Bernard Malamud Malamud, Bernard (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Malamud, Bernard 1914–

Malamud is an American novelist and short story writer. Thematically, his fiction centers around the concerns of the Jew in modern America. Malamud's work is distinguished by a spare prose style and dialogue flavored with traditional Yiddish humor and dialect. Through his suffering heroes, who are drawn with compassion, Malamud explores the process of redemption through suffering, reaffirming the triumph of the human spirit. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To understand Malamud, one must read closely his short stories…. Most of them portray poverty-stricken people living in New York or Brooklyn, and Malamud writes of misery with calm poignancy. (p. 218)

What Malamud is always asking himself is how people live with great misery. Some of his people are crushed by it, but most survive, through hope or pride or sheer fortitude. The best, moreover, learn to be compassionate, and compassion is, for Malamud, the first of the virtues. (p. 219)

As almost always with a novel based on a myth or a legend, the reader [of The Natural] is distracted by the effort he has to make to follow the author's intentions, but if the book is not completely successful, there is much to be said for it.

There is no difficulty in evaluating Malamud's second novel, The Assistant (1957); it is one of the strongest and finest novels of recent years. The method is not at all that of The Natural; Malamud relies wholly on a solid, highly selective realism. In his first chapter he makes us see Morris Bober, a poor Jewish grocer, sixty years of age, who watches his business dwindle to the vanishing point. Yet he is not crushed by his sufferings, and he is capable of compassion towards those poorer than himself. He is, we see, a good man, but an unlucky one…. (p. 220)

Frank Alpine, when he becomes a Jew, is not only accepting suffering but also finding hope. Suffering, Malamud is saying, is the human lot, but we need not surrender to despair. To escape suffering is impossible; to live a good life in spite of it is not….

Malamud handles the tools of his craft with the greatest skill, selecting his details with rigorous economy, making every scene count heavily. He lets us into the mind of each of his characters, yet tells us only what we need to know. His dialogue has both verisimilitude and flavor, and his narrative is lean and supple. The novel makes an unforgettable impact.

Malamud's [next] novel, A New Life (1961) is in a sense a further development of the theme of The Assistant. Its hero, thirty years of age, "formerly a drunkard," as Malamud tells us in the first line, arrives at Cascadia College in the...

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Cynthia Ozick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In 1958, in his celebrated collection The Magic Barrel, Malamud published a short story about a Negro and a Jew. It was called "Angel Levine," and it contrived for Manischevitz, a Job-like figure who has "suffered many reverses and indignities," the promise of redemption through a magical black man [the angel, Levine]. (p. 80)

[The] narrative is altogether offhand about the question of the angel's identity: Levine is perfectly matter-of-fact about it, there is nothing at all miraculous in the idea that a black man can also be a Jew. In a tale about the supernatural, this is what emerges as the "natural" element—as natural-feeling as Manischevitz's misfortunes and his poverty. Black misfortune and poverty have a different resonance—Manischevitz's wanderings through Harlem explain the differences—but, like the Jews' lot, the blacks' has an everyday closeness, for Manischevitz the smell of a familiar fate. To him—and to Malamud at the end of the fifties—that Black and Jew are one is no miracle.

A little more than a decade later, with the publication of The Tenants, the proposition seems hollow. Again Malamud offers a parable of black and Jew culminating in fantasy, but now the fantasy has Jew slashing with ax, black with saber, destroying one another in a passionate bloodletting. The novel's last paragraph is eerily liturgical—the word "mercy" repeated one hundred and fifty times, and once in Hebrew. Nevertheless The Tenants is a merciless book. (p. 81)

How was the transmutation from magical brotherhood to ax-murder wrought? Is it merely that society has changed so much since the late 1950's, or is it that the author of "Angel Levine" was, even then, obtuse? If the difference in Malamud's imaginative perception lies only in our own commonplace perception that the social atmosphere has since altered in the extreme—from Selma to Forest Hills—then "Angel Levine," far from being a mythically representative tale about suffering brothers, is now no more than a dated magazine story. One test of the durability of fiction is whether it still tells even a partial truth ten years after publication. The conclusion of The Tenants seems "true" now—i.e., it fits the current moment outside fiction. But a change in social atmosphere is not enough to account for the evanescence or lastingness of a piece of fiction. There are other kinds of truth than sociological truth. There is the truth that matches real events in the world—in The Tenants, it is the black man and the Jew turning on one another—and there is the truth which accurately describes what can only be called aspiration. Even in the world of aspiration, it is a question whether "Angel Levine" remains true. And on the last page of The Tenants, when Jew and black cut sex and brains from each other, Malamud writes: "Each, thought the writer, feels the anguish of the other." This is the truth of invisible faith, and it is a question whether this too can survive.

"The anguish of the other" is a Malamudic assumption, endemic in his fiction. The interior of many of Malamud's fables resounds with the injunction that for the sake of moral aspiration one must undergo…. Malamud's world often proposes a kind of hard-won, eked-out saintliness: suffering and spiritual goodness are somehow linked. The real world of humanity—which means also the real world of the Jews—is not like this. "Bad" Jews went up in smoke at Auschwitz too—surely embezzlers as well as babies, not only tsadikim but misers too, poets as well as kleptomaniacs. Not one single Jew ever deserved his martyrdom, but not every martyr is a holy man. For Malamud all good men are Job.

Nevertheless there remains a thin strand of connection between Malamud's visionary "Angel Levine" and a commonplace of Jewish temperament, between the messianic insistence on the anguish of the other and the common sense of ordinary, "bad," Jews. The sociological—the "real"—counterpart of Malamud's holy fables is almost always taken for granted by Jews: it is, simply put, that Jews have always known hard times, and are therefore naturally sympathetic to others who are having, or once had, hard times. The "naturally" is what is important. It is a feeling so normal as to be unrelated to spiritual striving, self-purification, moral accountability, prophecy, Waskowian "witness," anything at all theoretical or lofty. This plain observation about particularized suffering requires no special sensitiveness; naturally there are Jews everywhere, and some of them are black.

But what has surprised some Jews, perhaps many, is that this Jewish assumption—this quiet tenet, to use a firmer word, that wounds recognize wounds—is not only not taken for granted by everyone else, especially by blacks, but is given no credibility whatever. Worse, to articulate the assumption is to earn the accusation of impudence…. To its critics, accusers, "Angel Levine" must seem not just dated, obsolete, a sentimental excrescence of that remote era when Jews were as concerned with CORE as they were with UJA—but wrong. And many young blacks writing today would regard its premise not only as not a moral hope, but as a hurtful lie. Or else would see Manischevitz's salvation as simply another instance of Jewish exploitation, this time of black benevolence. (pp. 81-3)

[What] was radiant, if illusioned, hope at the time "Angel Levine" was conceived has disintegrated into a kind of surrealism, an arbitrary act of art, set apart from any sources of life. Literature (even in the form of fantasy) cannot survive on illusion.

This is perhaps why Malamud went forward from the failed dream of "Angel Levine" to the warlike actualities of The Tenants. (p. 89)

[In] my first reading of The Tenants, I was, like many readers, rabidly discontent with Malamud's conception of his black character, Willie Spearmint, later called Spear. Willie Spear is a black writer who has the flavor of an Eldridge Cleaver rather than an Ellison; and this seemed to matter. Malamud, it appeared, had deliberately chosen—for novelistic bite and drama—an unruly spear-carrier, when he might have chosen a poised aristocrat of prose. And up against Spear he set the Jewish writer Harry Lesser, a man almost too fastidious in his craft. The balance was unequal, the protagonists...

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Sheldon Norman Grebstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Malamud best represents the phenomenon of the Jewish Movement; not only is he one of its founders and major practitioners, he is probably its best single exemplar. In Malamud's work we most clearly perceive just those characteristics which define the entire Movement.

First and foremost, there is the theme of meaningful suffering, which in Malamud also implies the quest for moral resolution and self-realization. But the theme of suffering cannot alone sustain either a movement or a writer's career. We can take just so much bad news. Malamud's writing, like that of the Movement at large, is also richly comic. Paradoxically, the comedy is at once a mode of expression of the suffering and a way of easing...

(The entire section is 3765 words.)

Paul Witherington

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A New Life deserves to survive on its own terms, its climate of nineteenth-century American myth and its rambling but thematically integrated nineteenth-century structure. Malamud's central archetype here is not, as some critics have insisted, the imported Fisher King of wasteland literature, but that native hybrid, the American Adam. Malamud's allusions to Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville establish Seymore Levin's basic transcendental ideal and its qualifications and revisions. Levin's own allusions in most cases, for Levin abuses literary contexts and adopts literary roles to rationalize his failures, allowing himself to be trapped in his own comfortable analogies. But these analogies also point the way to...

(The entire section is 1913 words.)