Bernard Malamud Essay - Malamud, Bernard (Vol. 8)

Malamud, Bernard (Vol. 8)

Malamud, Bernard 1914–

An American novelist and short story writer, Malamud employs his Jewish heritage to explore the themes of sin, suffering, and redemption. His style is characterized by the imaginative, mystical, and symbolic, and is reflective of his moral optimism. In 1959 Malamud won the National Book Award and in 1967 received his second National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

The Assistant, like Crime and Punishment, is a novel of guilt and expiation. The nature of both Frank Alpine's crime and his final redemption are of course different from Raskolnikov's, and it is in this difference that one of Malamud's major social criticisms can be discerned. For at the end of the novel, despite the fact that his crime is smaller and his attempt at expiation far more tangible than anything Raskolnikov achieves prior to confession, Frank Alpine is left very much alone, and in this isolation is embodied a condemnation of that society which has driven him to both crime and penitence. This is not to say that Malamud is writing a naturalistic or didactic novel, but simply that the internal struggles of his characters, like those of Dostoevsky's, are set in a clear social context, and that this context affects the nature of their ambivalent personal responses. (p. 90)

Along with the pattern of guilt and expiation, Malamud uses two major devices from Crime and Punishment in order to evoke a comparison with the earlier novel and some of the expectations which it raises. The first of these is a broadly-shaded character dualism, underlying the entire novel, but in the case of the hero gradually diminishing toward the end. And the second is the intense recognition of similarity between two characters, the sensing that one is in part an echo of the other. Both devices emerge out of a dualistic psychology, and assume a personality at war with itself, and they are each a part of the larger theme of the double. Explicit in this theme, which appears so often in Dostoevsky's work, is the notion. of the divided self, and the attraction of two characters who mirror a part of each other, and are therby drawn together as doubles. The dualism of the characters is thus manifested both internally and externally, and there is the sense of a self, partially aware of its own fragmentation, and seeking to resolve itself, to become whole again, through relationship with its double. As used by Dostoevsky, the double theme arouses and often fulfills expectations that a resolution of inner conflict will occur, that this resolution will emerge in part through recognition of one's double, and that this recognition, if based on morally valid qualities, will lead to affirmation of a transcendent unity that supersedes human conflict and fragmentation. As used by Malamud, however, only some of these expectations are fulfilled, and the disparity between expectation and reality creates the irony by which he can comment on the possibilities of relationship and the structures for redemption in our inconclusive world.

Although both Frank Alpine and Raskolnikov are similar in their dualism, Malamud intentionally makes Frank's crime less serious, his dualism less pronounced, and his desire for self-renunciation more extended in time, in order to make much more ironic the incompleteness of his resolution. (pp. 91-2)

Malamud apparently wants to make Frank seem less ethically alien all through the novel in order to emphasize the irony of his final social alienation. At the end of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is able to move into a socially meaningful religious structure and to renew his ties to a community of men. This is something that Frank is unable to do, and his failure is due less to his own faults than to the fact that his society embodies no clear moral structure and that Frank himself, by finding one which separates him from the social norm, simply transcends it. (p. 93)

By reducing Frank's ethical dualism in comparison to that of Raskolnikov, by showing Frank to be unsuccessfully drawn toward two fragments of what for Dostoevsky was a unified ethical pole, and by showing this fragmentation of personal love and social ethic in his other major characters, Malamud creates an irony that underlies his entire novel. The world of The Assistant is impersonal and competitive. Ethical commitment of the kind represented by Sonia's Christianity and Morris's Judaism is no longer a social but a personal alternative. Such commitment lacks context and expression in a society that is the antithesis of everything for which it stands. Because of competition, alienation, and the general disintegration of traditional social values, human relationships are virtually impossible. Where they exist at all, they are marked by fear and distrust rather than open acceptance. In such a society, self-definition is even more difficult than it was for Raskolnikov, and any definition that is achieved is likely to be an isolated one. Morris, Frank, and Helen have all been damaged by their world. Their patterns of ethical action and response to one another have become confused, and there is no clear redemption. There is only longing, partly fulfilled, and at the end an ironically hopeful conversion for the novel's self-renouncing hero. (p. 94)

[Morris is established] as the living embodiment of a self-renouncing ethic to which Frank himself can eventually adhere. The concept of reciprocal obligation expressed through the Law is of course antithetical to the competitive spirit manifested by society; and when Morris says that a Jew suffers for the Law he indicates the tragedy of his own position. By building his life around the Law, the grocer has cut himself off from a world that is scarcely reciprocal and relegated himself to a life of suffocating poverty. His own suffering has made him weary and somewhat bitter, and the resulting distrust makes him unable to sympathize with Frank at the very time when the assistant most requires his help. (p. 96)

The recognition which Frank and Helen feel is based on a mutual sense of loneliness and need for love, but the same tensions and dual responses that existed between Frank and Morris are evident here. Helen moves between attraction and distrust, and her inconsistency only arouses in Frank an unsatisfied hunger and a desperate need to force himself on her, which culminates in an impulsive rape. Throughout the novel, however, Frank is far more willing to give and compromise than is Helen, who cannot even free herself to the point of acceptance. As the embodiment of Frank's desired love, Helen is an inverted symbol; she appears as the broken mirror image of a disconnected world. (p. 97)

[In] Dostoevsky's novel, the heroine is marked by her almost intuitive sense of Raskolnikov's dualism, and a fidelity to him that is governed by trust and faith. In his reading of Dostoevsky, Frank has not as Helen wished become more like herself; he has been affected by the insights of the sympathetic prostitute and transcended those of the repressive grocer's daughter.

The difference between Sonia and Helen can be seen by their contrasting roles in the confessions which Raskolnikov and Frank are finally able to make. Helen does little to encourage Frank's final revelation of himself; in fact he is driven to it out of a desire to regain her understanding and show her that he has changed. Sonia, on the other hand, in the underworld context of prostitution which Raskolnikov finds so like his own crime, encourages him to confess by her very evidence of faith and compassion. Rather than wanting to draw her back to himself, he wants to become like her; that side of him which is compassionate is drawn towards her sympathy and piety. Frank's confession emerges out of a relationship that is already on the decline, already rather hopeless, while Raskolnikov's is the beginning of a close relationship and is filled with hope. (p. 99)

In contrast to Raskolnikov, Frank is unable to find love and ethical commitment at the end of his struggle. Helen's rejection of his two last attempts to reach her has left him very much alone. Despite brief and intermittent suggestions in the last few pages that Helen, even after the confession, may be reconsidering her position, Malamud gives us nothing conclusive and purposely leaves the impression that the relationship remains an unsolved and perhaps insoluble problem. It is not for Frank and Helen to experience such an encompassing sense of each other as Raskolnikov and Sonia feel at the end of Dostoevsky's novel…. [Frank's] growing understanding of Morris's ethic of the need to suffer, as well as the perceptiveness that he has gained through figures such as Raskolnikov and Sonia, have allowed him to confront his dualism, to assume the grocer's role, and to embody through this role a commitment that he cannot find in human love. (p. 101)

Frank … had been rent by distrust and a sense of alienation, but he was willing to risk commitment, to open himself to a degree greater than either of his partial doubles, and thereby he was able to move beyond them to the self-definition that marks him in the end.

It is in the disparity between the loneliness of this final definition and the expectations aroused through the Dostoevskian devices of dualism and recognition, as well as through the implied comparison with Crime and Punishment itself, that the novel's irony lies. And through this irony, through the concluding sense of Frank's isolation and definition, Malamud is able to make a telling comment on the difficulties of individual regeneration in a competitive and fragmented world. (p. 102)

Norman Leer, "The Double Theme in Malamud's 'Assistant': Dostoevsky with Irony," in MOSAIC IV/3 (copyright © 1971 by the University of Manitoba Press), Spring, 1971, pp. 89-102.

Malamud offers us … [in his obsessive moral fables] narrow, suffering Jews, unwilling victims of a heritage they thought to reject. In the short story "The German Refugee," for example, the title character flees to America from Nazi Germany and his non-Jewish wife, and then commits suicide after learning that she embraced Judaism and was executed in the gas chambers. Malamud's characters are old, even the young ones—old and tired and bitter and complaining about a world set against them by definition and which asks them to endure more of the same and keep on shrugging benignly. And, surprisingly, mostly they do, and achieve in the process a crummy but miraculous dignity which allows life to go on going on and meaning to remain a potential. (p. 52)

Alan Warren Friedman, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1972, by Alan Warren Friedman), Vol. VIII, No. I, Winter, 1972.

[One wonders] why so accomplished, so esteemed and ultimately successful a writer as Malamud … should concern himself to such a large extent with struggling, frustrated novelists or failed artists. Typical of the former was the novelist rather too obviously named Lesser, dreaming of "writing a small masterpiece though not too small" in The Tenants. No doubt recognition came to Malamud comparatively late, his first novel, The Natural, appearing when he was in his late thirties. Moreover, in twenty years or so he has published five novels and four collections of short stories (some of these stories, dealing with the tiresome failed painter, Fidelman, featuring more than once), an output which an ambitious writer might consider small. One guesses extreme care, intense self-scrutiny and ready elimination.

Underlying Malamud's work is the dilemma of the conflicting claims of art and life which preoccupied the writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as much as the question of truth and illusion bothered the artists of the High Renaissance and the Baroque. The conflict was amusingly summarized in the epigraph to Pictures of Fidelman:

          The intellect of man is forced to choose
          Perfection of the life, or of the work….
          W. B. Yeats.
          Both. A. Fidelman.

There seems little doubt that Fidelman here presents one of the bizarre masks of the author himself who, if correctly reported, once told an interviewer somewhat awkwardly, "I want my books to contain a feeling for humanity and to be a work of art."…

So passionate and fearful a concern with art—already adumbrated years ago in "The Girl of My Dreams", where long before The Tenants a manuscript is awesomely burned in a (non-magic) "barrel", an Ibsenite image of the death of a spiritual child or self that haunts Malamud's imagination—may surprise those who tend to think of him largely in terms of what a critic once called his "rather unconvincing fiddling-on-the-roof pastiche".

Paradoxically, however, it is when Malamud is most vigorously fiddling on the roof amid lit candles that he seems (to the present non-American outsider at least) to be at his most American. His magic barrels and silver crowns, whatever their scale, firmly belong in the moral, allegorical realm of scarlet letters, white whales and golden bowls. "The Silver Crown", with its wonder rabbi, tells us less perhaps about any specifically Jewish predicament than about the universal opposition of spirituality and materialism. It also turns upon an unsatisfactory father-and-son relationship, that theme beloved of American writers which is to be found in "The Letter", in "My Son the Murderer" and, by extension, in "Notes from a Lady at a Dinner Party" with its betrayal of the father-figure or father-substitute. (p. 35)

On the one hand he conveys distaste for self-pitying Jewish exploiters (the self-pity is a nice touch); on the other he exalts Jewish spirituality while feeling doubts about certain manifestations of it. The Dostoevskian symbolic doubles in his fiction can be seen as representing two contradictory inner voices. The relentless pursuit of one figure by another would imply the secret urge to escape and remain uninvolved as well as the call (through a sense of guilt) to the conscious and willed acceptance of responsibility….

[Beneath] much of Malamud's earlier fiction there lay his personal experience of the depression during the inter-war years and the intractable fact of Nazi genocide. But now he tends to speak of social and racial injustice in a broader sense. (p. 36)

Renee Winegarten, "Malamud's Hats," in The Jewish Quarterly (© The Jewish Quarterly 1974), Autumn, 1974, pp. 35-7.

Even when Malamud writes a book about baseball, The Natural, it is not baseball as it is played in Yankee Stadium but a wild, wacky game, where a player who is instructed to knock the cover off the ball promptly steps up to the plate and does just that: the batter swings and the inner core of the ball goes looping out to center field, where the confused fielder commences to tangle himself in the unwinding sphere; then the shortstop runs out and, with his teeth, bites the center fielder and the ball free from one another. Though The Natural is not Malamud's most successful book, it is at any rate our introduction to his world, which is by no means a replica of our own. There are really things called baseball players, of course, and really things called Jews, but there much of the similarity ends. The Jews of The Magic Barrel and the Jews of The Assistant are not the Jews of New York City or Chicago. They are Malamud's invention, a metaphor of sorts to stand for certain possibilities and promises, and I am further inclined to believe this when I read the statement attributed to Malamud which goes, "All men are Jews." In fact, we know this is not so; even the men who are Jews aren't sure they're Jews. But Malamud, as a writer of fiction, has not shown specific interest in the anxieties and dilemmas and corruptions of the contemporary American Jew, the Jew we think of as characteristic of our times. Rather, his people live in a timeless depression and a placeless Lower East Side; their society is not affluent, their predicament is not cultural. I am not saying—one cannot, of Malamud—that he has spurned life or an examination of its difficulties. What it is to be human, and to be humane, is his deepest concern. What I do mean to point out is that he does not—or has not yet—found the contemporary scene a proper or sufficient backdrop for his tales of heartlessness and heartache, of suffering and regeneration. (pp. 127-28)

Philip Roth, in his Reading Myself and Others (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1961, 1963, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by Philip Roth), Farrar, Straus, 1975.

Seen against the crumbling of Yiddish culture, Bernard Malamud is the most enigmatic, even mysterious, of American Jewish writers. In his best stories he writes as if, through some miraculous salvage, the ethos of Yiddish has become an intimate possession. At such moments, something happens in his stories that one cannot pretend to explain: Malamud not only draws upon Jewish figures and themes, not only evokes traditional Jewish sentiments regarding humaneness and suffering, he also writes what can only be called the Yiddish story in English. There is something uncanny about this, leading to a greater respect for the idea of transmigration of souls. Malamud can grind a character to earth; but in his best stories there is a hard and bitter kind of pity, a wry affection preferable to the wet gestures of love, which makes him seem a grandson—but a grandson without visible line of descent—of the best Yiddish writers. For, as far as one can tell, he does not work out of an assured personal relation to Yiddish culture; he seems to have reached out for the idea of it rather than to possess its substance. Perhaps the moral is that for those who wait, the magic barrel will be refilled.

In his failures, the connection with the past is not made, and instead there is a willed, inflated Jewishness, a sentimentalizing of Yiddish sentimentalism, which he takes out of its homely setting and endows with a false vibrato. For this Malamud, Jewishness seems a program rather than an experience.

But a story like "The Magic Barrel" seems in its characters, its ethos, its unembarrassed yielding to melodrama, like an extended finger of Yiddish literature moving not from left to right but from right to left. Here the question of influence becomes acutely provoking, and one wonders whether Malamud knew, or how precisely he knew, that he was employing standard materials of Yiddish culture. The matchmaker, or shadkhn, is a stereotypic Yiddish figure: slightly comic, slightly sad, at the edge of destitution. (p. 595)

Did Malamud know of such materials? Had they reached him directly, or, what seems more likely, did he hear conversations at home about a newspaper read, a play attended? Perhaps there was a direct influence, the result of inner knowledge, but it seems more likely that such figures and motifs of the past, lost for a time in the silence of cultural repression, came to him (as Yiddish critics like to say) "through the air," particles of culture floating about, still charged with meaning and potent enough to be reshaped in American fiction. (p. 596)

Irving Howe, in his World of Our Fathers (© 1976 by Irving Howe; reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Harcourt, 1976.