Bernard Malamud Malamud, Bernard (Vol. 5) - Essay

Malamud, Bernard (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Malamud, Bernard 1914–

A Jewish American novelist and short story writer, Malamud is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Assistant, The Tenants, and Rembrandt's Hat. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Bernard Malamud is a bit of a puzzle to many readers, though they often find it difficult to articulate their mystification. Anybody, however, who is not charmed by Malamud or not convinced of his talent, need only turn to "The Tenants" after a surfeit of contemporary fiction and he will discover that here is something distinctive, here is the elastic strength of a genuine prose style in the hands of a genuine writer. Malamud may not have solved his basic problems with plot, and he has, seemingly, tried to evade them here with a mirror trick, reproducing his own image on the career of his hero, thereby justifying his own failure; but whatever his difficulties along this line he has created and spoken through some very real people. And, hiding behind the protagonist's person, Malamud is able to unburden himself of a great many thoughts about writing….

Much of what Malamud says about writing is nothing more than the old ideal of artistic integrity done up in new words. The blunt but crudely eloquent pleas for a new literature as voiced by Spear, however, give a new dimension to the whole debate; Malamud has crystallized the question that is bothering many a critical mind as everybody turns again to the problem of art. The book is inconclusive, in part a tract on the critical dilemma, but beautifully written, solid, substantial.

William B. Hill, S. J., "'The Tenants'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1971, by the University of Scranton), October 15, 1971, p. 316.

Compared with his earlier collections of stories, The Magic Barrel and Idiots First, [Rembrandt's Hat] seems rather bare at first sight, evoking less of the rank smell of rooming-houses, and the heat of people living close together. But if the surrounding atmosphere has thinned, the human encounters have become sharper and more extraordinary.

It was always, anyway, personal rather than material poverty that was Mr. Malamud's theme—poverty of spirit, the tight emotional economy that sets the price of friendship or trust or love….

Whether the subjects are grotesque or drab, Mr. Malamud's style retains its lucidity, strength and truthfulness. It never looks imaginatively strenuous—there are few eye-catching flourishes—but it succeeds uniquely in conveying the many-sidedness and wholeness of a situation….

Mr. Malamud's stories are as important as his novels; the present volume confirms that. And indeed, his sense that the writer's responsibility never lets up is one of his most distinctive qualities.

"Poor in Spirit," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), October 5, 1973, p. 1158.

[Malamud] is a seeker and practitioner of an imaginative language which will go beyond the usual humanistic terminologies, or of a music of fiction which will immediately and absolutely mean. At the same time, I have to add that I can't make an observation like that about a fellow writer without feeling a twinge of doubt concerning the whole business. In what sense, for instance, could Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition (1969) be said to aspire to any music at all? Isn't it just a bad book, pathetic in its attempts to relate art to life, full of feeble jokes and forgettable characters? Well, yes, but then remember the Malamud of The Assistant (1957) and The Fixer (1966). These are not masterpieces, but they are amongst the more decent bits of fiction we have had in English since the Second World War. They engage with life's textures, they make their comment on the bleakness of existence, they come back to speak of an experience of chaos which still finds joy in the selecting of appropriate metaphors and the making of memorable rhythms. (pp. 71-2)

[In Rembrandt's Hat] Malamud is playing the one tune in different keys, and no doubt with variations, but precisely what the original might be never becomes clear…. Brilliance, Mr. Malamud, yes, but brilliance is not enough. Who ever felt satisfied after a meal of it? (p. 72)

Robert Nye, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Robert Nye 1974), January, 1974.

[Malamud] has had what, I suppose, we must all now recognize as the extraordinary fortune to inherit, more or less direct, that Yiddish tradition of story-telling which reached its height in the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer. (p. 137)

John Mellors, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1974), February/March, 1974.

[There are] in the work of Bernard Malamud … tendencies … so sharply and schematically present as to give Malamud's novels the lineaments of moral allegory. For Malamud, generally speaking, the Jew is innocent, passive, virtuous, and this to the degree that he defines himself or is defined by others as a Jew; the Gentile, on the other hand, is characteristically corrupt, violent, and lustful, particularly when he enters a room or a store or a cell with a Jew in it.

Now on the face of it, it would seem that a writer could not get very far with such evangelistic simplifications. And yet that is not at all the case with Malamud (as it isn't with Jerzy Kosinski in The Painted Bird), for so instinctively do the figures of a good Jew and a bad goy emerge from an imagination essentially folkloric and didactic that his fiction is actually most convincing the more strictly he adheres to these simplifications, and diminishes in moral conviction and narrative drive to the extent that he surrenders them, or tries, however slyly, to undo their hold on him.

The best book—containing as it does the classic Malamudian moral arrangement—is still The Assistant, which proposes that an entombed and impoverished grocer named Morris Bober shall by the example of his passive suffering and his goodness of heart transform a young thieving Italian drifter named Frank Alpine into another entombed, impoverished, suffering Jewish grocer, and that this shall constitute an act of assistance, and set Alpine on the road to redemption—or so the stern morality of the book suggests.

Redemption from what? Crimes of violence and deceit against a good Jewish father, crimes of lust against the father's virginal daughter, whom the goy has spied upon naked and then raped. But oh how punitive is this redemption! We might almost take what happens to the bad goy when he falls into the hands of the good Jew as an act of enraged Old Testament retribution visited upon him by the wrathful Jewish author—if it weren't for the moral pathos and the gentle religious coloration with which Malamud invests the tale of conversion; and also the emphasis that is clear to the author throughout—that it is the good Jews who have fallen into the hands of the bad goy. It has occurred to me that a less hopeful Jewish writer than Malamud—Kosinski, say, whose novels don't put much stock in the capacity for redemption, but concentrate rather determinedly on the persistence of brutality and malice—might not have understood Alpine's transformation into Jewish grocer and Jewish father (with all those roles entail in this book) as a sign of moral improvement, but as the cruel realization of Bober's revenge. "Now suffer, you goy bastard, the way I did." (p. 25)

I know of no serious authors who have chronicled physical brutality and fleshly mortification in such detail and at such length, and who likewise have taken a single defenseless innocent and constructed almost an entire book [The Fixer] out of the relentless violations suffered by that character at the hands of cruel and perverse captors, other than Malamud, the Marquis de Sade, and the pseudonymous author of The Story of O….

The careful social and historical documentation of The Fixer—which Malamud's instinctive feel for folk material is generally able to transform from fiction researched into fiction imagined—envelops what is at its center a relentless work of violent pornography, in which the pure and innocent Jew, whose queasiness at the sight of blood is at the outset almost maidenly, is ravished by the sadistic goyim, "men," a knowledgeable ghost informs him, "who [are] without morality."…

In Pictures of Fidelman Malamud sets out to turn the tables on himself and, gamely, to take a holiday from his own obsessive mythology: here he imagines as the hero a Jewish man living without shame and even with a kind of virile, if shlemielish, forcefulness in a world of Italian gangsters, thieves, pimps, whores, and bohemians…. [In] Fidelman, unfortunately, natural repugnance and constraints, and a genuine sense of what conversions cost, are by and large dissolved in rhetorical flourishes rather than through the sort of human struggle that Malamud's own deeply held sense of things calls forth in The Assistant and The Fixer. It's no accident that this of all the longer works generates virtually no internal narrative tension (a means whereby it might seek to test its own assumptions) and is without the continuous sequential development that comes to this kind of storyteller so naturally and acts in him as a necessary counterforce against runaway fantasy. This playful day-dream of waywardness, criminality, transgression, lust, and sexual perversion could not have stood up against that kind of opposition….

[The] book has an air of unchecked and unfocused indulgence, which is freewheeling about a libidinous and disordered life more or less to the extent that nothing much is at stake or seriously challenged. (p. 26)

[Whereas] in The Assistant the lusting goy's passionate and aggressive act of genuinely loving desire for the Jewish girl takes the form of rape, and requires penance (or retribution) of the harshest kind, in Pictures of Fidelman, the Jew's most wayward (albeit comfortingly passive) sexual act is, without anything faintly resembling Alpine's enormous personal struggle, converted on the spot into love. And if this is still insufficiently reassuring about a Jew and sexual appetite, the book manages by the end to have severed the bisexual Fidelman as thoroughly from things Jewish as The Assistant, by its conclusion, has marked the sexually constrained, if not desexed, Alpine as a Jew forevermore. Of all of Malamud's Jewish heroes is there any who is by comparison so strikingly un-Jewish (after chapter one is out of the way, that is), who insists upon it so little and is so little reminded of it by the Gentile world? And is there any who, at the conclusion, is happier?…

[It is] the disjunction between act and self-knowledge that accounts for the lightheaded dreaminess of Fidelman, and that differentiates it so sharply from those wholly convincing novels, The Assistant and The Fixer, where no beclouding ambivalence stands between the author's imagination and the objects of his fury. (p. 27)

Philip Roth, "Imagining Jews," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 NYREV, Inc.), October 3, 1974, pp. 22-8.