Review: Bernard Malamud’s Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s; and Novels and Stories of the 1960s

Review: Bernard Malamud


712 pp. 978 1 5953 292 0



916 pp. 978 1 59853 293 7

Edited by Philip Davis

Library of America. $35 each.


“Bellow gets Nobel Prize, I win $24.25 in poker,” wrote Bernard Malamud in a 1976 notebook entry. Along with Philip Roth, who was a generation younger, Bellow and Malamud were linked in the public mind as the reigning triumvirate of Jewish American writing. Bellow dubbed them Hart, Schaffner, and Marx, stalwarts of the old rag trade, not doubting for a moment that he was Hart, primus inter pares. Malamud’s reaction to Bellow’s crowning moment was at once envious, wistful, and sarcastic (at his own expense), ruefully acknowledging his position as distant second fiddle to his world-conquering friend and rival. It casts him not as luckless, like many of his characters, but as small beer, wresting tiny victories from a landscape of failure and defeat. In The Ghost Writer, Roth’s spiky tribute to his two elders, Malamud figures as the consummate craftsman worshiping at the altar of Art. “I turn sentences around. That’s my life,” he says. By contrast, a writer named Abravanel, loosely modeled on Bellow lives, loves, and writes in a whirlwind of ego and passion.

This narrow compass with its monastic devotion to craft helps explain why Malamud’s work fell out of favor even before his death in 1986. Bellow’s sentences, as full of surprises as Malamud’s, feel buoyant and spontaneous by comparison, not so painstakingly sculpted. With The Adventures of Augie March Bellow’s work turned picaresque, more closely to the spoken language, while Malamud’s style grew ever more tightly knit, even biblically spare. Malamud devised Yiddish-inflected dialogue, poetic rather than realistic, and turned his short stories into taut moral fables reminiscent of Hawthorne and Kafka. When the Beat movement and the 1960s cracked American culture open, exalting spontaneity, movement, and flow, Bellow was already there, much as he disliked the carnival unfolding all around him. Herzog’s frantic energy, wild letters, and brooding interior monologue, rolling along as if by free association, mark him as a quintessential sixties character.

Though he could hardly relax his iron control over his material, Malamud moved haltingly in the same direction. With his half-satirical academic novel, A New Life (1961), his work became more expansive, and in The Fixer (1966), his bestselling account of an anti-Semitic blood libel in Czarist Russia, he took on history and politics as well. But conventional forms of realistic narration, however finely executed, deprived him of the stark power we feel everywhere in his short fiction and in the one novel, The Assistant (1957), that is so intricately meshed that it seems close to the stories. Malamud’s deeply felt evocation of the travail of a failing grocer in a poor New York neighborhood deploys wrenching realistic detail to build up a moral allegory. Though much disguised, this is Malamud’s most autobiographical novel, based on his father’s difficult life and his own need to break away from it. It may remind us of thirties stories about poor ghetto Jews but there’s nothing of the protest novel about it, no sense of the documentary or the native informant, and certainly no nostalgia for the old neighborhood. Morris Bober’s story is vaguely located, claustral, its argument less social than metaphysical. In poor health, working interminable hours, barely getting by, he is the Good Man in a world stacked against him. Here luck falls only to the unworthy. Yet Morris is also an emblem of a generation, those for whom the vaunted American dream has failed – toiling immigrants stuck in marginal lives with little reward. “He had hoped for much in America and got little,” buried alive in his “bloodsucking store.”

Malamud’s warm feeling for luckless characters, doomed to struggle and fail, has looked different in recent years as we learned more about his own life. Whether out of shame at his origins or a faith in the autonomy of art, probably both, Malamud was fiercely protective of his privacy, insisting that only the work should matter, not the writer. He lifted the curtain only slightly toward the end in an autobiographical lecture, “Long Work, Short Life.” But the 2006 memoir by his daughter, Janna Malamud Smith, My Father Is a Book (reviewed in these pages on May 12, 2006), and the authorized biography by Philip Davis (2007) told a more revealing story of early years dogged by disappointment and misfortune. His father, the grocer, could barely support the family and later developed heart disease. His mother, mentally ill, tried to commit suicide when he was thirteen; she died in an institution two years later. Malamud’s younger brother showed signs of schizophrenia during and after the war, was hospitalized following a breakdown, and proved barely able to live on his own until his early death. Malamud himself held down badly paying jobs through his twenties and early thirties while trying, with little luck, to launch himself as a writer. He secured an agent for his first novel, apparently a grim affair, but no publisher was interested and he eventually burned the manuscript. His affinity for people awash in a sea of troubles was no literary trope but grounded in experience.

Malamud’s escape came in 1949 when he left his father, brother, and stepmother behind in Brooklyn and landed a job teaching composition at Oregon State College. This may have doomed the family, where he was the only stable figure, but it allowed him to distance himself from their tragedy, whatever the burden of guilt. “I want a larger and better life,” says Helen, the grocer’s daughter, in The Assistant. “I want the return of my possibilities.” Soon afterward Malamud began selling his stories, many of them written with a rueful irony and dark humor reminiscent of Yiddish literature. In 1952, at the age of thirty-eight, he published The Natural, a baseball novel without a Jew in it, about the aborted career of a young player with an amazing gift, a kind of artist with a baseball bat. Years later, in his mid-thirties, the whiz kid gets a second chance, only to crash in the same way, done in partly by a vengeful woman. Malamud had once written a Master’s thesis on Thomas Hardy, a writer from similarly humble beginnings, whose ingrained pessimism also doomed his hapless characters.

Malamud’s stories and novels often begin in failure, move toward renewal, and end in a sudden, ambiguous frieze or tableau, a bolt of unexpected emotion. In the first sentence we learn that S. Levin, protagonist of A New Life, is “formerly a drunkard,” that Fidelman, the art student in “The Last Mohican,” is a “self-confessed failure as a painter,” that the life of Tommy Castelli, the storekeeper with a shrewish wife in “The Prison,” is “a screaming bore.” Each seems nailed to the cross of his unhappy life. Like many Americans they look to reinvent themselves, to make a fresh start, but Malamud, invariably blocking their way, proves to be the least Emersonian writer imaginable. Instead he explores the constraints that imprison them, the burden of the past that weighs on their lives. In The Fixer this fix is the literal prison in which Yakov Bok, a poor Jew living in a forbidden district of Kiev, is immured on trumped-up charges, shackled, and endlessly abused. Malamud’s terse style, honed by toilsome revision, is the rhetorical mirror of his characters’ want of freedom.

For Americans the bid for freedom often takes the form of stepping westward, striking out for the territory. This is the terrain of Malamud’s most loosely woven novel, A New Life. Based on Malamud’s own Oregon years, it’s partly the comedy of an urban Jew confronting the American heartland but also a more somber tale of a loser who grasps at a second chance. By the end, taking off for California with his married mistress and her children, Levin seems to have broken free, only to wonder whether he’s still trapped by his past, by himself, by his new commitments. “Am I in my right mind?” he broods.

His doubts were the bricks of the windowless prison he was in. . . . The prison was really himself, flawed edifice of failures, each locking up tight the one before. He had failed at his best plans, who could say he wouldn’t with her? Possibly he already had and would one day take off in the dark as she lay in bed. Unless the true prison was to stick it out chained to her ribs. He would look like a free man but whoever peered into his eyes would see the lines of a brick wall. (335-36)

Such a Kafkaesque note challenges the very notion of “a new life.” Earlier he had felt the drag of his “past-contaminated self,” recalling “in dirty detail each disgusting defeat from boyhood, his weakness, impoverishment, undiscipline – the limp self entangled in the fabric of a will-less life.” (145) Yet this is Malamud’s most freewheeling novel, the one book in which his protagonist is not brought to heel in the end, but actually seems to break through, succeed in love, and sail away.

Besides being hemmed in by fate and circumstance, his characters are isolated from any wider world. His best stories, such as “The Last Mohican” and “The Magic Barrel,” are two-character dramas that come through as intimate parables, not portraits of actual relationships. The protagonists are second-generation American Jews, young men of Malamud’s age, who have cut themselves off from the tribe without fully making their own way. Their constructed identities leave them stiff, unbending, above all deficient in compassion, the cardinal sin in Malamud’s world. The colorful Old World characters who serve as their foils – the refugee Susskind in “The Last Mohican,” the marriage broker Salzman in “The Magic Barrel” – expose their bland spiritual desolation. Exotic yet somehow authentic, living by their wits, these magical figures highlight the losses Malamud’s young men have suffered in their acculturation, the bleached-out personalities they’ve taken on. “The words were there but the spirit was missing,” says Susskind of Fidelman’s manuscript on Giotto, which he has filched and burned. In “The Lady of the Lake,” Henry Levin has assumed the name of Freeman to free himself of the millstone of being Jewish, only to be rebuffed by an Italian woman, a Holocaust survivor, herself disguised, who turns out to be a Jew. “I can’t marry you,” she tells him. “My past is meaningful to me. I treasure what I suffered for.”

Leo Finkle, the rabbinical student in “The Magic Barrel,” denies himself not as a Jew but as a flesh-and-blood creature, turning to a matchmaker where he himself has failed. Pallid, loveless, lacking physical confidence, he finds (like Fidelman) that he lacks a spiritual vocation as well. In language of biblical simplicity, he discovers that “he had lived without knowledge of himself.” Seeing nothing but pathos in the marriageable women proposed by the canny Salzman, he’s drawn to the man’s own daughter, “my baby, my Stella, she should burn in hell,” a fallen women yet one whose “eyes – clearly her father’s – were filled with desperate innocence.” As they prepare to meet, “he pictured, in her, his own redemption,” while her father, around the corner, “chanted prayers for the dead.” This daringly composed scene shows Malamud at his best, in a reversal that highlights the writer’s his own tension between flesh and spirit, morality and desire.

More than most contemporary novelists, Malamud saw himself as an upright man, a moralist within a long ethical tradition. His empathy for human suffering shines through in all his work. It can grow excruciating in the interminable prison life of Yakov Bok in The Fixer, even in the prison-like ordeal of Morris Bober in The Assistant. (Morris “thought he had long ago touched bottom but now he knew there was none. I slaved my whole life for nothing, he thought.”) But Malamud’s own moral compass somehow co-existed with his unfettered libido, his categorical belief in remaining open to experience, wherever it led. On one hand he was a man chained to his desk, questioning at times (according to his wife) whether he had failed to live. Yet his affairs with students at Bennington College, where he taught, left his wife distressed and their marriage strained, though indissoluble. In Dubin’s Lives (1979) the contradiction impinged on his work; his protagonist is sleeping with a much younger woman while resenting his daughter’s affair with a man his own age. Too close to home, this was a book his family hoped he would not write. He himself had lived out this “quasi-incestuous symmetry,” according to Janna Malamud Smith in My Father Is a Book. Perhaps, she says, he wondered whether, as an artist, “he might be entitled to a polygamous life and a family that accommodated.”

Dubin’s Lives and other books of the 1970s and 80s are not as yet included in the handsome, well-conceived Library of America edition of Malamud’s work, which focuses on the earlier decades, no doubt to put his best foot forward. (The LOA took a similar tack with James Baldwin, whose later novels also showed a marked decline.) The first volume contains Malamud’s novels and stories of the 1940s and 50s, including stories unpublished or uncollected in his own lifetime; the second reprints the novels and stories of the 1960s. One chronological collection of all his stories might have served the author better but is already available from his own publisher. Though it obscures how he himself arranged the stories in separate volumes, this centenary edition does full justice to a writer whose status in the canon had come to seem precarious. It’s particularly valuable to see how his best work, most notably The Assistant, emerged from the chrysalis of his early stories, written when he himself might have felt like the failures and misfits he often wrote about. Several stories are set in the kind of small grocery or candy store that made his father’s life a misery; others focus on the apprentice figure whose misdeeds, regrets, and redemption would take The Assistant to another level.

The uncollected stories, though heartfelt, are drab, anecdotal pieces of slice-of-life realism. The Assistant and the stories first brought together in The Magic Barrel (1958) are instead, if not magical, then transformative – fully imagined and infused with meaning. Malamud often expressed his dislike of straight autobiographical fiction. “I prefer to invent a world rather than remember it,” he once said. “Memory alone cannot in itself provide the writer with a work of art.” Like Hawthorne and Kafka, like I. B. Singer, he avoided psychological analysis, instead sought an alchemy that would bring his stories closer to folklore and heighten their import. His trickster figures like Susskind and Salzman occupy a liminal zone as social outcasts and creatures of fantasy.

In a harsh but revealing review of The Assistant, which he never reprinted, Alfred Kazin described Malamud as a “fantasist of the ordinary” and a “poet of the desperately clownish,” preferring the book’s colorful, marginal figures, who seem to come from folklore, to the its weightier characters. But his real objection is to the book’s allegory, the way it universalizes its characters into archetypes: the long-suffering Jew, severe in his morality, heroic only in his endurance; the gentile assistant – drifter, liar, thief, rapist – who becomes his apprentice in suffering but also in stoical patience, in empathy and self-control, finally finding his own humanity in becoming a Jew. For all the riveting detail there’s something not quite real about either man and in what transpires between them. But their interaction is so deftly handled, the theme so powerful, that it sweeps us along. If the grocer’s story is relentless and depressing – “the years had eaten away his strength” – his assistant’s journey – a gradual awakening of conscience, a recovery of “the self he had secretly considered valuable” – is something that few modern writers could have brought off. After forcing himself on the grocer’s daughter, he comes to feel “a tender pity for her, mixed with shame for having made her pitiable.” By the end his inner travail and expiation have made him a different man.

The dynamic relationships that light up the stories and power The Assistant have little equivalent in Malamud’s longer novels, especially The Fixer, where he must fall back on research, on the real blood libel case (and memoir) on which the book is based, and on literary models like Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, Kafka’s Trial, and Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. It’s an arduous, impressive performance but the monotony and misery of Yakov Bok’s Job-like trials become as numbing to the reader as they are to the prisoner. From beginning to end he is little more than an arbitrary victim, powerless, a case study in irrational, ineradicable Jew hatred. Malamud himself expressed serious misgivings about the book; it won major awards and a wide readership.

Malamud’s most enduring work, like Singer’s, remains his short fiction, where he never stopped trying to do unexpected things. Besides “The Last Mohican” and “The Magic Barrel,” both wondrous, his shorter, tighter stories like “The Mourners” (which reminds me of Melville’s “Bartleby”), “The First Seven Years” (loosely based on Jacob’s courtship in Genesis), and “Take Pity” (set in a dim chamber of the afterlife) are all starkly effective. Later he wrote longer, more fleshed-out stories with political themes, including “The German Refugee,” based on tutoring he had done during the Depression, and “Man in the Drawer,” dealing with a banned Soviet writer trying publish abroad. “Not sufficient realist,” he’s been told. It thus becomes another tale of blockage, imprisonment. “I feel I am locked in drawer with my stories,” he says. “Now I must get out or I suffocate.” Malamud turned back to magical realism with “The Silver Crown,” about a wonder rabbi, yet also did something new with bare-bones fables like “Idiots First” and “The Jewbird,” so stripped down that they rival Beckett. At the end of his life he pointed in yet another direction with biographical stories about real figures like Virginia Woolf and Alma Mahler. First and last he wrote in swift, sharp strokes, without the least superfluous detail, testifying at once to the virtues of craft and the long reach of the moral imagination.

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