Malamud, Bernard (Vol. 11)
Malamud, Bernard 1914–
Malamud is an American novelist and short story writer. Thematically, his fiction centers around the concerns of the Jew in modern America. Malamud's work is distinguished by a spare prose style and dialogue flavored with traditional Yiddish humor and dialect. Through his suffering heroes, who are drawn with compassion, Malamud explores the process of redemption through suffering, reaffirming the triumph of the human spirit. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
To understand Malamud, one must read closely his short stories…. Most of them portray poverty-stricken people living in New York or Brooklyn, and Malamud writes of misery with calm poignancy. (p. 218)
What Malamud is always asking himself is how people live with great misery. Some of his people are crushed by it, but most survive, through hope or pride or sheer fortitude. The best, moreover, learn to be compassionate, and compassion is, for Malamud, the first of the virtues. (p. 219)
As almost always with a novel based on a myth or a legend, the reader [of The Natural] is distracted by the effort he has to make to follow the author's intentions, but if the book is not completely successful, there is much to be said for it.
There is no difficulty in evaluating Malamud's second novel, The Assistant (1957); it is one of the strongest and finest novels of recent years. The method is not at all that of The Natural; Malamud relies wholly on a solid, highly selective realism. In his first chapter he makes us see Morris Bober, a poor Jewish grocer, sixty years of age, who watches his business dwindle to the vanishing point. Yet he is not crushed by his sufferings, and he is capable of compassion towards those poorer than himself. He is, we see, a good man, but an unlucky one…. (p. 220)
Frank Alpine, when he becomes a Jew, is not only accepting suffering but also...
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In 1958, in his celebrated collection The Magic Barrel, Malamud published a short story about a Negro and a Jew. It was called "Angel Levine," and it contrived for Manischevitz, a Job-like figure who has "suffered many reverses and indignities," the promise of redemption through a magical black man [the angel, Levine]. (p. 80)
[The] narrative is altogether offhand about the question of the angel's identity: Levine is perfectly matter-of-fact about it, there is nothing at all miraculous in the idea that a black man can also be a Jew. In a tale about the supernatural, this is what emerges as the "natural" element—as natural-feeling as Manischevitz's misfortunes and his poverty. Black misfortune and poverty have a different resonance—Manischevitz's wanderings through Harlem explain the differences—but, like the Jews' lot, the blacks' has an everyday closeness, for Manischevitz the smell of a familiar fate. To him—and to Malamud at the end of the fifties—that Black and Jew are one is no miracle.
A little more than a decade later, with the publication of The Tenants, the proposition seems hollow. Again Malamud offers a parable of black and Jew culminating in fantasy, but now the fantasy has Jew slashing with ax, black with saber, destroying one another in a passionate bloodletting. The novel's last paragraph is eerily liturgical—the word "mercy" repeated one hundred and fifty times, and once in...
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Sheldon Norman Grebstein
Malamud best represents the phenomenon of the Jewish Movement; not only is he one of its founders and major practitioners, he is probably its best single exemplar. In Malamud's work we most clearly perceive just those characteristics which define the entire Movement.
First and foremost, there is the theme of meaningful suffering, which in Malamud also implies the quest for moral resolution and self-realization. But the theme of suffering cannot alone sustain either a movement or a writer's career. We can take just so much bad news. Malamud's writing, like that of the Movement at large, is also richly comic. Paradoxically, the comedy is at once a mode of expression of the suffering and a way of easing it. With the Jew humor is an escape valve for dangerous pressures, a manner of letting out things too painful to be kept in. (Could it be that one of the reasons we have able black writers like Ellison and Baldwin but not a Black Movement, is the prevailing solemnity of these writers?) Finally, the Jewish writer speaks in a distinctive literary voice. With Bellow and at about the same time, Malamud invented and perfected a fresh literary idiom, a "Jewish style." This style consists of much more than the importation of Yiddish words and phrases into English, or a mere broken Yiddish-English dialect, long the staple of popular works presenting lovably silly Jewish stereotypes (Abie's Irish Rose). Rather, it is a significant...
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A New Life deserves to survive on its own terms, its climate of nineteenth-century American myth and its rambling but thematically integrated nineteenth-century structure. Malamud's central archetype here is not, as some critics have insisted, the imported Fisher King of wasteland literature, but that native hybrid, the American Adam. Malamud's allusions to Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville establish Seymore Levin's basic transcendental ideal and its qualifications and revisions. Levin's own allusions in most cases, for Levin abuses literary contexts and adopts literary roles to rationalize his failures, allowing himself to be trapped in his own comfortable analogies. But these analogies also point the way to Levin's liberation through action as he learns to control his own fate throughout the novel's two major movements, the purification of impure academics and the legitimacy of illegitimate love. (p. 115)
When Levin first arrives at Cascadia College in Easchester as a new instructor in English, he is naive about geography, assuming as the founders of America often assumed that his new Western surroundings will initiate a new life. Like Roy Hobbs in Malamud's first novel, The Natural, Levin believes there is magic in the crossing of space. Dr. Fabrikant, Levin's first idol on campus, tells of the hardships of early explorers searching for the "mythical Northwest Passage," and Levin, missing Fabrikant's irony, responds...
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David R. Mesher
In Bernard Malamud's writing,… Jewishness is more of a literary device than it is a religious, historical, or sociological representation. Malamud's use of Jewish characters and subjects is metaphorical and idiosyncratic, and it must be understood within the context of his fiction without recourse to external sources and familiar assumptions; further, Malamud's metaphor of Jewishness has changed considerably since his first stories were published, and being Jewish in a recent novel like The Tenants no longer means what it did in an earlier work like The Assistant…. [The] theme of Jewishness is of central importance in many of Malamud's stories and in all of his novels after the first, The Natural (1952)….
Many of Malamud's early works are predicated upon the protagonist's necessary acceptance of his Jewish identity. This is perhaps most readily seen in A New Life (1961), a novel otherwise devoid of Jewish content, where the acceptance by S. Levin, who ignores his origins throughout the work, is only ironically suggested. (p. 18)
Jewishness, in A New Life and "The Lady of the Lake," is a matter of identity; it forms an integral part of the individual's personality, and its denial, which is a type of self-denial, is either futile or disastrous. In The Assistant (1957), the novel which preceded A New Life, the theme of Jewishness is similar but more developed and...
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