Malamud, Bernard (Vol. 18)
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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Marcia B. Gealy
[The aspects of culture] which characterize Malamud's best writing, particularly some of his finest short stories, I would identify with Hasidism, a Jewish religious movement founded shortly before the middle of the eighteenth century by the East European saint and mystic, Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov. Some of the major teachings of Hasidism, a transformation or reinterpretation of an older Jewish mysticism which made it accessible to the masses of the people, are the need to journey inward to achieve salvation, the importance of identification with a holy man or teacher, the primacy of love, and the reality of evil. In addition, the Hasidic belief in the sanctity of the tale, the notion that a story could have potency to effect change, led to the development of a vast and rich folklore. Hasidic tales permeated the culture of the East European shtetl until its destruction in the twentieth century and directly, or indirectly, have influenced the thinking of East European Jews and their descendants. If Malamud recalls for us the humor of Sholom Aleichem and, more significantly, the irony of I. L. Peretz, if his tales infuse us with the same sense of mystery that we find in the recreated Hasidic tales of Martin Buber, it is because he shares a common past with all of these writers.
Among his finest short stories, there are five which particularly illustrate Malamud's use of Hasidic themes: "The Last Mohican," "The Magic...
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Bernard Malamud's risk-taking new novel ["Dubin's Lives"] moves into areas not usually associated with his art. In many of the famous short stories, in such novels as "The Assistant," "The Fixer" and "The Tenants," Malamud has depicted Jewish characters in confrontation with their neighbors—Italian-Americans, Czarist Russians, blacks and other goyim; he has presented the Jew as victim, as sufferer and as purveyor of special moral insights painfully wrung from experience. Often his stories have seemed like fables; often he has used, in both narrative and dialogue, a voice that echoes, in its rhythms and locutions, the Yiddish-speaking past.
"Dubin's Lives," by contrast, is only peripherally concerned with Jewishness, though its protagonist, William Dubin, was born into a poor Jewish family…. At 56, Dubin is a successful freelance biographer who lives comfortably in a small town, Center Campobello, on the New York-Vermont border. (p. 1)
Throughout, Dubin's relationship to his work is a major concern. His writing, which is central to his life, even to the point of shutting out his wife and children, has its own rhythms, rising and falling in ways that do not consistently reflect what is happening in other areas of his experience. The "lives" that he has written shed their influence over the course of his own life and his understanding of it; Thoreau, for instance, has educated Dubin's eye for nature…. The...
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Bernard Malamud sometimes gets obscured by flashier American writers…. But he writes superbly most of the time, at least as well as any living American writer of fiction, and time will pardon him for violating the categories.
For he does do that, and reviewers, whose categories they largely are, are often uncomfortable with him because of it. His narratives, which we are told ought to be shapely and lucid, are often lopsided and indistinct. He can be abrupt, impatient with the demands of plot without being willing to scuttle plot altogether; so he'll take shortcuts. His situations sometimes fail wholly to convince on sociological grounds—The Tenants is an example—and his tense, loving, troubled appreciation of life, with its concomitant of occasional desperation, can lead him to sentimentality, an excess of willing; The Fixer suffers from that. In short, he isn't a tidy novelist, but loose and erratic, someone struggling.
But how well he writes! His great gift is that of using language so as to bring about the narrowest possible spaces among experience, thought and utterance, to come as close as one can to eliminating the discrepancy between experience and its recovery as literature. This near unity of instrument and object results in a quiet eloquence, a nearly inaudible one at times, since to be determinedly eloquent is to weight language toward a celebration of itself, with a consequent...
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Pearl K. Bell
In such early work of Bernard Malamud as the tales collected in The Magic Barrel and the penitential drama of The Assistant, the painful, intractable truths of immigrant Jewish life in America exist as a permanent reproach to the younger generation of writers like Roth, and … Heller, who turned that poverty and suffering, even the Yiddish language itself, into a manic comedy of derision and cultural denial. Malamud rendered the immigrant world with such exactness and honesty that it acquired the fixed quality of fable.
Though Malamud has never stopped writing about Jews (only his first novel, The Natural, did without them almost entirely), quite early in his career the defeated grocers and shoemakers were succeeded by characters drawn from his adult life rather than from his Brooklyn childhood: the English teacher Levin in A New Life; the art historian and painter in Pictures of Fidelman; the novelist Harry Lesser in The Tenants; and the biographer in his new novel, Dubin's Lives. All of them grew up in slums, but by the time we meet them they have all, for better and for worse, left their parents' world behind.
In Malamud's earlier novels, what binds Levin and Fidelman and Lesser together like brothers is that they are inextricably enmeshed with their past, which does not "haunt" them in any sentimentally nostalgic sense but is part of what they are and always...
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Bernard Malamud has been a patient student of life's mysteries, a steady worker in the craft of fiction and, of course, one of our major writers, but he is hardly a novelist of large canvas or big risk. His protagonists begin their respective sufferings in medias res, generally in settings (e.g. rundown grocery stores, Czarist prisons, jerkwater colleges) that reinforce the entombing point. Not since the heyday of the Russian novel have there been such endlessly dragged-out winters, especially when his luckless characters fall in love. At its most reductive, the point of all the agony and ersatz Yiddish seems to be that sensitive men are forced to endure the world's pain and, therefore, that all sensitive men are also sensitive Jews. It has proved to be a very popular, but very dubious, equation.
Dubin's Lives is made of headier stuff, at once out to show off Malamud's hard-earned wisdom and to reveal how perplexed about it all he still remains. It is also a novel out to beat Saul Bellow at his own game. By that I mean, Bellow's protagonists have a way of convincing us that they have the raw brain power necessary to get our social engine on the right track. (p. 108)
Let me hasten to add, however, that some things about Malamud's latest novel look very familiar indeed: A protracted winter follows Dubin's infatuation with the twenty-two-year-old Fanny Bick like the Shakespearian night the day. In...
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"As a writer, I want uncertainty. It's part of life. I want something the reader is uncertain about," Malamud said in a 1966 interview. This he has certainly achieved [in Dubin's Lives]. Though Dubin, to a large extent Kitty, and to a lesser one Fanny, are rich and appealing characters, much remains puzzling about the novel. More than any of Malamud's previous works, it is "literary," a bookish book: not only Thoreau and Lawrence are evoked, but also Keats, Montaigne, Swift, Fitzgerald, Hardy (subject of Malamud's own master's thesis). There are strong suggestions of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," that classic tale of an older man's pursuit of youth. Like Mann's hero, Dubin appears in Venice in gaudy clothes, thinks of dyeing his hair, is haunted by an elusive redhead, is deceived by a rascally gondolier. Other signs and portents abound: Fanny's half-eaten fruit (pear or peach, never apple); Kitty's first husband, Nathanael (Willis, not West, despite the identical off-beat spelling of the first names); daughter Maud's experiences, so similar to Fanny's, that, were her character more fully developed, she could be seen as Fanny's double; Dubin's later work with Maud on Anna Freud, daughter of a famous father.
What does it all add up to? During Dubin's massive depression, Kitty theorizes about the sources of his writer's block: "You hit the jackpot with H. D. Thoreau. You want, naturally, to repeat with D. H. Lawrence. It's...
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