Malamud, Bernard 1914–
A Jewish-American novelist and short story writer, Malamud is the author of The Assistant, The Magic Barrel, and Idiots First. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Of all [the] new writers, Bernard Malamud seems to me the most unnecessarily tempted by symbolism. For he is the most compassionate, the most concerned and involved of them all, and … [from his work] I get something of the same deep satisfaction that I do from the great realistic masters of Yiddish literature.
Malamud's world has its own haunting archetypes: the desperate and sickly storekeeper, the refugee who turns up in Rome or New York to accuse his fellow Jews of heartlessness, the lonely student with ovoid eyes in staring search of love, the American intellectual abroad who finds it impossible to escape his Jewish past…. Malamud has caught as one the guttural toughness of big-city speech and the classic bitterness of Jewish dialogue….
But in their terseness, his characters fundamentally express despair rather than any spiritual refusal of the great world. His world is all too much an inner world—one in which the city streets, the houses, the stores, seem, along with the people who broodingly stand about like skeletons, some with flesh, always just about to fold up, to disappear into the sky. People talk to each other disbelievingly, as if each felt that the other was about to disappear, as if the world under their feet were itself unreal. People flit in and out of each other's lives like bad dreams….
Malamud, the closest in wit and depth of feeling to the great Yiddish writers, nevertheless falls into the same abstractness that is the bane of so many new writers in America. Unlike those who are abstract because they have only their cleverness to write from, Malamud is abstract out of despair: despair of the world itself, which can no longer be represented.
In this one sees the curious danger of the American writer who has been influenced by Kakfa, Joyce, Eliot, et al. Life in America changes so quickly, and people are so quick to change into each other, that the ever-lasting thinness and abstractness of American writing, which comes from our lack of "society," of a solid core of leaders, manners, tradition, is likely to be intensified by our new writers, who have a society but don't believe in it enough to describe it—to deal with it not merely as it is but as something that is. One of the things we now long for in contemporary literature is escape from the tyranny of symbolic "meaning." We want to return to life not as a figure in the carpet but as life in its beautiful and inexpressible materiality—life as the gift that it actually is rather than as the "material" that we try to remake.
Malamud provokes these reflections because he is so gifted. There seems to me no writer of his background who comes so close to the bone of human feeling, who makes one feel so keenly the enigmatic quality of life. The only thing I miss in his work is a feeling for the value of life, for the body of this world—for that which cannot be explained because it is too precious to turn into symbols.
Alfred Kazin, "Bernard Malamud: The Magic and the Dread" (1958), in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 202-07.
Many reviewers have made a stab at describing the unique flavor of [Malamud's]...
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work, but what they have said in specific matters less than their agreement that a highly special—and highly elusive—quality exists that very nearly beggars definition. Since he writes so well about Jews, and poor ones at that, and since he has succeeded in catching the very life of Yiddish speech better than any of the countless American writers who have tried before him, the natural thing to do has been to look for a handle in "Jewishness" or Sholom Aleichem or even the Bible. None of this seems to me of much help; in fact, I would argue that Malamud's conception of Jewishness and his idea of what Jews are really like come out of his own head and cannot be supported, except in a vague general way, by precedent in Yiddish or Hebrew literature. To Malamud, the Jew is humanity seen under the twin aspects of suffering and moral aspiration. Therefore any man who suffers greatly and who also longs to be better than he is can be called a Jew…. It is not so much that this idea is wrong—whatever that would mean—as that Malamud holds to it with an unqualified intensity and directness that actual observation of the East European immigrant Jews he is portraying would not appear to warrant. And here lies the source of that strangeness we are puzzled to account for in his Jewish characters—they are so beautifully drawn in their physical being (their speech, their gestures, their ordinary social attitudes, their milieux) that we never think to question their authenticity as East European immigrant Jews, when all the while their spiritual lineaments have been quietly copied not from any models on earth but from an idea in the mind of Bernard Malamud.
The point is that Malamud's unique and marvellous ability to write without embarrassment or falsity of the simplest and most basic emotions,… depends on a certain blindness to the full realities of the world around him…. That wacky, wonderful voice we hear in a Malamud story is one of the few sounds remaining in our world that cannot be accounted for in terms of anything but itself. For it is a voice that speaks of people who belong to no period in particular, and in a language that belongs not to history but to nature.
Norman Podhoretz, "The New Nihilism and the Novel" (1958), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 159-78.
Malamud captures the elusive tones and shadows of the traditional Yiddish tale, he is not at all a teller of tales in the traditional manner. He is an extremely self-conscious short story writer, keenly sensitive to the formal demands of the short story, and unwilling to let a character vignette or Aleichem-like evocation of atmosphere embody his vision. His manner is frequently that of the teller of tales, but his technique of structure is poetic and symbolic. He seems, as it were, to construct his stories backwards—beginning with his final climatic image and then manipulating his characters into the appropriate dramatic poses which will contribute to the total significance of that image. These final images usually resemble tableaux, as in the old children's game of "Statues." The dramatic action of the story attempts to lead the characters into a situation of conflict which is "resolved" by being fixed poetically in the final ambiguity of conflicting forces frozen and united in their very opposition….
Malamud seems to insist that there is a way of escaping the fatal limitations of the human condition. Man need not remain buried in the isolation of himself. He must accept the fatality of his own identity—be it Jew or Gentile, success or failure—and working within that identity, transcend himself and burst his prison….
[There] is one rather grave limitation in Malamud's fictions which seems to me to forestall what could be an even fuller exploitation of his considerable talents; and this limitation, like his powers, may also find its roots in the tradition of the Yiddish tale. Malamud has demonstrated his mastery, so to speak, over a piece of the tragic vision…. But at the crucial point of his dramas, when his characters are most acutely aware of their impotence before the inevitable, and are aware of themselves being aware, his tragic vision fails him and he retreats into his "Jewish irony"—a defensive humor which deflates the portentous momentum of his art.
Earl H. Rovit, "Bernard Malamud and the Jewish Literary Tradition," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. III, No. 2, 1960, pp. 3-10.
In Bernard Malamud we find … testimony that the urban Jewish writer, like the Southern novelist, has emerged from the tragic underground of culture as a true spokesman of mid-century America…. If Malamud does not possess the intellectual vitality of Bellow, his finest work shows an order of excellence no critic … can justly deny. The first and most obvious quality of his fiction is its "goodness." This is a complex quality, compounded of irony, trust, and craft—a touch of Dostoyevsky and Chagall, someone observed. It is the product of a sensitive yet enduring heart, vulnerable where it counts, and deeply responsible to its feeling of what transforms a man into mensch. Behind it is a wry vision of pain, and also of hope….
Malamud's vision is preeminently moral, yet his form is sly. It owes something to the wile of Yiddish folklore, the ambiguous irony of the Jewish joke. Pain twisted into humor twists humor back into pain. The starkness of suffering, the leaden weight of ignorance or poverty, the alienation of the Jew in a land of jostling Gentiles—all these become transmuted, in luminous metaphors and strange rhythms, into forms a little quaint or ludicrous, a bittersweet irony of life, into something, finally, elusive.
Ihab Hassan, in his Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (© 1961 by Princeton University Press; Princeton Paperback, 1971; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1961, pp. 161-62.
Each [of Malamud's novels] is a moral critique, an attempt to explore and reveal the melancholic state of the human condition, its basic—even banal—realities. Having undertaken this Socratic search into the human soul, Malamud's favorite vantage point is the dark prison of the self. From there he looks out upon a somber, cramped, and joyless world in which failure and calamity are daily staples…. Malamud does not view modern society as blameless for man's tragic plight, but neither does he consider anyone the mere passive victim of social cruelty or neglect. His people embody their own self-destructive demons. If they are social misfits, it is primarily of their own doing. They are incompetent or unwordly, or both….
Malamud's second novel, The Assistant (1957), is a parable of atonement and conversion reversing the familiar assimilation story: beginning with a sinful act, it traces the painful expiation. His Jews are not "good" in the traditional sense; few, in fact, reveal any concern for Judaism as a coherent body of doctrine. They share only a communal sensitivity to persecution and suffering. Ritual and custom are for Malamud mere surface trimmings; all that matters is the human heart—that is, man's essential dignity and responsibility to his fellows in a grim, inhuman world….
[Malamud] is not a major short-story writer. [His] impatience to develop idea rather than character is all the more evident in the thirteen wry, ironic vignettes comprising The Magic Barrel, which won the 1959 National Book Award for fiction. Despite his award, Malamud is here more entertainer than explorer. However, he does avoid the cliché of the Jewish social-protest and "hot-pastrami" writers, and despite some obvious plot and character indebtedness to the Yiddish storytellers, he does fashion his own vernacular…. Malamud's idiom is terse, rapid, and urban. It is a Hemingwayesque Yiddish-English mannered and highly stylized. Yet the bitterly ironic Yiddish undertone remains.
But if his tales catch eye and ear, they only occasionally arrest heart and mind. Disbelief is seldom suspended, for always there are the ingenious symbols, the picturesque (even grotesque) characters, and the quick, mildly shocking conclusions….
If in The Magic Barrel Malamud fluctuates uncertainly between realism and allegory, he remains essentially a novelist. His persistent theme here is the almost frightening consequences of the human encounter. Those whose lives entangle our own, no matter how lightly, he reiterates, alter irrevocably our and their lives. None is ever the same, and this implies the moral obligation of love, or at least concern, toward one another….
A New Life is Malamud's best effort. Plot and background develop more slowly, characters are more fully realized. His sad, eager, little people are neither villains nor paragons; they stand revealed as frightened, love-starved human beings entangled in their own motives, weaknesses, and emotions….
Malamud's technical skills are undeniable. He has an inspired eye and ear for the revealing gesture or word. When under control, as it is during most of A New Life, his language is spare, imaginative, and lyrical. If his characters often are left without illusions, they are never completely crushed or dehumanized. If his works are near-achievements rather than major accomplishments, they reveal always an ironic yet compassionate insight into the dark dilemma that is modern life. Surely few of us today can afford to ignore such assistance.
Ben Siegel, "Victims in Motion: Bernard Malamud's Sad and Bitter Clowns," in Northwest Review, Spring, 1962, pp. 69-80.
Bernard Malamud has a tough, sardonic, and deeply compassionate vision. The obscurities which mar his first novel, The Natural, are absent from his second book, The Assistant. Few writers can transform pain into responsibility with the quiet, steady glow Malamud can give to language. The refuge he sometimes takes in Jewish irony defines his basic commitment—and limits its scope.
Ihab Hassan, "The Character of Post-War Fiction in America," in English Journal, January, 1962, pp. 1-8.
In general, the special achievement of Malamud's technique has been the movement back and forth between the grimly plain and the fantastic, the joining of the natural to the supernatural, the endowing of his abstracted version of the commonplace with the entanglements of a dream. His most impressive prose has been a similar mixture of a hard common speech, twisted by Yiddishisms or by his own syntax so that it vibrates, and lit here and there by a sudden lyrical image. The solidity of his best work has come from an obsessive mood and vision which from moment to moment seems to take the place of the realist's eye for physical detail.
Theodore Solotaroff, "Bernard Malamud's Fiction: The Old Life and the New" (reprinted by permission from Commentary; © 1962 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, March, 1962, pp. 197-204.
[The] Jews in [Malamud's] stories—while caricatures both as Jews and as human beings—evolve into something larger than either; while they certainly contain within themselves the realism of reality and the distortion of caricature, they also contain elements of the artist's touch which transcend the reality of Realism or the distortion of caricature; in spite of the author's intentions in the matter, they reach larger dimensions. Like the characters of Twain, Shaw, Dickens, and finally Sholem Aleichem himself—who was once called the Jewish Mark Twain and whom Malamud so closely resembles—Malamud's caricatures, though perhaps inspired by his sense of the moral dilemma, in their final effect, end as larger figures than the mere vitality of caricature would indicate; they finally imply a morality which transcends the immediate intentions—whatever they may be—of their creator.
Sam Bluefarb, "Bernard Malamud: The Scope of Caricature," in English Journal, May, 1964, pp. 319-26.
The suffering of the Jews is to Bernard Malamud the stuff and substance of his art; from it he has fashioned works of surpassing beauty and integrity, and a sure place among the best writers of his time…. Suffering is Malamud's theme, and upon it he works a thousand variations: some comical, some menacing; some austere, some grotesque; some imaginative, others classic. The Jew as symbol for suffering mankind is hardly an original idea. In Malamud there is considerable individuality, however: in his style, for example, which is highly personal yet generous and attentive to the requirements of outsiders, the public; in his characterization, variegated, kaleidoscopic, but in essence shifting combinations of only two or three basic forms. Most of all Malamud reveals his personality in his attitude, which is strikingly and over-whelmingly Romantic…. The tormented characters of Bernard Malamud's fiction, although fated often to despair, curse, submit, and turn aside, still cling to the Romantic's determination to reject old evidence, to present a new solution that will be bigger than the sum of its parts. It is this highly characteristic Romantic drive that supplies the impetus of Malamud's greatness; it can be found, in one form or another, in each of his works to date….
One of Malamud's strongest and best claims to enduring recognition is his instinct for myth. From his first novel, which is at times almost entirely removed from the plane of ordinary reality, to his latest short story, he provides for his characters and their situations a ritual shadow of significance which never seems contrived, and at times is simply astonishing in its effectiveness. It is this quality which has time and again fascinated critics of The Assistant. Here Malamud has realized an age-old prophecy: the lion lies down with the kid. Once side by side, they look very much alike….
Only the Romantic will wish to present [his characters] in such a way that they epitomize Man's condition—struggling, stumbling ahead, not winning, but not losing either. The reason the schlemiel receives new rebuffs is that he always makes new efforts; and once in a while these efforts are granted success. If none of his triumphs is permanent, neither are his failures.
Charles Alva Hoyt, "Bernard Malamud and the New Romanticism" (© 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 65-79.
Malamud, together with Bellow, seems to me the best and most remarkable of the younger American novelists. Of his three novels, The Natural (1952), The Assistant (1957) and A New Life (1961), The Assistant is the most successful, a work of great subtlety and moral beauty. The theme, if one regards Frank Alpine as the centre of the novel, is the struggle for moral excellence, the wish to be good, though this is probably to oversimplify, for Malamud's characters are seen in a Chekhovian irony….
The milieu of The Assistant is depressing enough and the story, on the material level, one of defeat. But the final effect is of moral beauty. It comes from several sources. There is the intensity of the observation of life in what in effect is one very short street in Manhattan, a street crowded with characters freshly and sharply perceived. There is, too, Malamud's mastery of the speech-rhythms of Yiddish in his dialogue. The invention is continuous and fascinating in its detail. One feels that nothing, either in the setting or the characters, is shirked; all, setting and characters, good and bad, are invested with a wonderfully luminous charity, as though the author sees all around them and beyond them.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 330-32.
Malamud is finally the moralist faithful to his comic view of identity. He believes, with T. S. Eliot and "Sam" Levin of A New Life, in the pastness of the present and the presentness of the past. Like Levin he also believes that we can go into the world with the old self made new by acceptance, by love. Unlike the tragic idealist, Malamud presents with persuasive force the creed of the comic artist: light over darkness, life over death.
Mark Goldman, "Bernard Malamud's Comic Vision and the Theme of Identity," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. VII, No. 2, 1965, pp. 92-109.
[There] is something special about the coordinates Malamud chooses to graph man's progress along the road of life, and this particular quality—or series of graphic locations—contrasts sharply with the all-too-familiar story line of Malamud's fictions. Yes, the curve runs predictably from birth to suffering to death, or to false hope (or wanhope) but there are strange divagations in the curve, and it is a mistake to describe it only in terms of its origin, midpoint, and end-point, as many have been tempted to do. Malamud, for all the apparent simplicity of his plots, for all the obviousness of his subject matter, is actually a very complicated writer, complicated enough it seems to have snared his reviewers into falling for easy answers to profound questions or meeting the Malamudian ambiguity of meaning by merely describing it, in oblique or fragmentary terms….
Malamud's talent is enormous, and if his underlying symbolizations of a reconstructed society, a poisoned world, and a new life are not immediately clear to the general or the critical reader, there is still enough left in his haunting stories to cause the reader to brood for a long time after the stories have been read and reread.
Samuel Irving Bellman, "Women, Children, and Idiots First: Transformation Psychology of Bernard Malamud," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. VII, No. 2, 1965, pp. 123-38.
Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, Bernard Malamud, in his fables of defeated love and failed ambition, has extended the tradition of the American romance novel, has made the form into something uniquely and significantly his own. A moral fabler and fantasist, Malamud writes of the conflicting demands of the inner and outer worlds of his heroes, of the tremulous private life confronted by a mythic public scene. Unlike many contemporary writers of allegorical fiction, Malamud is aware that if a novel is to function as novel, it must deal first of all with human experience. Unashamedly romantic, Malamud's fiction delineates the broken dreams and private griefs of the spirit, the needs of the heart, the pain of loss, the economy of love.
A romantic, Malamud writes of heroes; a realist, he writes of their defeats. In our serious arts as in our popular sports, we demand heroes, men who break records, enact our wildest fantasies, write great novels. And when we discover, as we must, that our heroes are, after all, fallible, we are disenchanted and pillory them for having failed us, for not having transcended our own poor humanity. In crucifying our heroes, we create after the fact our saints. And this in part is the subject of Malamud's three novels: The Natural (1952), The Assistant (1957), and the last and least, A New Life (1961). The rest is love. Love is the redemptive grace in Malamud's fiction, its highest good. The defeat of love is its tragedy. Love rejected, love misplaced, love betrayed, loveless lust: these are the main evils in Malamud's fictional world, where (in contrast to Flannery O'Connor's) a good man is not too hard to find. Yet the world, for all its potential goodness, is not good, and the good man, the man capable of love, is inevitably the sufferer, the sacrifice, the saint.
Jonathan Baumbach, "All Men Are Jews: The Assistant by Bernard Malamud," in his The Landscape in Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, New York University Press, 1965, pp. 101-22.
With montage-like effects, Malamud dramatizes American culture with casual, almost comic allusions, ranging from the popular to the more aesthetic conceptions of American life. Occasionally he even moves beyond national boundaries to treat America as a symbolic pattern for the direction of Western civilization, but for the most part, his social focus is confined to the American dream as nightmare, in particular terms to a poor neighborhood in New York where success, instead of being a goal or source of hope, serves to mock and eventually to envelop everyone like a shroud. Within the realistic bounds of the neighborhood, however, the characters tend, at times, to embody what might be called archetypal images from the level of popular middle-class American culture.
Walter Shear, "Culture Conflict in The Assistant," in Midwest Quarterly, July, 1966, pp. 367-80.
Primarily, it is the struggle to establish unity with some unacknowledged center of one's personality, a quest for lost roots, which directs [Bernard] Malamud's Jewish heroes. Where once in Jewish-American literature the mother was celebrated for her support of the assimilative task, Malamud's characters must regain the way of the father, the carrier of ancient traditions…. Ultimately … the "way" his heroes are obliged to take simply reverses the traditional success story which the Jew had to accept as his motivating dream in America. The Morris Bobers and the S. Levins in Malamud's fictional world succeed as men only by virtue of their failures in society. Were it not that their suffering deflects them from their own achievements, they might well intone: What profits it a man if he gains the world and loses himself? What sustains these heroes is Malamud's belief, to paraphrase Frankie Alpine in The Assistant, that man is better than he is; that there is a zone of goodness, a conscience, bequeathed from the humane traditions of the past which can be proof against the present. (pp. 22-3)
Like many of his fellow Jewish-American writers, Malamud speaks for those who "have hardly anything in common" with themselves and who are seeking, through a maze of social and philosophical blindalleys, for a reattainment of self. As Malamud points out again and again in his fiction, Jewishness is not a necessary ingredient in this success. In The Natural, his first novel, there are no Jewish characters; and yet the myth of salvation which dominates his fiction generally is more clearly indicated in it than in any of his later novels. At most, Malamud's Jews are simply symbols for all men who suffer to be better than they are or whose personalities are riven by what Bellow once termed the debate between the real and the pretender soul. (p. 24)
Malamud's instinctive affinity to both the themes and the special concerns of East European Jewish literature is clearest in his comedy. If refracted by time and place, it is on the whole the same kind of comedy, "the comedy of exile," which pervades the work of Sholom Aleichem. "The one offense which comedy cannot endure," it has been written, "is that a man should forget he is a man."… [Laughter] becomes in Malamud's writing and even, as in The Assistant, his most terrifying writing, the prime agency in exposing a man to his own manhood. Necessarily it also becomes, as it was with Aleichem, the only form of affirmation, a grotesque and offbeat laugh in the face of reality.
Blending in some indeterminate way both the resources of naturalism and symbolism, a vernacular steeped at one and the same time in the rhythms of European Yiddish storytelling, and a laconic irony reminiscent of Hemingway, the stories have inspired oddly divergent searches after influences. As a short-story writer Malamud has been called a disciple of I. L. Peretz, a Sherwood Anderson and a Chekhov of the East Side, and frequently an amalgamation of all these things. Nor is the obverse side of the coin slow to rise: one often learns that the Jewish elements in the stories are neither essential nor even particularly significant—even from those critics who readily agree that the "Jewish" stories are precisely the best. (p. 100)
If Idiots First can be said to "serve" at all, it is perhaps as a kind of way station by which to identify Malamud's present and future direction. If it does nothing more, the collection demonstrates the continuation of a line of development already suggested by the progress of his earliest work. Both as a novelist and a short story writer he has repeatedly demonstrated a dedication to his craft that is almost as rare as his gifts. He is a writer—odd enough in our day—who takes chances. In every case, moreover, the risks are taken in an effort to rescue man from an Underground which has for too long been cultivated as the only means of identifying him as Man. For all its failings, Idiots First establishes Malamud as a member of that select company of contemporary writers who are seeking, as Jack Ludwig recently wrote, to liberate fiction "from the tyranny of symbolic smallness … to catch the visible world in all its complexity, clangor, and untriumphant celebration." (p. 141)
Sidney Richman, in his Bernard Malamud, Twayne, 1966.
For Malamud, the pastoral mode is his greatest strength as a writer of fiction, because it has given him an archetypal narrative structure of great flexibility, a durable convention of characterization, a consistent pattern of imagery and symbols, and a style and rhetorical strategy of lucidity and power. Although Malamud employs different versions of pastoral in each novel, The Fixer not only does all that the others do in developing his major themes but also pushes the mode into areas never quite reached in The Natural, The Assistant, or A New Life.
The very flexible structural archetype the pastoral offers Malamud is the pattern of vegetation rituals and myths. Based upon the seasonal cycle of change, this pattern gives Malamud a central controlling form in the pastoral fertility myths of dying and reviving gods, of youthful heroes replacing the aged, of the son replacing the father, the primary expression of which is found in vegetation life rituals, myths of the Fisher King, and its historical successor, the Grail quest. The form that this archetype takes in each of Malamud's novels is that of the son finding and replacing the father or of the young hero or leader replacing the old….
Adapting this archetype in each of his novels, Malamud devises two important strategies that both conceal the pattern's simplicity and expand its significance: one, the use of multiple levels dependent upon the basic archetypal relationship, and two, the assimilation of the significant nodes of the narrative to a seasonal rhythm. Used partially to "displace" the features of the archetype, the multiplying of fatherson relationships in each novel serves primarily to reinforce and to extend its meanings….
For Malamud, the arcadian, as opposed to the naturalistic, aspects of nature represent a kind of ideal of beauty and peace and fulfillment. Consequently, all of his protagonists long for them when they are not present in their lives, often remembering pleasant natural scenes in their pasts or dreaming of them in their futures….
Because of his idealization of benevolent nature, Malamud finds his dominant symbols in natural objects, the major symbols in the novels being unusually consistent with the symbolism of vegetation myths and Grail quests. For example, three symbols consistently used are birds, fish, and flowers….
In some ways more important than the myth, the imagery, or the symbolism is the convention of characterization that the pastoral affords Malamud…. Rather pedantically denigrated at times for being unrealistic, Malamud's simple characters are germane to the pastoral's major strategy. Thus in each novel Malamud has chosen as central characters people who are less worldly, more innocent, inexperienced, or naive than most human beings….
Because of the simplicity of the characters the style necessarily is relatively elemental in syntax, diction, imagery, and symbol, and yet Malamud's language is fashionable and learned—an astonishing feat, perhaps, but still his most distinctive stylistic achievement. He can do this in the novels because the general concerns of pastoral art happen to be the concerns of modern literature and criticism.
James M. Mellard, "Malamud's Novels: Four Versions of Pastoral," in Critique, Vol. IX, No. 2, 1967, pp. 5-19.
My first impression was that Bernard Malamud's fourth novel, The Fixer, is a striking departure in material and treatment from all of his earlier fiction. This was because the sensibility expressed is radically different, but after one grows used to the novel's failure of tone, most of Malamud's familiar characters, themes, and minor techniques become visible. Unfortunately, none of them is well handled, and the novel seems to me almost wholly unsuccessful. Since the most immediately impressive aspect of Malamud's earlier work is its compassionate poetic sensibility and its forgiving humor, one is inclined to focus on the failure of sensibility in The Fixer, but that failure seems to stem from the interaction of recalcitrant material and inept technique.
Mordecai Marcus, "The Unsuccessful Malamud" (© 1967 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), in Prairie Schooner, Spring, 1967, pp. 88-9.
The books of Bernard Malamud … are [difficult] to summarize. In many ways they are more traditional than either Bellow's or Gold's, showing a kinship with the older Yiddish literature, in which the world of spirit impinges on that of the flesh and, without surprise, we see the supernatural (disguised as surrealism) closing in, the world of objects dissolving, the very identities of people becoming unsure…. Malamud has great gifts of language, though not of construction (his novels tend to the episodic); there is Jewish warmth, humour, irony, compassion in all his writing, expressed in supple prose-rhythms and exactly caught American speech.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 197-98.
A Romantic, Malamud writes of heroes; a realist, he writes of their defeats. Malamud's fiction delineates the broken dreams and private griefs of the spirit, the needs of the heart, the pain of loss, the economy of love.
Love is the redemptive grace in Malamud's fiction, the highest good.
Who one is is a central issue—what one is on earth for….
Malamud's stories are homiletic (more or less allegorical)—they each make a moral point, though the moral is sometimes ironic and always more complicated than it seems on the surface….
Even Malamud's most realistic stories leap at times into fantasy. His world is magical, metaphoric. The moral of a Malamud fable is a lesser virtue in the hierarchy of its achievement than the beauty of the narrative, the way it is, the way it happens. In literature as in life, means and ends are rarely separable….
A moral fabler and [fantasist], Malamud writes of the conflicting demands of the inner and outer worlds of his heroes, who move uncertainly, often looking the other way, toward self-knowledge. The stories are best when they deny the author his need to manipulate them, when they startle us with sudden turns of wit, when they make the fantastic real and the real fantastic, as in a dream.
Jonathan Baumbach, in Moderns and Contemporaries: Nine Masters of the Short Story, edited by Jonathan Baumbach and Arthur Edelstein (© 1968 by Random House, Inc., reprinted by permission of the publisher), Random House, 1968, pp. 305-06.
The Malamud protagonist functions simultaneously as mythic savior and as social scapegoat. His growth in conscience represents symbolically a victory for society and the forces of life. His personal transgressions (bribery, theft, adultery, rape, perjury), which eventually cause him to fall short of his human goals, provide society with a vicarious castigation of its recurrent failure to realize utopia. In the refusal of the novels to resolve these rhetorical equivocations, Malamud opts firmly and unambiguously for a radically sophisticated comprehension of the human predicament.
Max F. Schulz, "Bernard Malamud's Mythic Proletarians," in his Radical Sophistication: Studies in Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists, Ohio University Press, 1969, pp. 56-68.
Pictures of Fidelman … is a very bad novel which is characterized by passages of good prose that inevitably founder in a morass of vulgarity. I bring it up at all only because Malamud is an accomplished and serious writer, and too many serious writers have been seduced by this easy way out….
Sooner or later in this kind of novel, all our vestigial decencies, all the sources and ceremonies of our remaining virtue, are brought under ridicule….
[Why] should a novelist concern himself with the gratuitously ugly? When, as Malamud does, we put in hunchbacks and other cripples for no apparent reason except to display the freaks of nature, then at best we violate the organic nature of our fiction…. Malamud's artistic vision seems to drive him relentlessly toward whatever is flawed or ugly. It is true that all these things are a part of the world, but the job of the artist is to select out of all the variety of the universe those details and actions that come together to make a meaningful whole. This is the principle the novelist must work from. And any other principle of selection, any obsessive interest in one or another aspect of experience for its own sake, is, to put the best interpretation on it, bad technique.
Walter Sullivan, "'Where Have All the Flowers Gone?': The Novel in the Gnostic Twilight" (© 1970 by the University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Autumn, 1970, pp. 654-64.
Perhaps the most original feature of Malamud's previous work has been his tendency to place the contemporary search for the possibilities of personal connection and growth against a background of deprivation and despair that seems to be a composite of immigrant neighborhoods, the darker side of Russian fiction, and winter days in the 1930's. In his best-known stories in The Magic Barrel as well as in his second novel, The Assistant, he creates a kind of modern folk literature by making a spectral version of New York body forth the ethos of poverty, irony, and salvation that the East European Jews preserved in a virtually pure and congruous form. Along with providing for his needs as a fantasist, this timeless ghetto has also served his purposes as a moralist, for it enables him to cut through the fog of relativism, and to study men who have been stripped down to their irreducible intentions, conflicts, and mistakes. The New York of Malamud's imagination is like a secular version of Purgatory….
Malamud's figures have, or gain, an expert knowledge of suffering, whether in the flesh from poverty and illness, or in the mind from frustration and remorse. Their character is almost invariably formed by hunger, and they are connected to each other not by normal social ties but by a common fate of error and ill-luck and sorrow, of having lost much by their sins and gained little by their virtues. But their lives are suffused with an earnestness of feeling and are directed by an assurance of moral order which enables them to be cast whole and to restore the drama of conscience to fiction….
[In] general, Malamud uses Jewishness as a type of metaphor for anyone's life—both for the third dimension of anyone's life, the one of the spirit, and for a code of personal morality and salvation that is more psychological than religious. To the extent that the Jew and his problems become a way of envisaging the human condition, he becomes more symbol than fact—that is, fashioned to the service of an abstraction.
Theodore Solotaroff, "Bernard Malamud: The Old Life and the New" (1962, 1963), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 71-86.
Malamud embraces without reservation the provincialism he has no interest in evading: his Depression Jews, their undisplaceable identity, the dreary inventory of local impedimenta that keep them where they are, and the style that may be all too faithful an analogue of their cluttered, graceless, and well-meaning lives. Malamud's great exemplar is Hardy. Like Hardy, he has a tin ear except for the dialectal speech of his locality; like Hardy, he is in no hurry to be cosmopolitan; like Hardy, he believes with the passion of perfect knowledge in what unexceptional people do. It is of course a question of likeness and not equality: Malamud resembles Hardy in subject, in method, in knowledge and conviction, in limitations, though not in size….
Malamud really believes that life lived close to subsistence, close to the level of animal need (and therefore close to "nature," in a setting as claustrophobic as Hardy's though urban rather than rural), is the truest and most representative life, it tests the spirit and insists on the most unequivocal manifestations of fortitude, loyalty, and love. Malamud's conviction leads him to construct an allegory of expiation, prodigious labors, self-sacrifice, and what might be called—after the two millennia of the Christian ascendancy—reconversion; and his knowledge of the ordinariness out of which such extraordinary manifestations must come is so patient and unsparing that the allegory becomes simply the meaning of the events….
Malamud really believes, when his shrewdness deserts him for the moment, that life is a contest between good and evil, or at least between readily distinguishable good and evil impulses….
Marvin Mudrick, in his On Culture and Literature (© 1970; reprinted by permission of the publisher Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1970, pp. 200-33.
The quarter-century since the end of World War II has not been an era of great creativity, but it has been given distinction by a number of writers of fiction. One of these is Bernard Malamud, whose steady development as a novelist and as a writer of short stories has been a satisfaction to watch. I cannot say that each book he has written has been an improvement over the last, but each does represent growth in one way or another—style, form, depth of feeling, range of emotion. Certainly not in the usual sense an art-for-art's sake man, he is a dedicated craftsman. It is suitable that his most recent novel, Pictures of Fidelman, is a subtle study of the character of the artist. One of his funniest books, it is also one of his most profound.
Granville Hicks, with Jack Alan Robbins, in their Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction, New York University Press, 1970, p. 65.
The Tenants is a superb novel, whose mastery of tone, language, and characterization can only enlarge the stature of Bernard Malamud, one of our best writers….
There seems to be little love in this taut, highly concentrated novel. Its fierce symbols—jungle vegetation, the flora that surrounds human beings who stalk each other like beasts—create an Eden not so much lost as ravaged by man's passionate enmity toward his kind. The complex integration of symbolism and realism reminds us how prophetic The Natural, Mr. Malamud's first novel, was in influencing the direction his writing would take….
In one lovely passage that combines poetic rhythms with an affectionate Yiddish vernacular, Harry [the protagonist] imagines a pastoral scene in which a rabbi prays that God may someday bless the union of Black and Jew, "of Ishmael and Israel." But Harry soon returns to the everyday world, where the suffering caused by hate is not always redemptive and where bitter emotions continue to rankle within men….
The Tenants is an unforgettable book, conceived with great, but almost despairing, love for all men.
Joseph Catinella, in Saturday Review, September 25, 1971, p. 36.
The difficulty with The Tenants, for me, is that the book itself is never as interesting as the aesthetic, psychological and social assumptions that give it its open-ended form. Much of it is too familiar—inevitable echoes of The Assistant and "Angel Levine," ironic reportage on the black-lit scene, fairly standard interracial "black" comedy with the usual anti-Semitic and racist (Jew and nigger) overtones. I found myself wishing that I were reviewing the book for Time or some other magazine that puts a premium on being cute so that I could dismiss it by wondering if all those non-ends justified the means.
Gerald Weales, in Hudson Review, Winter, 1971–72, p. 728.