Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6176
Malamud, Bernard 1914–
A major American novelist and short story writer, Malamud is a leading member of the Jewish urban school of fiction. His hero is often the schlemiel, the awkward, luckless man somehow set apart from the rest of society, but his books are upbeat, affirming the possibility of regeneration and contending that man, even the lowliest, can be an instrument of his own salvation. He is the winner of several awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[One] American Jewish writer, Bernard Malamud, has lifted the fictional Jew out of the morass of mediocrity in which he has been bogged down for the last several years. In his 1957 novel, "The Assistant," and the 1958 shortstory collection, "The Magic Barrel," Malamud's Jews are shown suffering, contending, failing, but never losing sight of the possibilities of "next year in Jerusalem."
Malamud seems the literary counterpart of Martin Buber, for his stories read like fictional equivalents of Buber's mystical "I-and-Thou" philosophy. Buber contrasts the enormous possibilities of growth in the "I-and-Thou" situation, when the Self enters into a truly personal relationship with an Other, with the static nature of the "I-and-It" condition, when the Self treats the Other merely as an object of utility. In "The Assistant," Malamud shows Frank Alpine, a non-Jew, forcing himself on a poor grocer named Morris Bober (Morris Bober = Martin Buber?) and his family. Sometimes harming them, Frank later becomes their mainstay, and takes over the store after Bober's death, ultimately even converting to Judaism. What does all this, which is representative of Malamud's fictional world, represent, if not the fictional translation of Buber's "I-and-Thou" and "I-and-It" metaphysics? And Frank, like so many other Malamud assistants, seems a messenger from a Higher Power.
Samuel I. Bellman, in National Jewish Monthly, December, 1958, p. 39.
[The] idea of being a Jew in Malamud's novel [The Assistant]—as is generally the case in American Jewish fiction—is shorthand for a set of moral abstractions: Jewishness is equated with an ethic of hard work, integrity, acceptance of responsibility, forbearance in distress, and so forth. Since there is no necessary connection between any of these qualities and being a flesh-and-blood Jew, the symbol inflicted on Frank Alpine's flesh [the circumcision] seems gratuitous, or, rather, obtrudes as a merely symbolic contrivance.
Robert Alter, in his After the Tradition (copyright © 1962 by Robert Alter; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1962.
In Malamud's work … the immigrant experience is at once more peripheral and more central than in writers of comparable background. Although most of his protagonists are avowedly Jewish, he has never really written about Jews, in the manner of other American Jewish novelists. Especially revealing in this connection is the fact that nowhere does he attempt to represent a Jewish milieu, that a Jewish community never enters into his books, except as the shadow of a vestige of a specter. What literary sense, then, does Malamud make of the emphatic, vividly elaborated ethnic identity of his characters—those whitefish-eating, Yiddish-accented isolates in a bleak, generalized world of harsh necessity? He clearly means Jewishness to function as an ethical symbol; it is, as Theodore Solotaroff has written, a "type of metaphor … both for the tragic dimension of anyone's life and for a code of personal morality."…
Malamud is, to the best of my knowledge, the first important American writer to shape out of his early experiences in the immigrant milieu a whole distinctive style of imagination and, to a...
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lesser degree, a distinctive technique of fiction as well. He is by no means a "folk" artist, but his ear for the rhythms of speech and the tonalities of implication, his eye for the shadings of attitude and feeling, of Jewish folk culture, have helped make the fictional world he has created uniquely his own. Though such influences are hard to prove, I suspect that the piquant juxtaposition in his fiction of tough, ground-gripping realism and high-flying fantasy ultimately derives from the paradoxical conjoining of those same qualities that has often characterized Jewish folklore.
To put this another way, it would seem as though the homespun Jewishness of Malamud's characters affords him a means of anchoring his brilliant fantasies in reality, for the dreariness of daily privation and frustration familiar to him through the ghetto are his indicators of what the real world is like, reminding him of the gritty, harsh-grained texture of ordinary human experience. It is significant that the only book he has written in which there are no identifiable Jews, his first novel, The Natural, is also the only one in which the underpinnings of reality are finally pulled away by the powerful tug of fantasy….
The shlemiel-shlimazel … is not merely a source of colorfulness in Malamud's fiction, the stock comic property that the type has become in so much American Jewish fiction. To be a shlemiel—which, for Malamud, is almost interchangeable with the idea of being a Jew—means to assume a moral stance, virtually the only possible moral stance in his fictional world. For if circumstances are at best indifferent to this individual, if human beings are so complicated, varied, and confused that to be truly open to another person means to get mixed up with and by him, even hurt by him, the very act of wholehearted commitment to the world of men means being a blunderer and a victim. The only clearly visible alternative to the stance of the shlemiel in Malamud's fiction (and this is, of course, a boldly foreshortened version of reality, one good reason why it works better in the short stories than in the novels) is the stance of the manipulator. Gus the Gambler and the sinister clubowner, the Judge, in The Natural; Karp, the "lucky" liquor-store neighbor of inveterately luckless Morris Bober in The Assistant; Gerald Gilley, the Cascadia professor scheming for the departmental chairmanship in A New Life—all these are characters who in varying degrees take a sharply instrumental view of humanity, who manage to stay on top of circumstances and people by being detached from them so that they can merely use them….
The central development of the idea of Jewishness as imprisonment occurs in The Assistant. That novel is suffused with images of claustrophobic containment, and Morris Bober's grocery, which is the symbolic locus of being a Jew with all the hard responsibilities entailed thereby, is frequently referred to as a prison….
The prison, like the shlemiel who is usually its chief inmate, is Malamud's way of suggesting that to be fully a man is to accept the most painful limitations; those who escape these limitations achieve only an illusory, self-negating kind of freedom, for they become less than responsible human beings. One does not have to be a Jew to be thus enmeshed in the endless untidiness of moral experience—witness the protagonist of "The Prisoner," an Italian in a candy store instead of a Jew in a grocery—but, as the saying goes, it helps, for the Jew, at least as Malamud sees him, has undergone the kind of history that made it difficult for him to delude himself about his defeats and humiliations, that forced him to accept the worst conditions because he had no alternative while trying to preserve his essential human dignity. Malamud sees, moreover, in the collective Jewish experience of the past a model not only of suffering and confinement but also of a very limited yet precious possibility of triumph in defeat, freedom in imprisonment. His reading of Jewish history is clearly undertaken from a rather special angle, and with perhaps less than adequate information—European Jewry, even in the ghettos, often was, and felt itself to be, much more than a trapped group of "half-starved, bearded prisoners." Historical accuracy, however, is beside the point, for what is relevant to Malamud's literary achievement is that an aspect of Jewish experience, isolated and magnified, has afforded him the means of focusing in an image his own vision of the human condition….
The Jew as Everyman is a kind of literary symbol that is likely to wear thin very quickly; it is a tribute to Malamud's resourcefulness as a writer that he has been able to make the symbolic equation succeed to the extent he has in his stories and novels. In [The Fixer], he gives new imaginative weight to his conception of Jewishness by adding to it the crucially important dimension of history, and in so doing he manages to transform his recurrent symbol into the stuff of an urgent, tautly controlled novel that firmly engages the emotions and the intellect as well.
Robert Alter, in his After the Tradition (copyright © 1962 by Robert Alter; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1962.
Malamud's ability to persuade us of the reality of his characters—their emotions, deeds, words, surroundings—remains astonishing. In most of the twelve stories that make up I diots First, that ability is quite as evident as it was in The Magic Barrel, his earlier short story collection, and in those long stories … we call his novels. There is no accounting for this elusive gift except by terms so trite as to seem like abstractions. His identification with his people tends to be perfect; and it is perfect because, on the one hand, they are mostly Jews of a certain class, as he is, and on the other (to quote Mr. Podhoretz …), they are "copied not from any models on earth but from an idea in the mind of Bernard Malamud." The idea brings about a grand simplification, of specialization, of historical fact. For one thing, Malamud's Jewish community is chiefly composed of people of East European origin. For another, they tend to retain, morally speaking, their immigrant status. Life is centered in the home and the workshop and remains tough and full of threats. The atmosphere is not that of the 1930's Depression alone,… but that of the hard times ever immanent in the nature of things. His people may prosper for a while and within limits. But memories and connections continue to bind them to the Old World, in some cases to the world of the Old Testament where Jacob labors for Laban and Job suffers for everyone. Some of them, it is true, progress to the point of acquiring ineffably Anglo-Saxon first names…. Some are found claiming that all-American privilege of the post-war period, "a year in Italy." But in Italy they become, or fear to become, immigrants all over again, and the old American theme of innocents abroad is updated.
F. W. Dupee, "The Power of Positive Sex," in Partisan Review, Summer, 1964, pp. 425-30 (and reprinted in his The King of the Cats, and Other Remarks on Writers and Writings, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965).
It is, of course, stupid to be disappointed that Malamud has not given us again what he has already given us so well—the working of the spirit in an exactly rendered contemporary Jewish-American scene. Novelists must try new things. What worries me about The Fixer is a suspicion that Malamud is indulging in an exercise rather than exploring a fresh zone of human experience. His book, despite the modern Americanisms and the revelations proper to a permissive age, reads like an imitation translation from the Yiddish…. The conjuration of a dead era and city is brilliant, but it is the brilliance of the cold and deliberate technician that is displayed. The Fixer, one feels, is a pastiche of a writer who never existed but, in order to fill a historical gap, ought to have existed….
The earlier novels are small glories of American literature, and the later ones will be too. This present novel disowns America (except as a vague promised land) and is suspended nowhere except in the historical consciousness of the Jewish race and a country made out of books, old newspapers and the creative imagination. The result is superb, needless to say. But it should have been an agonizing book to write, and I'm pretty sure that it was not. The elation of contriving a trick piece of Jewish-European literature must have cathartized in advance the anguish of the subjectmatter. The pity and terror, totally purged, are left to us.
Anthony Burgess, "Blood in the Matzos," in his Urgent Copy: Literary Studies (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; copyright © 1968 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1968, pp. 136-40.
[Malamud] has got onto a good thing—he understands the man who is always assaulted, who manages to be in the exact spot where the garbage is going to fall from the window that someone has nonchalantly tossed out. But in these stories [Pictures of Fidelman] he has contrived losses that do not grow out of the situation. His people tease and egg on misfortune. The inevitability of the common happenstance—and hence the comic view—is missing here.
What is in its place is a set of arbitrary situations that are often handled adroitly but are more like acts of Malamud fiddling while the world burns. Or as Fidelman described himself in one of the stories—he is a "Fiddleman."
Hopefully this book is an interlude. It contains flashes of genius, but it is mainly a substitution of fantasy and technique for vision. The result is insubstantial Malamud, no matter how amusing Fidelman may be at times.
Martin Tucker, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), June 27, 1969, pp. 420-21.
Who would read a book about two writers—one a somewhat successful Jewish novelist and the other a militant black novice—struggling in an abandoned apartment building to finish their respective books? Who would look here for insight into the central problem of our times?
You would—or, if not, you'd be missing one of the best novels yet to be written about what it's like to be an American in the 1970s. The Tenants … is that good.
Malamud's real subject is the final conflict between the haves and the have-nots. This, in Malamud's eyes, is not a confrontation between the monied and the so-called disadvantaged but between those whose values are derived from the cultural establishment and those who seek its overturn. To focus on his subject, Malamud has chosen for the setting of his novel, a limited corner of the world indeed….
The mutual annihilation by the two writers, representative of the dominant forces in today's culture, is what the book is all about. Their confrontation is symbolic of the end of democracy, the death pangs of the Western world. If you are hoping for solutions, Malamud implies, you are a dreamer indeed.
The Tenants is a profoundly unoptimistic book. But it seems a true statement of an issue that has created the Attica prison riots as a counterfoil to the conditions that led to the burning of parts of Newark, Detroit, Washington, and Watts as well as other locations during recent summers. The confrontation will not go away simply because we do not like it….
A highly condensed book, The Tenants tells us far more through indirection and understatement than more discursive language could convey, but it does not coincidentally imply any easy solution.
Paradoxically, The Tenants is a happy book to read. It is alive and it sings. So then in the end, echoing The Tempest which took heart that the brave new world had fine people in it, perhaps Malamud suggests there is hope for us. A culture that produces as fine a work as The Tenants can't be all bad.
Roderick Craib, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 24, 1971, pp. 309-11.
For Malamud … the schlemiel was a moral bungler, a character whose estimate of the situation, coupled with an overriding desire for "commitment," invariably caused comic defeats of one sort or another.
The Malamud canon is filled with such schlemiels, from the early stories of The Magic Barrel [through] his [latest novels]…. I suspect the most damning thing one can say about Malamud's development is that he has done little more than rewrite "The Magic Barrel" for the past fifteen years. To be sure, a good many modern authors would welcome such "criticism," especially if they thought a repeat performance was possible.
For Malamud, the short story is more amenable to ambivalence, and in "The Magic Barrel" particularly, he achieved a nearly perfect blend of form and content. Considered as a whole, "The Magic Barrel" is an initiation story, although the exact dimensions of the "initiation" are hard to pin down….
The progress of the moral schlemiel nearly always involves identification with suffering and some strategy for taking on the burdens of others. In this sense the schlemiels of Malamud's canon bear a striking resemblance to the classical folk figure; both desire to change the essential condition of their lives, but each is inadequate to the task.
Sanford Pinsker, "Bernard Malamud's Ironic Heroes," in his The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in the Yiddish and American Jewish Novel (© 1971 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971, pp. 87-124.
If the modern Jewish writer has realized that the Jew in a gentile society is an effective symbol of sensitive man in the modern world, then a curious equation results. If all sensitive men are Jews, a man can be a Jew simply by being a sensitive man: and that is the central theme of Bernard Malamud's admirable novel The Assistant (1957). Malamud, who is in many ways the most consciously Jewish of living American Jewish novelists and short-story writers, brings echoes of the older Yiddish tragi-comic mode of writing into his novels and stories, and is a master of wry self-mockery as a form simultaneously of self-exploration and moral criticism. This can be seen again and again in the short stories collected in the volume The Magic Barrel (1958) and, in a different way, in his novel A New Life (1961). The latter does not emphasize the Jewishness of its hero by any insistence on overt Jewish traits; the hero, a teacher of English in a California college, is a sensitive intellectual fated to get involved in personal situations that are at once preposterous and romantic; he is a willing scapegoat, but a sophisticated scapegoat who plays the part with style; a wry self-mocker who is romantically involved in what he mocks. He gets involved, through the best of motives and with the most admirable of feelings, in a situation quite absurd in its human difficulty yet at the same time quite alarming in its moral overtones. Professor Ihab Hassan once categorized one kind of hero of the modern American novel as the self-mocker, where irony, hovering between comedy and tragedy, may border on romance. This is exactly what we find in The Assistant.
David Daiches, in The Jewish Quarterly, Spring, 1973, pp. 90-1.
Only one of Bernard Malamud's pieces ["Man in the Drawer"] in "Rembrandt's Hat" … looks like a caged novel. The others, in the best tradition of Chekhov, Joyce and Hemingway, are just as long as they need to be. The mood, moment, configuration of people and events are revealed and illuminated in a way which could not be improved by an addition of 200 pages.
The themes of these stories will be familiar to readers of Malamud's novels and earlier short fiction: failure, defeat, fatigue, loneliness, old age. A sad list. And yet each is touched, if not redeemed, by a wistful and ironic humor and beautifully bold fantasy.
In each story, someone wants the impossible…. What Malamud masterfully brings out in each story is the concrete demand, the absorbing reality, of the impossible wish. Fantasy is not an irrelevant embroidery on "real" life or an alternative to it, but a central fact of life around which crucial words and actions turn….
Malamud is serious and intelligent even when he is not at his best. And in seven out of eight cases he is at or near his best in this collection. He is a writer that one learns to trust. He is not a sensation, not devastating, not a blockbuster. His themes are ancient and familiar, his tone modest, his sense of form nice. He writes with wisdom, compassion and humor. He rarely surprises, but gently reminds us of what we already knew or should have known.
Robert Kiely, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 3, 1973, p. 7.
Malamud's employment of fantasy [in the stories collected in Rembrandt's Hat]—as in the first-person account of a centaur's emergence from a horse ("Talking Horse")—differs from its general use among contemporary writers of the "new fiction." It is good to be reminded that two decades ago Malamud was already exploring the possibilities of synthesizing the material of naturalistic fiction with the surrealistic and playful material of a totally antithetical tradition; yet his use of the mock-serious, the darkly comic, is always predicated upon an intense psychological involvement with his subjects. Not for Malamud the glib, cheap, emotionless bravado that declares the materials of ordinary storytelling fit simply for ridicule: behind even the most fantastic of Malamud's stories one finds the same uniquely human, committed seriousness of The Fixer….
Malamud's strengths have always been with the subtle, not-quite-explicable forces of love or friendship between people who may be involved in superficial struggles with one another. The collection's title story is a study of the psychological tension between two faculty members at the New York Art School; it begins with an art historian's careless enthusiasm about a sculptor, who misinterprets the man's remarks completely and becomes his enemy. Though forced to work in the same building the two make every effort to avoid encounters, with the result that they run into each other constantly and think about each other constantly. Time passes. The tension between them gradually builds in just the kind of absurd, nonsensical way that it would build in two quite ordinary people locked in a misunderstanding; the deadlock between them is broken only when one humbles himself enough to apologize—whereupon the other bursts into tears….
In Rembrandt's Hat Malamud magically transposes brief, finite units of experience into the most imaginative—and readable—art.
Joyce Carol Oates, "The Finite and the Fabulous," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 10, 1973, p. 3.
[With] Malamud, before we make the simple assumption that has been made before—that he embodies the voice of a sorrowing Jewish realistic humanism, let us consider: First comes The Natural, a mythic baseball story, comic and sad; but larger than life, an ironic epic. Then The Assistant. Then The Magic Barrel, in whose stories the first taste of Malamudian fantasy—which has been likened to Chagall by a number of critics—makes its appearance. It is a strain that is vital to understanding Malamud's work. It is, in my opinion, the weapon in his artistic arsenal that has made it possible for him to treat emotional situations, desperations of the heart and spirit, that would otherwise have been unbearably sentimental. If the Jewbird had been a Jewish man or woman—as he easily could have been—the story would not have the comic bite it has.
On occasion Malamud has made what I call his "strange" voice the major tone of a whole work, as in Fidelman. He has sometimes reverted to a level of humanism, or, as in A New Life, to a kind of comic pastoral. And, in much of his best work, he has joined the two in a wild vision in which the broken hopes and stumbling leaps of love alternate in a soaring ballet of dancers with fallen arches—and on occasion with the legs of Nijinsky. Something of a correction is in order, then, to the easy, obvious characterization of Malamud's gift, his method and meaning.
Malamud is no leader of a Jewish school of schlemiels and schlimozels—of old Jews and young pratfalling college instructors—though these have a place in his cast of characters. I would say, rather, that Malamud is to be read as being first and foremost a "modern" writer. Modern in the sense that he comes after Pound's dictum: "Make it strange … make it new…." Brooklyn, Oregon and Vermont may give rise to the strange and new as well as Montparnasse. But instead of the poetic imagination in the service of the pure universe of art, it is newness and strangeness in the service of how men should live so as not to cause pain, so as to be the best they can be. And in the no-man's-land between that hope and the small achievements it gives rise to, Malamud weaves his fables….
The concerns of the commonplace are certainly the subcutaneous stuff of art. But the transformation of daily experience into imaginative fictions is accomplished by Bernard Malamud by means of wild fantasy, transforming human loneliness, cruelty and madness into sanity. A sanity that touches such high frequencies that it becomes a kind of desperate humanism.
Daniel Stern, "Commonplace Things, and the Essence of Art," in The Nation, September 3, 1973, pp. 181-82.
What distinguishes Malamud's fiction is that characters are transformed, if not in their relationship to the world, then by our attitude toward them…. Malamud's love for his characters, failures and all, is genuine and they do not become the butts of artistic jokes. There is no maliciousness in him.
With his large heart, Malamud lets his characters make their own jokes….
[The stories in Rembrandt's Hat] continue to show that he is not afraid of narrative experimentation….
Charles Deemer, in The New Leader, September 17, 1973, pp. 19-20.
The differences among characters in the stories in Rembrandt's Hat are less important than their similarities. Their capacity to be foolish and miserable, to get into sticky relationships with one another, remains consistent. What does change, more than the particular characters, is the ubiquitous character we might call Malamud's language, modulating toward English or Yiddish, sometimes within a story, mostly from one story to another….
Other Jewish writers make this music too. In its rhythms and intonations there is an appeal that is prior to, deeper than, one's individualistic, "New World" discriminations. It is an appeal—to all who hear it, and all who hear themselves in it—for solidarity: a united Jewish appeal. However, Malamud represents rather than solicits feeling, turning his language according to the requirements of human temperature [sic] and natural force….
The most general implications of the stories in this collection are as relevant to Malamud's idea of his art as to his subjects. He seems to indicate, in various ways, that he is concerned to represent feeling, not extraordinary allegiances, however profound, however well justified.
Leonard Michaels, "Sliding Into English," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), September 20, 1973, pp. 37-40.
There are more Jews in New York than in all Israel; over 50 per cent of bookbuyers in America are Jewish. Such statistics are relevant to Malamud—not necessarily as a factor in his winning both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, but because they mean he can take a lot for granted. He can write in the knowledge of a shared cultural idiom, play about with Yiddish shorthand imagery—above all, he knows he can tap that inexhaustible preoccupation with the conflicts and anxieties of being Jewish, and still speak with the voice of the assimilated man who has chosen to be an outsider. The Magic Barrel at once established Malamud territory. What is remarkable is that [Rembrandt's Hat], in which the boundaries remain and we begin to feel the inhabitants are old acquaintances, is still much more than scrapings. Indeed, the restrictions of the short story distil from Malamud's precise particularity a kind of microcosmic sufferer….
Where Malamud experiments, it works best when anchored to Yiddish idiom—enjoy the stylistic wit, even if you miss the message….
If it wasn't for the acerbity, I'd find Malamud's obsession with the ravages of time and grief too painfully claustrophobic. At his best, which is in two or three of these tales, he challenges the consolations of faith and family with youth's despairing wit—and makes you laugh.
Marigold Johnson, "Small Mercies," in New Statesman, September 28, 1973, p. 433.
Here is another collection of short stories [Rembrandt's Hat], the fourth by Bernard Malamud, with a beautifully resonant title. The very idea of Rembrandt's hat makes us think of artistic stature, of the highest accomplishment and most moving expression of humane understanding in art. At the same time there is something quirkily humorous about the hat considered in itself, distinct from the artist's head, and something grotesque in the thought that there might be any artist living to-day whom such a symbolically grand hat would fit….
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….
Malamud, along with many other established writers, has suffered from being ticketed. From small seedlings, preconceptions grow into tall trees that obscure the view….
Paradoxically … 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….
[When] questioned by eager beavers regarding the supposed oddity or mystery of stories with Jewish settings and paraphernalia written by a self-confessed marginal Jew, Malamud tends to read what sounds almost like a prepared statement or to turn the answer in a general American direction. Far more interesting than this non-problem is his ambivalent attitude to the Jewish element in his writing. 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….
There is greater naturalness, ease and assurance here, less determined striving for meaningfulness and universality than in some of Malamud's early writings. It seems almost as if the writer has succeeded in coming to terms with the conditions of his gift (the way his imagination tends to engage through the presentation of a male character, for instance, and to concentrate repeatedly upon the confrontation between two male figures, woman all too often proving to be a jinx). Perhaps he himself has grown to accept that he is neither a farmhorse nor a racehorse (named Rembrandt?) but a centaur—which, after all, is a pretty rare and original thing to be.
Renee Winegarten, "Malamud's Head," in Midstream, October, 1973, pp. 76-9.
Like Isaac Bashevis Singer, the greatest living Yiddish writer, Malamud uses the idiom and color of Jewish life, not as mere folklore but to express, in a context that he feels as his, the general human predicament. Fair to good as a novelist, Malamud is at his best in the short-story format. Like de Maupassant's, his short stories are not compressed vignettes drawn against the background of what author and reader both know, but fully developed miniatures that stand on their own. And Malamud achieves this without resorting to any of the tricks of the short-story writer's trade—the arresting introductory phrase, the capsule characterization.
Edward Luttwak, "A Good Writer in Good Form," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), October 26, 1973, pp. 1191-92.
Malamud's book [Rembrandt's Hat] is exactly that: not a "collection" of various short pieces, but a tightly-woven tapestry composed of letters and hats, depicting loss of faith and lack of communication in our time. It is a book in which fathers fight wars in their heads and die of cancer of the heart. The two themes, spiritual isolation and failure of communication, pervade all eight stories, but nowhere more successfully than in "The Silver Crown"….
Malamud's most original accomplishment in years is "Talking Horse," which crowns this collection. The other stories focus on communication failures between man and man; "Talking Horse" is a fine allegory on the struggle between man and God. It shimmers with implications on the unknowable nature of truth, and the problems of the animal yoked to the spiritual….
This is more than a fascinating fantasy. It is an Existential statement on man's search for identity and freedom.
Robert Phillips, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), November 30, 1973, pp. 245-46.
Bernard Malamud's … novel, The Tenants (1971) [is] actually, more a disconnected series of garbled fantasies, a collection of rough notes toward a definition of a preliminary outline, than a novel. Here a second generation Jew, a semi-failure named, appropriately, Lesser, is holed up in an abandoned Manhattan tenement, trying against all possible odds to regain his power as a novelist, write his way back to an understanding of himself, and possibly even to popular success. In Malamud's narrative blur, Lesser's counterself, a LeRoi Jones-Eldridge Cleaver type named Willie Spearmint, is busy doing the very same thing in another room in the tenement.
The Tenants is ostensibly about authorship in America, and if it had been written literately and coherently, would have deserved consideration along with other important books on this theme: John Neal's Authorship (1830) and Herman Melville's Pierre (1852), for example. Why Malamud chose to let his style and treatment defame his subject, degrading authorship by presenting it moronically, is not clear. Willie burns Lesser's manuscripts and, starting over again, Lesser cannot regain whatever control he had over his material. Before Willie and Lesser are destroyed in the old "William Wilson"-"Castaway" literary ploy whereby the self and the alter ego kill each other, Malamud inserts a profundity or two about the task of the writer. He reminds us of the immigrant's first line of defense against the crush of foreign culture and convention: the word … their word, which you make your own.
Samuel I. Bellman, in Costerus: Essays in English and American Language and Literature, Vol. VIII, 1973.
The all-dominating poverty in the Malamud world and of any Malamud character reduces everything to the simplicity of a single tabletop, chair, carrot. No matter where the Malamud characters are—Brooklyn, Rome, or a collapsible hall bedroom in the next world—they are "luftmenschen," so poor that they live on air, in the air, and are certainly not rooted in the earth…. Poverty as a total human style is so all-dominating an esthetic medium in Malamud, coloring everything with its woebegone utensils, its stubborn immigrant English, its all-circulating despair, that one is not surprised that several of Malamud's characters seem to travel by levitation. They live not only on air but in it, one jump ahead of the B.M.T. All forms of travel and communication are foreshortened, contracted, made picturesque, as it were. Malamud has found a sweetly humorous dialect for the insularity of his characters. The outside world, which for Jews can be "another," does not even reach the consciousness of Malamud's Jews. They exist for each other, depend on each other, suffer each other and from each other with an awareness of the "world" that is the definitive and humorously original element—and for which Malamud has found a narrative language whose tone derives from the characters' unawareness of any world but their own. Turning the tables on those who fear that the son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants might not be "proper" in his English, Malamud adopted a style essentially make-believe and fanciful, a style so patently invented by Malamud in tribute to the vitality of the real thing that the real humor of it is that someone made it up….
Certainly much of Malamud's humor as a writer lies in his conscious attitude of dissonance, his own wry "handling" of situations. What was oppressively pathetic in life becomes surreal, overcolored, picturesque, illustrative of a folk culture in the Chagall style rather than about Jews as fully grown individuals. His characters are all Malamud's children. Yet by the same logic of detachment, Malamud almost absently tends to turn his protagonists into emblems of "Jewish" goodness and sacrifice.
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 140-43.