Bernard Malamud Malamud, Bernard (Vol. 18) - 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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Marcia B. Gealy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The aspects of culture] which characterize Malamud's best writing, particularly some of his finest short stories, I would identify with Hasidism, a Jewish religious movement founded shortly before the middle of the eighteenth century by the East European saint and mystic, Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov. Some of the major teachings of Hasidism, a transformation or reinterpretation of an older Jewish mysticism which made it accessible to the masses of the people, are the need to journey inward to achieve salvation, the importance of identification with a holy man or teacher, the primacy of love, and the reality of evil. In addition, the Hasidic belief in the sanctity of the tale, the notion that a story could have potency to effect change, led to the development of a vast and rich folklore. Hasidic tales permeated the culture of the East European shtetl until its destruction in the twentieth century and directly, or indirectly, have influenced the thinking of East European Jews and their descendants. If Malamud recalls for us the humor of Sholom Aleichem and, more significantly, the irony of I. L. Peretz, if his tales infuse us with the same sense of mystery that we find in the recreated Hasidic tales of Martin Buber, it is because he shares a common past with all of these writers.

Among his finest short stories, there are five which particularly illustrate Malamud's use of Hasidic themes: "The Last Mohican," "The Magic Barrel," "Idiots First," "The Jewbird," and "The Silver Crown." All of them deal with old-world Jews, displaced or in tension with the world around them; there is a schnorrer (beggar), a shadchan (matchmaker), even the suggestion of a wonder-working rabbi. From Yiddish folklore the author draws on a talking bird and the angel of death, and each of these figures takes on special significance within the Hasidic tradition. To understand the Hasidic elements in these short stories is to enrich our appreciation of some of Malamud's most creative work.

The motif of the journey as a means to the discovery of self, an inward journey that promises salvation, is employed most successfully in "The Last Mohican." Arthur Fidelman, a "self confessed failure as a painter,"… goes to Italy to become an art critic and learns, instead, to become a mensch. Fidelman's mentor in Rome is Shimon Susskind, refugee from Israel, a combination schnorrer, wandering Jew, and Virgil. (pp. 51-2)

As a Jewish Virgil, Susskind leads his initiate on a journey through Hell that promises transformation. But, unlike Dante's Virgil, Susskind is no exemplar of cool and dispassionate reason. On the contrary, he has all the bravado, all the huzpah (arrogance), associated with the common beggar or schnorrer of East European shtetl society. Because he is a product of this society …, Susskind knows that as a beggar he is an occasion for mizvos (good deeds) and, thus, an instrument of grace. If he feels himself at an advantage, if he does not hesitate to demand his due, it is because he realizes that the more fortunate need him as an object of charity. In the culture of the shtetl it is the schnorrer who opens "the portals of heaven" for the more fortunate man…. In the final analysis, the power of "The Last Mohican" can be attributed to Shimon Susskind who, with all his grotesque humor, can be identified with the wandering beggars and fools of Hasidic folklore. Like them, he is an enigmatic mixture of the commonplace and mysterious, the saintly and demonic; like them, he makes people dream and leads them to themselves.

"The Magic Barrel," the title story of Malamud's first collection, is probably the best one that he has written to date. Like so many of Malamud's better stories, which suspend us between the real and the supernatural, "The Magic Barrel" also contains within it an artful fusion of Hasidism's basic teachings. Leo Finkle, a young rabbinical student, must learn the lesson of the heart over the head. He does so from Pinye Salzman, a questionable mentor, who leads him on a tortuous journey and through an experience of evil. Only by identifying with, and embracing, this evil can Leo find himself and the love that he so desperately seeks. (pp. 53-4)

As an old-world shadchan, Pinye Salzman represents a classic type in Jewish folklore. Noted for a tendency toward humbug and a genius for euphemistically glossing over the defects of clients, the shadchan is not without a comic pathos. As the guide who shows to one who is lost the way through the mysterious maze of love and redemption, Salzman is reminiscent, in some ways, of Shimon Susskind of "The Last Mohican."… Salzman, like the refugee from Israel, is comic and grotesque, yet not without a sad dignity. If there is a suggestion of the demonic about Susskind, it also clings to Salzman, for Leo sees him as a "commercial cupid" … and a "cloven-hoofed Pan"…. To trust in Salzman, the yeshivah student must suspend his rationality…. [The] whole tenor of the story suggests that Salzman planned the final meeting between the student and his daughter for their mutual benefit, and if, at the end, he chants the prayers for the dead, he does so within the context of a culture where death is but the first step in the process of transformation. (pp. 54-5)

The final tableau—Leo running toward Stella with violets and rosebuds, while violins and lit candles revolve in the sky—transports us into a dream world where anything is possible. Many critics, writing of this scene, have remarked on its affinity with the paintings of Marc Chagall, and, not surprisingly, for Malamud's world, like Chagall's, is the visionary world of Hasidism where all of God's creation, good and evil, death and life, swirl together in a unified whole.

The Hasidic belief in inner salvation, an...

(The entire section is 2419 words.)

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bernard Malamud's risk-taking new novel ["Dubin's Lives"] moves into areas not usually associated with his art. In many of the famous short stories, in such novels as "The Assistant," "The Fixer" and "The Tenants," Malamud has depicted Jewish characters in confrontation with their neighbors—Italian-Americans, Czarist Russians, blacks and other goyim; he has presented the Jew as victim, as sufferer and as purveyor of special moral insights painfully wrung from experience. Often his stories have seemed like fables; often he has used, in both narrative and dialogue, a voice that echoes, in its rhythms and locutions, the Yiddish-speaking past.

"Dubin's Lives," by contrast, is only peripherally concerned with Jewishness, though its protagonist, William Dubin, was born into a poor Jewish family…. At 56, Dubin is a successful freelance biographer who lives comfortably in a small town, Center Campobello, on the New York-Vermont border. (p. 1)

Throughout, Dubin's relationship to his work is a major concern. His writing, which is central to his life, even to the point of shutting out his wife and children, has its own rhythms, rising and falling in ways that do not consistently reflect what is happening in other areas of his experience. The "lives" that he has written shed their influence over the course of his own life and his understanding of it; Thoreau, for instance, has educated Dubin's eye for nature…. The influence of Lawrence is to be felt in some of the sexually explicit lovemaking scenes, one of which, involving the entwining of flowers around flesh, seems to have been transposed directly from "Lady Chatterley's Lover."

Death and resurrection—that most Lawrentian of themes—is a central theme of this novel as well, one that is worked out on the grand scale of the landscape and the seasons and on the microcosmic scale of Dubin's existence. Two whole years and more undergo the cycle of efflorescence, decay, death and rebirth. (pp. 29-30)

Obviously there is a thematic copiousness in "Dubin's Lives," enough explicit or implied "meaning" to supply half a dozen less ambitious works. How well is all...

(The entire section is 895 words.)

Richard Gilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bernard Malamud sometimes gets obscured by flashier American writers…. But he writes superbly most of the time, at least as well as any living American writer of fiction, and time will pardon him for violating the categories.

For he does do that, and reviewers, whose categories they largely are, are often uncomfortable with him because of it. His narratives, which we are told ought to be shapely and lucid, are often lopsided and indistinct. He can be abrupt, impatient with the demands of plot without being willing to scuttle plot altogether; so he'll take shortcuts. His situations sometimes fail wholly to convince on sociological grounds—The Tenants is an example—and his tense, loving,...

(The entire section is 897 words.)

Pearl K. Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In such early work of Bernard Malamud as the tales collected in The Magic Barrel and the penitential drama of The Assistant, the painful, intractable truths of immigrant Jewish life in America exist as a permanent reproach to the younger generation of writers like Roth, and … Heller, who turned that poverty and suffering, even the Yiddish language itself, into a manic comedy of derision and cultural denial. Malamud rendered the immigrant world with such exactness and honesty that it acquired the fixed quality of fable.

Though Malamud has never stopped writing about Jews (only his first novel, The Natural, did without them almost entirely), quite early in his career the defeated...

(The entire section is 928 words.)

Sanford Pinsker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bernard Malamud has been a patient student of life's mysteries, a steady worker in the craft of fiction and, of course, one of our major writers, but he is hardly a novelist of large canvas or big risk. His protagonists begin their respective sufferings in medias res, generally in settings (e.g. rundown grocery stores, Czarist prisons, jerkwater colleges) that reinforce the entombing point. Not since the heyday of the Russian novel have there been such endlessly dragged-out winters, especially when his luckless characters fall in love. At its most reductive, the point of all the agony and ersatz Yiddish seems to be that sensitive men are forced to endure the world's pain and, therefore, that all sensitive men...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

Harriet Polt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"As a writer, I want uncertainty. It's part of life. I want something the reader is uncertain about," Malamud said in a 1966 interview. This he has certainly achieved [in Dubin's Lives]. Though Dubin, to a large extent Kitty, and to a lesser one Fanny, are rich and appealing characters, much remains puzzling about the novel. More than any of Malamud's previous works, it is "literary," a bookish book: not only Thoreau and Lawrence are evoked, but also Keats, Montaigne, Swift, Fitzgerald, Hardy (subject of Malamud's own master's thesis). There are strong suggestions of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," that classic tale of an older man's pursuit of youth. Like Mann's hero, Dubin appears in Venice in gaudy clothes,...

(The entire section is 334 words.)