Wallace (Arthur) Markfield Essay - Critical Essays

Markfield, Wallace (Arthur)

Markfield, Wallace (Arthur) 1926–

American novelist and short story writer, Markfield combines experimental techniques borrowed from Joyce with a subject matter of Jewish-American urban life to produce a distinctive, and often underrated, fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)

One of the reasons we read novels is to learn about the exotic world: how do Portuguese priests go about seducing their parishioners, why are the Japanese forever injecting themselves with vitamins? Wallace Markfield's first novel, To an Early Grave, is about a way of life just as exotic and glamorous as those, if one can stand away from it for a while: the life of New York Jewish intellectuals. Jewish? Indeed, to paraphrase Nietzsche, all too Jewish. The book is broad satire, wonderfully funny and mean….

I do not think that To an Early Grave is a work of major importance, or that Markfield intended it to be. It is a small comic triumph, the sunniest novel about death that I know. The book deals with one Sunday in the life of Morroe Rieff, during which he and three other friends of Leslie Braver-man, a gifted writer dead at 41, attend Leslie's funeral in Brooklyn. Markfield makes only the most perfunctory effort to unify the incidents: Morroe finds that he cannot cry over Leslie's death; everyone else cries at the funeral, but instead Morroe embarrassingly gets an erection at the sight of Sandra Luboff, Miss Social Welfare, and his memory of their dalliance; finally, at the end of the long day, rubbing his wife Etta with insect repellent, Morroe is able to cry. But this is less a serious development than Markfield's final irony: the tears come just as inappropriately as did Morroe's earlier reaction. (p. 214)

The other three mourners are broad caricatures. Holly Levine, a most pretentious literary critic, owns the Volkswagen that takes the four to the funeral. Levine's Volkswagen is introduced with a marvelous soliloquy that begins: "To own a car in Manhattan is like towing a camel across the Sargasso." A seven-page scene in which Levine tries to write a review should be enough to drive anyone of decent impulse, susceptible to shame, out of the profession. Levine's form of mourning for Leslie is to say to a friend at the funeral: "We must first determine whether we want memoir or critique."

We first see Barnet Weiner, poet and critic of the arts, spending his Sunday morning in bed with a thin Bronx girl named Myra Mandelbaum, who had previously refused to stay the night, she explains, because her hair is oily and he has such hard water. Weiner "used to correspond with Gide in French and call him Cher Maître." In his criticism Weiner is fastidious and delicate, in reality he is a lecherous vulgarian, calling Morroe's attention to a girl walking by with the comment: "That little tochiss. I could bite into it like a piece of hot pastrami."

The fourth mourner, Felix Ottensteen, is an older man (the other three are about Leslie's age) who writes literary articles for a Yiddish daily and lectures to Hadassah groups…. Ottensteen is a refuser, but he is the most likable of Morroe's companions, he is the one most loyal to Leslie, and his rhetoric about Jewish woes is a relief from the culture-faking of the rest of them.

The most interesting character in To an Early Grave is of course the dead Leslie, who is endlessly resurrected for us. He was a small fat man, who walked like "a little bubbe loaded down with shopping bags." Leslie was dirty, tirelessly promiscuous, and a shameless sponge; he was a ruthless exploiter of his wife, who eventually evicted him; before his death he lived by writing pornography. But Leslie was also a brilliant critic and fiction writer, a conscientious stylist, and a man who saved his integrity for his work. (pp. 215-16)

The women in To an Early Grave are all minor. Morroe's wife Etta comes through as a nagging voice and "absurdly large breasts." Leslie's widow, Inez, a Yiddish-speaking Gentile, is made "radiant, positively radiant" by her grief, and she is masterful at the funeral, inviting the mourners back to her apartment and instructing them to bring two large pizzas, "one all cheese, one cheese and anchovy." Sandra, Myra, and the other girls described or mentioned, are interesting only in their ready horizontality. The other women in the novel are ludicrous figures overheard in restaurants, or comic storeladies. This is accurate sociology: women are insignificant in the novel because they are insignificant, instrumental housekeeper-bedmates, in the Jewish intellectual subculture—to its shame. (p. 216)

Markfield's comic descriptions are marvels of economy. He can compress all of Flatbush into a few words: "Kids gumming zwieback in wading pools." Here is an unfriendly Gentile: "She had on a narrow fur piece; its little beast jaws gaped open as though from great pain or rage." As for the cemetery, "even the young maples that lined the street seemed trimmed and pruned to the shape of menorahs." Here is a remark overheard in the washroom: "He was never a normal personality. A normal personality is not going to set fire to his mother's bathroom curtains when he's a big boy already."

Some of the funniest parts of To an Early Grave consist of tribal lore. The only art that truly interests Leslie's circle is popular culture. During the trip, Weiner challenges Levine to identify the nemesis of Bim Gump, the Green Hornet's driver, the words that Hop Harrigan radios to his announcer, and so on. (p. 217)

The book bubbles over with comic rhetoric. In Leslie's apartment "the very walls dripped troubles! You could peel them off with the laths and tiles, they hung from the clothes dryer in the kitchen, they stuffed up the drains, they killed the plants, they brought in roaches!" (pp. 217-18)

At times there is too much rhetoric, and the topical and popular culture references overpower. But mostly the richness of language amuses and delights. Markfield has clearly taken Ulysses as his model, but instead of trying to duplicate that encyclopedic masterpiece, he has aimed more modestly at writing just Mr. Bloom's Day in Brooklyn. As such, To an Early Grave is brilliantly successful…. (p. 218)

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Jewish, All Too Jewish," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 215-18.

"Teitlebaum's Window" is an ethnic musical comedy—it hasn't opened yet, but it will—about Brighton Beach Jews in the 1930's. It has a large cast, all of whom are indistinguishably "Brooklyn Jewish," and all of whom do comic turns that are based on Wallace Markfield's marvelous ear for a pretension. But these comic bits are usually artificial, implausible, repeated without mercy, and always identify the characters as Brighton Beach Jews in the 1930's. This was a very hilarious thing to be.

Mr. Markfield is a parodist, a relentless jokesmith, a gifted improviser in the Nichols & May tradition. Most of all he is an expert on old issues of "Photoplay" and "Liberty," on Ronald Colman, high-school yearbooks, the prices of dairy products in 1938, ladies' undershirts, matjes herring, Dolores Del Rio, Dorothy Lamour, and the best B.M.T. routes to Times Square….

[Memories] are used in a movie technique ("they panned and picked out Gelfman") and as a comic strategy by which things represent people—and finally replace them. Mr. Markfield has a ferocious energy for the trivial. If old copies of "Liberty" and "Photoplay" had wit, they would resemble "Teitlebaum's Window." His gifts of mimicry are used to make not believable human emotions but a ware-house of Brooklyn Jewish folklore. There is not the slightest hint of human conflict, for Mr. Markfield is everybody. All the characters—hero, father, mother, girl friends, teachers, storekeepers—are without exception used by the author as vehicles for his own jokes. (p. 5)

The trick of unrelated dialogue is used in this book over and again, and usually never gets us very far, for Mr. Markfield's interest is mimicry, not drama….

The sound of one voice clapping alone is Mr. Markfield's star bit. When he abandons the unrelated conversation, he gives us Simon's school years entirely through Simon's notebook. In a book so full of unregarded people and perished tidbits, only one voice, one person stands out—the author. Simon, his mama and papa, his girl friend, Yenta Gersh, Mrs. Harlib, all get ground up with the Spanish Civil War, the Depression, Dick Tracy, Louella Parsons, and the tops of old Dixie ice cream cups. (p. 40)

Alfred Kazin, "Brighton Beach Was God's Country," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 18, 1970, pp. 5, 40.

[In] Wallace Markfield's novel, Teitlebaum's Window, one will find at last what O. Henry called "the composite vocal message of massed humanity. In other words, of the Voice of a Big City." What it amounts to (in O. Henry's story) is the tender, eloquent, heartrending silence of a municipal spectrum of vibrations, heart beats scaling into a vast, sweeping thunder. Markfield stands with the biggest innovators, the most colorful Jewish interpreters of our most important, our Old/New City: Montague Glass, Abraham Cahan, Michael Gold, Henry Roth, Daniel Fuchs, Bel Kaufman, Bernard Malamud. [Markfield's book is a] screamingly funny, outrageous (in places it out-Portnoys Portnoy), vibration-filled saga of the city….

The hero, the big-boy growing-up, in Markfield's bildungsroman, is Simon Sloan, eight years old when the story opens in June, 1932 and old enough to go to war when the story ends in April, 1942….

All through the ten-year period of the novel, as Simon makes his way upward to Brooklyn College, Markfield develops a memorable group of thematic melodies. The changing signs in Teitlebaum's grocery window, saying in effect: "The World Looks Like It's Blowing Up—Buy Now Before It's Too Late." The Knishe Queen's incredible letters to the world's Greats, soliciting their knishe testimonials. The sadistic treatment by the family, of Hymie's bubbee, senile and helpless but possessing all kinds of valuables for them to extract. Simon's father's ambivalence: his wife nags him to "go make like a Daddy," and when he does, it's so upsetting to him that he becomes furious with his unoffending son. Beyond all the rich themes and vignettes that enhance this marvelous book are the ever-present mass media, especially the movies, which taught the Jewish immigrants their language, made them High Verbals, and reshaped their thinking. As it was said on the screen … And at a time when most books have little (at best) to say any more, Markfield has written one that will be speaking to us for a long time. (p. 33)

Samuel I. Bellman, in Congress Bi-Weekly, December 25, 1970.

[You Could Live if They Let You] is much more than its collected lines. It's a concise portrait of a streetwise wit and the cloistered academic who hopes first to immortalize him (on the conceit that large audiences count for less than small footnotes) and then to be saved by him (on the discovery that exegises is a chancier way to redemption than laughter). And it's an enormously funny and often rather brutal study of, uh, the-way-we-live-now. Or at least the way some people do.

But mostly it's a book about being a Jew. That topic obsessed the hero, Jules Farber, who's idealized on the dust jacket as a clown chained to a microphone with a target pinned to his chest. Ponderously assailed by the narrator, who wonders if he hasn't been "painting on the face of the imaginary Jew what Ezra Pound calls 'the image of our accelerated grimace,'" Farber retorts, "Who needs the imaginary Jew? Believe me, the real Jew is beyond my imagination." (p. 2)

The notion that popular art deserves serious study calcified into doctrine in the late '60s, when pop and avant-garde became the same. It is just one of the ideas revivified in this well-made work, which carries the author a long step beyond his earlier preoccupations. (Theodore Solotaroff called Markfield, not altogether in praise, one of those Jewish writers who "seem to possess virtually total recall of their adolescent years, as though there were still some secret meaning that resides in the image of Buster Brown shoes….") Farber is still saddled with that half-desperate recall, but Markfield has brought him into being in order to go beyond it. Like Portnoy's Complaint, the book is a breakthrough. And it's even sadder, and funnier. (p. 3)

William C. Wood, "Kosher Ham," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 17, 1974, pp. 2-3.