25 OCTOBER 1963, Page 30

Journey into Life The Incomparable Atuk. By Mordecai Richler. (Deutsch,

16s.) The Favourite Game. By Leonard Cohen. (Secker and Warburg, 18s.) The Favourite Game. By Leonard Cohen. (Secker and Warburg, 18s.) MR. ROTH'S book has for many years enjoyed a great reputation among a small number of ad- mirers, and that reputation has been thoroughly deserved. I have no doubt that it will grow.

David Schearl is the son of immigrant Jewish parents who arrive in New York shortly after the turn of the last century; the action of the book traces the gradual and painful enlargement of his consciousness. Sensitive and timid, he is set apart from his fellow children. His only companion is his mother. The woman has no friends because she speaks no English, and for a long time she and David constitute each other's world. The lather, self-possessed, brutal and uncomprehend- ing, is isolated from them after a terrible beating that he gives the boy. He remains for David a continual threat, the representative of the blind, unfeeling, all-powerful rage that occasionally appears to govern existence.

Unhappily for him, David cannot remain for- ever in his mother's kitchen. He must descend, however reluctantly, to the world of streets and children, schools and rabbis. Much of the ten- sion in David's life is a result of the continuing journeys, both physical and spiritual, between the distant spaces of that other, outer universe and the close comfort of his mother's presence. The boundaries of David's experience are always being pushed back, and like most children he has his own, private methods of establishing the sig- nificance of the random patterns before him. But David is also possessed of an incredible capacity for what is called 'the religious experience.' On several occasions he is aware of the presence of the living God, a God who shows himself some- times in blinding violence, sometimes in pro- found and subtle illuminations.

Another condition of David's life is that he is Jewish and therefore (he thinks) prey in some mysterious manner to persecution at the hands of the alien, mighty goyim. He meets a gentile boy, slightly older than himself, and in an attempt to propitiate this powerful being conducts him to the home of his girl cousins where the intruder indulges in some not-so-innocent sex games. An access of shame and horror over this misadven- ture propels David towards catastrophe.

There is a perpetual danger to the extraordinary sensibility that lies precisely in the difference

between what it sees and what everyone else sees.

When the sensibility is a child's it is naturally most exposed. David in a semi-hysterical fit

recounts to his rabbi a story compounded of his own experiences and fragments of information that he has moulded to conform to his own peculiar and highly imaginative vision. His story precipitates a crisis in his home that almost leads to his death, but that also leads to the first sight of his father's weakness, the first intimation that suffering and inadequacy are also the properties of those who appear invulnerable.

I know of no book that goes to the heart of New York as this does. Not, thank God, the New York of Truman Capote or Thomas Wolfe, but

the dark, narrow slum streets that imprison most of the city's children, or at any rate used to. The smells and most especially the sounds are set

down with loving accuracy, for Mr. Roth is not writing the usual dribble about the cruel lives of the underprivileged immigrants. There is, of course, no escape from the harshness and the brutality, but there are moments of joyous soli- tude, and for these Mr. Roth's prose becomes an instrument of great beauty.

The immense heavens of July, the burnished, the shining fathom upon fathom. Too pure the zenith was, too pure for the flawed and flinching eye; the eye sowed it with linty darkness, sowed it with spores and ripples of shadow drifting. . . . And to the west, the blinding whorl of the sun, the disc and trumpet, triple-trumpet blaring light. . . . And about were rooftops, tarred and red and sunlit and red, rooftops to the scarred horizon.

This extract is proof more sufficient than all commentary that Call It Sleep is one of the best novels to have been published in many years.

The Incomparable Atuk is not so much a novel as a collection of elongated slapstick sketches that are more or less adroitly tied together. The star of the production is Atuk, a poet from Baffin Bay with a robber-baron's eye for the main chance. He becomes the king of the Eskimo art game, a racket that is apparently as profitable as selling African masks in the Rue de Seine. In his home Atuk is served by Eskimo coolie-labour, and in the white man's world he is surrounded by as appalling a group of nudniks as were ever assembled on a television panel show. A crusad- ing lady reporter, an illiterate drama critic, a nymphomaniac girl athlete, a transvestite police- man and a young account executive are only a few of the many repulsive characters who light Atuk's road to fame and loot. There is a good deal of very funny play on reverse racism; minor- ities and majorities receive equal shares of ridicule, for Mr. Richter is evidently aware that tolerance and intolerance come to much the same thing. Some of Mr. Richler's scenes are a bit too laboured and/or obvious to carry the joke, and some of his characters come out of Central Cast- ing, but when he hits he hits hard; the scene of Atuk's first attempt at conversion to Judaism is alone worth the price of admission.

Breavman, the hero of Mr. Cohen's book, is `that sort of person/ Who wanders about an- nouncing his sex/As if he had just discovered it.'

His favourite game is supposed to be making

love, but in a burst of purely gratuitous self- analysis he declares to one of his lady-loves that he prefers self-abuse to fair women, and opines that this is because he is a `creative person.' To prove this last assertion Mr. Cohen has inserted

in the text a number of poems purportedly by Breavman but really by Mr. Cohen. If I were Breavman I should feel insulted, but I am not Breavman, and I am grateful.