a long challenge to logic, psychology and clarity, an outpouring of riddles and non sequiturs.

But from a distance, like a pointillist painting, the novel coalesces into a tangible reality. With absurdist imagery it brings existential despair to a disquieting life. Learning is ignored as a solitary...

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Alan Mintz

["The Story of Aunt Shlomzion the Great" is about a woman who turns her will] loose on family and community in explosions of rage and imprecation. She spends a lifetime terrorizing those closest to her and manipulating their lives….

Shlomzion's story is told by her nephew, Aminadav…. Aminadav is sufficiently removed from Shlomzion to retain something of his own identity but close enough to have grown up under her spell; his telling of her story is an attempt to rediscover his own self. In fact, he seems like a man wrestling with an obsession: the story churns over and over the events and motifs of Shlomzion's life, returning incessantly to crucial episodes and significant details. This procedure...

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Gila Ramras-Rauch

Yoram Kaniuk is one of the most lucid and imaginative—and least pedestrian—of Israeli novelists writing today. His prose is fluid, irridescent and charged with a soaring power. His writing has the quality of tale and fable. The element of the fantastic courts reality and enhances it.

The magic which fills his fiction is manifested in this novel, as in his earlier book, Rockinghorse. It is the magic of the early Tel Aviv and its fading beauty…. In both these books there is a fabric of legend and reality, memory and fantasy woven around the city built on golden dunes. Today very little is left of the former grandeur (real or imitated). Like everyone else who has had a taste of those days,...

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Jascha Kessler

[Kaniuk] set himself a truly ambitious task [in Adam Resurrected]: to grasp what happened, not by entering the fire, which is impossible, but by sifting the ash. The results are curious, and startling. First, there is the inevitable shock and upset to one's emotions that the material causes, partly because each of us, I suspect, has managed to arrange a delicate equilibrium private to ourselves about these matters. Then, in pondering the book one begins to see what Kaniuk has it in mind to say to us about the unsayable. Briefly put, I should characterize Adam Resurrected as an inverted jeremiad, a negative book of prophecy, a demonic discussion of the fate of the Jew in which the writer attempts to...

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