Wallant, Edward Lewis (Vol. 10)
Wallant, Edward Lewis 1926–1962
Wallant was a Jewish-American novelist and short story writer. Central to the four novels written during his brief career is the theme of suffering and redemption. Wallant believed it was the artist's role to see clearly and define life for a myopic public. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Wallant's novels] are dark visions of disquieting, often apocalyptic seriousness, haunting, desolating books about the improbable possibilities of redemption in a corrosively malignant world. Each of Wallant's books is a kind of pilgrim's progress about those blighted innocents, who damned to disbelief, keep vigil at the gate.
Wallant's prose, at its best, seems to brush across the nerve of our feelings in fragile and uncanny ways. Even in his first novel, The Human Season, the least successful of the four, there are moments of rending insight, of agonizing perception of character. (p. 138)
Like all of Wallant's heroes, Sol [the title character of The Pawnbroker], in a delicate truce with survival, has of necessity shut himself off from his feelings. He is "sick and dying yet nowhere near the ease of physical death." The novel is about the Pawnbroker's slow return from the carrion sleep of numbness to the agonized awareness of pain, grief, and love—the torturous responsibilities of feeling.
If the Harlem pawnshop is our hell world in microcosm, Sol (the sun) functions in his realm as a kind of merciless god. In extension, then, Sol's grinding despair suggests the hopelessness, the death of possibility of the world; as a consequence, the problem of the Pawnbroker's survival has cosmic implications—the survival of the world, of human life itself, is at issue…. [The] pawnshop has...
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Thomas M. Lorch
[Wallant] pushes aside the glittering surfaces of modern society to write of the terror, suffering and mystery buried within. [The Human Season] describes one man's confrontation with the fact of death; although it states Wallant's major theme, the dilemma of the individual faced with the problem of evil, it contains little suggestion of the expanded historical and social dimensions created in the later three novels. A tragic chorus of the defeated, frustrated, helpless outcasts of society frequents Sol Nazerman's pawnshop, enters the hospital in Children at the Gate, and inhabits Norman Moonbloom's tenements. These unfortunates poignantly dramatize the ills of contemporary society, yet in the novels they function more as indices of the hero's development and his state of mind; the social and historical context derives its importance from its profound effects upon Wallant's primary interest, the individual's inner life.
The central character, therefore, dominates each of Wallant's novels; in only one, The Children at the Gate, does a second figure of comparable significance emerge. Before the action begins, Wallant's heroes have attempted to deaden themselves to their world in order to escape the evils dramatized by the chorus of outcasts. Yet the fact that they have been hurt indicates that within their protective shells they feel deeply, care about others, and long to develop their humanity and to love. They...
(The entire section is 3332 words.)
The human body in Wallant's world is a scandal. Mankind is portrayed in pain and ugliness, in the humiliation of a body that sweats, smells, runs over from glands out of control, ages and finally decays. The human situation exceeds the barrenness of Eliot's wasteland; it is a torture chamber, a garbage dump where people are buried alive and thrash around until they can no longer move. They wait for the peace of oblivion. "'Life is an avalanche—the little stones only bruise you, the big ones kill you. What's the sense getting excited?'" (p. 88)
Wallant's novels tend to maximize the vulnerability of the flesh, which is soft. It bruises, it tears, it can be crushed. Most of all, flesh can be pierced through by so many cutting edges…. Throughout Wallant the flesh is pierced, whether in punishment, like Sol ramming his hand through the spiked paperweight, or in celebration, like the tender anniversary intercourse between Berman and his wife, the woman who had been so reluctant to be entered on their wedding night.
Sex in the form of perversion, a love that is so desperate it becomes distorted, becomes another well of pain. Lebedov in The Children at the Gate molested the little girl recovering from her operation, and George Smith in The Pawnbroker "wished for a small, tender girl to appear so he could hurl himself on her as on a terribly beautiful stake." And yet, Lebedov loved butterflies, the symbols of...
(The entire section is 771 words.)
Robert W. Lewis
[Wallant] achieves the dramatic by skirting the melodramatic; his characters tend to be drawn in outline or reduced to a few essential traits; his symbolism tends to be simple and straightforward, if not obvious;… these aforementioned characteristics help to describe him as an American naturalist in the tradition of Dreiser and Norris…. [He] was interested in the difference between appearances and reality, and philosophically he was a meliorist determinist. Like the subjects that concerned the turn-of-the-century American naturalists, his subjects are contemporary social and personal problems; similarly, his characters live on the lower fringes of bourgeois society but are often distinguished by a certain native nobility, and his melodramatic stories are replete with violent death and gross sex. Also like some of the earlier American naturalists, Wallant incorporates symbolic and mythic elements into his novels. But the last novel written before his premature death, The Tenants of Moonbloom (1963), is an important exception to the naturalistic pattern in its comic treatment of similar subjects and ideas, in Wallant's movement toward an existential stance, and in his heightened, thorough-going use of mythic and symbolic elements. (p. 70)
His heroes have lost God, but they still keep room in their hearts where God once was, and each of [the earlier] three novels ends in a muted victory for traditional values like courage, love...
(The entire section is 1871 words.)