Bernard Malamud 1914–
American novelist and short story writer.
Malamud ranks as one of the most significant contributors to contemporary American literature. His fictional world, most often urban and Jewish, is formed around the struggle for survival of characters who face the particular hardships of modern existence. Their survival depends upon their ability to combat life's inevitable suffering by breaking through the barriers of personal isolation and finding human contact, compassion, and faith in the goodness of others. The typical Malamudian hero stumbles through this process in a tragic yet comic way, invoking both pity and humor. Although Malamud is a prolific writer and the recipient of many prestigious literary awards, he is perhaps best known for his novel The Fixer (1967), which was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
The Natural (1952), Malamud's first novel, is perhaps his most symbolic. On the surface, the novel explores the life of an American baseball player; yet, as with all of Malamud's works, there are various interpretations of the deeper levels of meaning. For instance, some critics cite evidence of the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail, while others apply T. S. Eliot's "wasteland" myth in their analysis. In many ways it foreshadows predominant future concerns: a suffering protagonist struggling to reconcile moral dilemmas, to act according to what is right and good, and to come to grips with his existence. These themes recur in Malamud's second novel, The Assistant (1957), in the portrayal of the life of Frank Alpine, a cynical anti-semitic youth who goes to work for a Jewish grocer. Through this contact Frank learns to find grace and dignity in his own identity. Described as a fable, as are many of Malamud's stories, this novel affirms the redemptive value of maintaining faith in the inherent goodness of the human soul. Malamud's first collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel (1958), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Like The Assistant, most of the stories in this collection depict the search for dignity and meaning within the grim entrapment of poor urban settings. They often resemble the Yiddish folk tale in their humor and their use of character-types drawn from Hasidic traditions. Many of Malamud's short stories have been reprinted recently in The Stories of Bernard Malamud (1983), a collection which includes two new stories.
Based in part on Malamud's teaching career at Oregon State University, A New Life (1961) superimposes the hero's quest for significance and understanding on a satiric mockery of academia. Malamud's next novel, The Fixer, is one of his most powerful works. Derived from the historical account of Mendel Beiliss, a Russian Jew who was accused of murdering a Christian child, and also drawing on East European Jewish mysticism, The Fixer turns this terrifying story of torture and humiliation into a parable of human triumph. The Tenants (1971) returns to an urban setting, where the theme of self-exploration is developed through the contrast between two writers, one Jewish and the other black, struggling to survive in a New York City ghetto. Within the context of their confrontations, Malamud also explores the conflict between art and life. The protagonist of Dubin's Lives (1979), as with Harry Lesser and Willie Spearmint in The Tenants, attempts to create a sense of worth for himself, both as a man and as a writer. A biographer who escapes into his work to avoid the reality of his life, William Dubin bumbles through comically disastrous attempts at love and passion in an effort to find self-fulfillment.
God's Grace (1982) differs from Malamud's earlier works in its scope and presentation of subject matter. Set in the near future immediately after a nuclear disaster which leaves only one human being alive, God's Grace explores the darkness of human morality, the nature of God, and the vanity and destruction which has become an integral part of the human race. Critical reception to this work varies immensely: some critics feel that the contrast between the serious moral fable and the humor of a situation, in which the protagonist alternately converses with God and a group of apes, provides a uniquely intriguing narrative. Others, however, feel the structure of the novel does not support the seriousness and ambition of its themes. But in common with his other works, God's Grace expresses Malamud's intensely humanistic concerns, along with the humor and insight that have made him a leading American author.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 11, 18; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)