Bernard Malamud Malamud, Bernard (Vol. 27) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Sheldon J. Hershinow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Writing in a parable mode that uses (to varying degrees) his own distinctive mix of realism, myth, fantasy, romance, comedy, and fairy tale, Malamud has continued to grow artistically. Always a writer willing to take risks, he has freely experimented with new themes and techniques, especially in his short stories. He has over the years developed considerable stylistic range and has often attempted to move beyond the pale of his "Jewish" humanism. These efforts are always interesting, frequently successful. Yet his great achievement, as an artist and as a moralist, has come from his success in creating a distinctive fictional world that is the embodiment of his "Jewish" humanism.

Central to Malamud's moral sensibility is his positive, pragmatic attitude toward suffering…. His fiction suggests that life—at lease for goodhearted, humane people—is a search to make unavoidable suffering meaningful. Nearly all of his novels center on the suffering that results from the conflict between human freedom and human limitations, with the stress on the latter rather than the former. Frank Alpine (The Assistant), Sy Levin (A New Life), Yakov Bok (The Fixer), Arthur Fidelman (Pictures of Fidelman), Roy Hobbs (The Natural), and Harry Lesser (The Tenants), all strive to escape an ignominious or unfulfilling past and to achieve a new life of comfort and fulfillment. All six are defeated in their ambition, but the first four achieve a new dignity, turning defeat into victory by assuming a burden of self-sacrifice. (pp. 136-37)

Malamud characteristically develops the idea of the regenerative power of suffering by using the Jew (specifically the schlemiel figure) as a symbol of conscience and moral behavior…. In a celebrated statement, Malamud once said, "All men are Jews except they don't know it." By this he meant that the Jew can serve to represent the individual's existential situation as an isolated, displaced loner who has the potential for achieving moral transcendence through suffering that engenders insight and a commitment to love. All people, Malamud implies, have a common identity as ethical beings…. (pp. 137-38)

In Malamud's fiction, the Jew as a symbol of ethical man is joined by another pervasive symbol—that of life as a prison. When Morris Bober [in The Assistant] resents his bad fortune, he sees his grocery store as a "prison," a "graveyard," a "tomb." The store is the source of his bitterness, suffering, and frustration—evidence of the limitations of the human condition on earth—and at the same time it symbolizes Morris's every existence, embodying the source of his moral strength. A New Life moves Malamud even closer to an explicit existentialist viewpoint. Sy Levin chooses a future "chained" to Pauline Gilley. With her he might appear to be a free man, but really he will be locked inside "a windowless prison" that is "really himself, flawed ediface of failures, each locking up tight the one before." In other words, Levin has exercised the freedom to choose his own "prison." Similarly, Yakov Bok finds spiritual peace only after choosing to remain in the tsar's prison, with no guarantee of ever being released. Harry Lesser voluntarily emtombs himself in what he likes to think of as a "sacred cathedral" of art, but which turns out to be the prison of his own divided soul.

Yet one must ask whether Malamud's metaphoric use of the Jew to represent the good man struggling for a meaningful existence in the prison of life is convincing. Certainly the European Jews, throughout the Middle Ages and again in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, experienced an extraordinary amount of suffering, but in elevating their hardship to the level of an ethical symbol, Malamud, in spite of his characteristic irony, sometimes borders on sentimentality. For example, near the...

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James M. Mellard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] work of Bernard Malamud seems very much to exhibit [a] strain of naive-modernist fiction, though, like Bellow's, it is largely a work of critical consolidation. If Bellow is in the "hotter" tradition of James, Malamud takes the "cooler" modes of an early modern like Anderson, assimilates them, and makes them his own, though he does not really (nor does he need to) transform them. But Malamud's best work is no simple art. He uses as effectively as any critical modernist the basic epistemological mode of the lyric novelist in order to treat themes of alienation and suffering, at the same time that he uses the modes—which he begins to parody—of comedy and tragedy, the ironic and the romantic. In The...

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Dorothy Seidman Bilik

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

No contemporary American writer has written about immigrants and survivors more frequently or more imaginatively than has Bernard Malamud. His fictional world is peopled with Diasporans of all kinds but, unlike [Abraham Cahan's assimilated protagonist in his The Rise of David Levinsky], Malamud's characters embody significant fragments of the Jewish past. Most frequently Malamud portrays remnants of the earlier generation of immigrants, unwilling refugees from American Jewish affluence, survivors of an older Jewish community who retain unassimilated Jewish values and who do not relinquish their accents and their anachronistic occupations. Although Malamud includes some survivors of the Holocaust in his...

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Alan Lelchuk

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

How often is it that a major contemporary novelist opens his latest book with a dialogue between God and man? Or employs for his main characters one human being and a chimp, with an assortment of gorillas and baboons for other dramatis personae? Or seeks to conceive a fable for the future—man after the nuclear "Devastation"—that is nothing less than a retelling of the Old and New Testaments, complete with the author's views on man's (and God's) nature, good and evil, cause and effect, fall from grace? Odd stuff for a novel, no doubt. Yet these are the materials of Bernard Malamud's latest book, "God's Grace," a fable by turns charming and foolish, topical and farfetched, provocative and innocent.


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Edmund Fuller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Man had innumerable chances but was—in the long run—insufficient to God's purpose. He was insufficient to himself."

That theme is variously expressed in Bernard Malamud's extraordinary fable, "God's Grace,"… which manages the rare feat of being a post-nuclear-holocaust story both somber and sometimes very funny….

Weighing the ever-difficult problem of how much to disclose, I cannot conceal that the fable which, for a time, seems ebulliently hopefilled, abruptly clouds over. Aggressions more brutal than that of Cain against Abel break out. The animal world is not to be sentimentalized. Mr. Malamud, whose mood had seemed hopeful, suddenly makes it clear that if the late great...

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Robert Alter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bernard Malamud is a writer who early on established an emphatic paradigm for his fictional world and who ever since has been struggling in a variety of ways to escape its confines. His latest novel [God's Grace] is his most strenuous strategem of escape, moving beyond the urban horizon of his formative work into an entirely new mode of postapocalyptic fantasy—with intriguing though somewhat problematic results.

When I say "paradigm," I am not referring to the explicit Jewish themes or to the morally floundering Jewish protagonists that have been trademarks of Malamud's fiction, with the exception of his first novel, The Natural. In fact, God's Grace is the most...

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Morris Dickstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At first glance, God's Grace looks like an improbable novel to come from Bernard Malamud. In fact, it is an odd book, period….

The book is clearly a version of Robinson Crusoe, updated to the age of total war. Malamud has written about talking animals before—in "The Jewbird" and "Talking Horse." But those stories, like all of Malamud's best fiction, are hard as diamonds, tight and spare rather than verbose, and with no overt moralizing. In God's Grace, Malamud's sententious side takes over—even one of the chimps complains that Cohn's homilies insult his intelligence. Unlike the great fabulists, whose art is playful rather than ponderous, Malamud no longer trusts the tale to...

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Joseph Epstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When do we give up on a novelist? Sometimes, if it be foul enough, a single sentence will do the job….

But what if the writer has acquired a reputation as a serious and highly accomplished artist, thought in some quarters to be a major novelist, a modern master even? What if, more complicated still, he has given you pleasure, insight into the working of the human heart, and other novelistic rewards in the past? What if he writes one poor book, then a second, then yet a third? At what point do you concede, however regretfully, that this writer no longer speaks to you, and walk away? (p. 49)

[Bernard Malamud's first novel], The Natural, plays off all the old baseball legends...

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Alvin B. Kernan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] confrontation of text and society is the subject of Bernard Malamud's The Tenants …, which portrays very clearly the nature of traditional romantic beliefs about the reality of the literary text and the breakdown of these beliefs when they are confronted by social realities which directly contradict and confront them with an aggressive urgency and power born out of suffering and a need for help from all institutions, including art. I would not argue that The Tenants is one of the greatest of modern novels, but it is extraordinarily powerful and compelling in its realization of the view that is central to the conception of literature as a social institution: that literature and the arts are...

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Robert Alter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[None of Bernard Malamud's] longer fictions has the absolute rightness of tone and invention of his best short stories [collected in The Stories of Bernard Malamud].

His real gift is for the short story, for the spare, rigorous etching of solitary figures caught in the stress of adversity. When Malamud translates such figures into the novel, whose ampler dimensions lead us to expect development, he has difficulty in making his personages go anywhere except deeper into disaster. The plots of his novels tend to devolve into extended fantasies—sometimes lurid, sometimes just depressing—of mutilation and interment. By contrast, his stronger stories exhibit exquisite artistic tact, a remarkable...

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John L'Heureux

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Art lives on surprise," Bernard Malamud once said. "A writer has to surprise himself to be worth reading." Over the years Malamud has provided surprise, and more: brief tragedies laced with wit and irony, full-length portraits of our inhuman condition, novels and stories that explore the longings, frustrations, failures, defeats, and—sometimes—the miraculous resurrection of the human spirit….

What immediately strikes the reader [about The Stories of Bernard Malamud] is how quickly and completely Malamud compels our belief in the reality of his fictional world, even when that world includes angels, a talking horse, a magic crown. We believe even his ghetto Jews—who seem to inhabit a...

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Paul Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sprinters do not ordinarily sign up for marathons, nor do lonely long-distance runners enter the crush of 100-yard dashes. But some authors perform an analogous feat by writing both short stories and novels. Instead of being complimented on their versatility, though, they frequently encounter a peculiar problem: facing themselves as competitors….

Under such difficult conditions, [Bernard Malamud] has been racing himself for a long time…. The Stories of Bernard Malamud includes 23 pieces selected by the author from … past assemblages, plus two previously uncollected stories. The book not only offers substantial evidence that Malamud's stories are better than his novels; it makes the...

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