Yoram Kaniuk Anatole Broyard - Essay

Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.