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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...
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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.)
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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 end of The Fixer Yakov Bok's lawyer proclaims to his client, "You suffer for us all…. I would be honored to be in your place." Seen in this light, Malamud's famous statement, "All men are Jews," implies that it is the human lot to suffer, that suffering is potentially beneficial, and that we should therefore learn to accept our burdens and see in them the promise of growth and fulfillment.
Critics often talk about the theme of redemptive suffering in Malamud's works. This terminology can be misleading, since it has the effect of suggesting a specifically Christian view of salvation that is present but peripheral in Malamud's fiction. It should be emphasized that his vision has its roots in the Old Testament, while the Christian idea of salvation derives from the New Testament. This point is fundamental to an understanding of Malamud's work. In his fiction, he unrelentingly asks what might be called Old Testament questions: Why do good men suffer while evil men frequently prosper? Why should we be good, when there is no reward for goodness? How can we have faith when there are no signs to confirm our faith? Why should we love, if our love is met only with scorn? Malamud's perspective on these age-old questions is heavily influenced by the somewhat fatalistic Old Testament story of Job, a pious man who suffers unjustly without ever understanding why. He knows only that it is God's will that he suffer. To the man who suffers without any apparent reason, God's ways seem harsh and unjust, but Job does not attempt to rationalize this injustice; rather, he acknowledges this as part of the mystery of life. It is simply the way of the world; the sun shines as brightly on the wicked as it does on the good and just.
The suffering of Morris Bober and Yakov Bok is not redemptive in the Christian sense. For them as Jews, the concepts of heaven and hell do not offer a solution to the dilemma of existence. They have no sense of individual salvation; they do not believe that their suffering in this life will be rewarded in the next. Malamud's view is rather that goodness is its own reward while evil inflicts its own punishment. This is why love and compassion—and schlemiel heroes—are so important in Malamud's fiction. No suffering can be redeemed by any act of God or the State. The only "solution" possible for the problem of evil is for people to respect and nourish each other now, during this life. And only a schlemiel would choose the intangible spiritual rewards of goodness over the material benefits of narrow self-interest. Thus, Malamud's association of suffering with Jewishness is not merely sentimental. It also contains a hardheaded realism.
Suffering, however, does not interest Malamud for its own sake. It is, rather, a corollary to his real concern, one that can easily be missed: what he primarily wishes to explore and express is the sheer terror of existence in the twentieth century. The horrors of Verdun, the Great Depression, Dresden, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam—the world's "uncertain balance of terror," as President Kennedy expressed it in his inaugural address—these have their counterparts in Malamud's fiction. Backdrops of Depression hardship, symbolic landscapes of garbage-filled back alleys and collapsing buildings, McCarthyism, and anti-Semitic injustice on a massive scale—these settings cast their dark shadows over all of Malamud's fictional world, serving as constant reminders that we are faced with malevolent forces so powerful that they threaten our very existence as thinking, feeling, moral beings. Thus it was understandable that Malamud should choose the Jews as symbols of suffering, for they have lived through the Holocaust, the most horrifying campaign of terror in human history. In Malamud's works the Jew becomes an isolated loner who represents the hopes, fears, and possibilities of twentieth-century humanity.
Suffering in Malamud's fiction, then, has two aspects, one somewhat sentimental, the other more fatalistic, full of terror. To the extent that Malamud's writing romanticizes suffering, it is dangerous and destructive. Morris Bober and Frank Alpine are masterful creations, but for people actually to submit to similar suffering in their own lives, acting on the belief that their suffering will somehow redeem them, would be fruitless and masochistic. Similarly, Yakov Bok becomes a powerful example of a human being's ability to grow spiritually in the face of injustice, but the hard fact is that most poor people unjustly imprisoned—even "political prisoners"—simply waste away without ever being allowed to serve the cause of justice, no matter how noble their suffering might be. But Malamud surely never intended anyone to take his metaphoric treatment of suffering literally, as a life model. Nonetheless, the literal implication is there. For the most part, however, the hardheaded attitude toward suffering prevails in Malamud's fiction. In this respect his writing provides a sort of strategy for living with the terror of modern life on an everyday basis. This is the source of both the power and the importance of his fiction. The Assistant and The Fixer are Malamud's strongest novels largely because they capture most effectively our existential sense of terror in the modern world. (pp. 138-42)
In the world of Malamud's fiction compassion, love, and understanding—the humane values—rather than physical circumstances give meaning to one's life. It is a world that blends hope with despair, pain with possibility, and suffering with moral growth. Out of the everyday defeats and indignities of ordinary people, Malamud creates beautiful parables that capture the joy as well as the pain of life; he expresses the dignity of the human spirit searching for freedom and moral growth in the face of hardship, injustice, and the existential anguish of life in our time. (p. 146)
Sheldon J. Hershinow, in his Bernard Malamud (copyright © 1980 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1980, 165 p.
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[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 Natural he draws upon the tradition—largely popular—of sports fiction in America, one seen or felt vividly in Anderson, Ring Lardner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and even Faulkner. In The Assistant, as Malamud creates an urban landscape as vital but threatening as any from the naive tradition of American naturalism, he also creates a hero who is as powerless, as psychically indeterminate, and as bent upon self-definition as one of Bellow's "dangling men." In A New Life Malamud writes yet another of those "academic novels" with which American fiction abounds; in The Fixer he turns to the treatment of an actual historical crime and punishment, similar in some ways to An American Tragedy and Native Son;Pictures of Fidelman, like Winesburg, Ohio and several works in Faulkner, is a cycle of stories focusing upon the development of one character. The Tenants seems to owe less to other fictions than to the allusively poetic world of Shakespeare's The Tempest, yet it, too, depends upon the sort of intellectual, physical, even erotic conflict between Black American and White that we see in Faulkner, Warren, Baldwin, Styron, and Updike.
The tradition in Malamud, as it had been for the naive modernists, becomes epistemological and ontological, the performative and pastoral elements providing both a way of knowing and a content to be known. The mode of perception that the performative voice gives Malamud allows him to exploit fully the resources of the pastoral as a content. Through it Malamud can employ very simple people as his protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters; these people can accept their own most foolish, as well as their own most heroic, actions in the most matter-of-fact ways; and they can talk about themselves, their world, and its values in the most uncritical vocabularies available to the popular mind. Moreover, the pastoral mode permits him to structure his plots as if they belonged to the mythoi of tragedy and comedy. But, while Malamud's voice seems to validate the ways in which his characters see the world, in his best novels—The Natural, The Assistant, The Fixer—there is always a note of parody that comes out of his use of popular "myths" such as the tragedy of the ball player Shoeless Joe Jackson, the ecstatic romance of St. Francis of Assisi, and the nightmare terrors of Russian Bolshevism. That undercurrent of parody, as one expects in a modernist work, leaves forms and meanings subtly indeterminate. Like Faulkner, Malamud is disposed—as the Russian formalists say—toward "baring his devices," as he forces us to study his fictive worlds at the same time that we regard his epistemological and ontological modes, but less like early Faulkner than like the critical modernists, he opts for formal openness rather than for formal pluralism. Malamud's exploiting the possibilities of pastoral and the naive popular consciousness, however, pushes him slightly closer than, for example, Saul Bellow to the late modernism of Vonnegut and Brautigan; still, one would not wish to overstate their differences. One must agree with Max Schulz's views of Malamud and the modern Jewish novelists in general: "… willingness to accept the world on its own terms—disorderly, incoherent, absurd—'without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,' and yet without losing faith in the moral significance of human actions, underlies the confrontation of experience in the best of the contemporary Jewish American novels." (pp. 152-54)
James M. Mellard, "The Sophisticated," in his The Exploded Form: The Modernist Novel in America (© 1980 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois; reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press), University of Illinois Press, 1980, pp. 125-74.∗
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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 fictional Ellis Island, he has not yet directly portrayed a survivor as central figure. In The Fixer, however, Malamud depicts an earlier survivor of anti-Semitic persecution…. (p. 53)
With the exception of The Fixer, which is historically distanced from the Nazi period, Malamud's allusive, indirect, parablelike tales of Jewish life do not confront the Holocaust experience. Nevertheless, Malamud's immigrant characters, even when they are not survivors, frequently have the insubstantiality of remnants or of dream figures. Insofar as they embody the modern sense of dream-made-real, Malamud's immigrants resemble the European survivors discussed by Lawrence Langer [in his The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination]. However, only in The Fixer, where the dream is a nightmare indeed, does Malamud's world contain the horrors that Langer includes in the aesthetics of atrocity. In Malamud's other fictions the grotesque elements are countered with the possibility of realizing the Diaspora dream of earthly redemption. In addition, Malamud's modern adaptation of the traditionally ironic tone of the Yiddish story teller distances and ameliorates some of the grimmer implications of his fiction.
The dreamlike insubstantiality, the redemptive vision, and the irony are frequently manifested in Malamud's modern counterparts to the East European Hasidic rebes and tsadikim. Malamud's modern tsadikim are considerably less saintly than their historic predecessors, but their very susceptibility to the modern world allows them to be more effective as teachers—the essential task of a rebe. Fictional antecedents for Malamud's rebes are Henry Roth's Reb Yidel Pankower and Isaac Rosenfeld's Reb Feldman. In Rosenfeld's novel the relationship of the rebe to the young seeker is shown as anachronistic. In the writings of Malamud, the teacher is both more ambiguous and more effective, yet the ancient Jewish paradigm is discernible. The pupil-teacher relationship may be of a younger, assimilated Jew to an older, more traditional Jew; sometimes the relationship is between Jew and gentile; usually the relationship is between a more callow seeker and one more experienced in suffering. Frequently Malamud develops the quester and the teacher as dual protagonists or Doppelgänger (The Assistant, "The Magic Barrel," "The Last Mohican" …). The immigrant figure is the keeper of the Jewish past, a past that is transmitted in much the same way that the Hasidic masters passed on wisdom and lore to their pupils. Indirectly by means of parable, sometimes fragmentarily, sometimes inadvertently, unlikely modern Hasidim like Morris Bober, Pinye Salzman, Shimen Susskind, and others pass on meaningful fragments of Jewish ethics and collective Jewish history to questers and novices who are even more unlikely and unaware than their teachers.
The Malamud novice or quester is frequently in error at the beginning of his quest. Sometimes he attempts to make a new life of his past (Pictures of Fidelman …, "Lady of the Lake" …) or attempts to live a life in terms of false goals (The Assistant, "The Magic Barrel"). Through his encounter with an immigrant or exile, the quester once more confronts his own historic past or reforms his goals and sometimes, in classic style, achieves recognition and reversal. The contact between quester and immigrant Doppelgänger at times results in the quester's seeming to incorporate the older figure. The older figure may wane, even die, but some of his spirit or knowledge lives on in the now-changed quester. [One] of Malamud's most widely known works [The Assistant, is an example] of this pattern…. (pp. 53-5)
Frank Alpine, the assistant in the novel, is a climber, a man clearly destined for higher things. Unlike many of Malamud's protagonists (Fidelman, Levin, Freeman, Lesser, Bok), Frank is not Jewish, at least not at the beginning of the novel. Although an American, Frank feels alienated because he is an orphan, a Catholic, a drifter. What he learns from Morris Bober is how to be a Jew, which in Malamud's terms means how to be a human being.
It has been common to stress the ecumenicalism of Malamud's concept of Jewishness. But to stress the universality and Christianity of Malamud's "conversions" and reversals is to ignore the concrete Jewish particulars in which those universals are grounded. Bober's Judaism, particularly in its unorthodoxy, in its flawed state, is thereby more relevant to the flawed seeker. Of all Malamud's immigrant rebes, Bober comes closest to secular sainthood. Morris is a Jobian sufferer as well as a Sabbath-breaking, ham-eating sage. In his insistence on scrupulous honesty in a dishonest world, Morris Bober is a true follower of the Torah in modern dress. Malamud evokes with loving irony, older, folkloric Jewish themes transformed by the passage of time. This occurs in the oft-quoted passage where Morris, self-conscious and under stress, explains to Frank that to be a Jew one must suffer for the Law. For Morris this does not mean Sabbath observance, or adherence to Leviticus, but rather "this means to do what is right, to be honest, to be good. This means to other people." Some have been offended by the simplicity of the reductivism; others have noted the resemblance to the Sermon on the Mount. But the steadfastness is Jobian and talmudic.
Malamud is reaching back to a well-known Jewish anecdote about the great Rabbi Hillel (first century B.C.E.). The rabbi was challenged by a heathen who said he would become a Jew if the wisdom of the Torah could be expressed while standing on one foot. Hillel had no difficulty in replying, "That which is hurtful to thee do not do to thy neighbors! This is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. Go and study it." The sources do not tell us whether the conversion took place; but in Malamud's novel the seeker, perhaps more sincere than his ancient predecessor, by action, experience, and precept does indeed become Jewish. (pp. 55-6)
The presence of history is … dramatically rendered in the form of the novel. Frank Alpine is converted from a conventional Jew-hater, who admits that he "didn't have use for the Jews …," into a definite Jew-lover, who first craves Morris's daughter carnally and then loves Morris filially. The ultimate action, almost a ritualized punishment for lust, is Frank's circumcision, which "enraged and inspired him."… Significantly it is spring when Frank becomes a Jew. Though the Easter story of death and resurrection is surely part of Malamud's rich allusiveness, Malamud's text says "Passover," which celebrates redemption from pagan bondage and anticipates the giving of the Law. In addition, the ironist in Malamud should never be dismissed. Passover is the traditional time for anti-Semitic blood-libels and persecutions of Jews in Eastern Europe, a theme Malamud pursues pointedly in The Fixer. Spring renewal with its pogroms and suffering often has a bitter taste in Yiddish literature. Morris has been sacrificed and Frank has metonymously taken part in his sacrifice through the ritual of circumcision. (pp. 57-8)
The Fixer … is relevant to the discussion of postwar immigrant fiction because of the novel's evocation of the Holocaust in the oblique manner of some Jewish American writers. Malamud says that the story of Mendl Beilis, the history upon which the fiction is based, was paradigmatic for him: "Somewhere along the line, what had happened in Nazi Germany began to be important to me in terms of the book, and that too is part of Yakov's story." To include the Jewish catastrophe, Malamud confronts it indirectly, in microcosm, in the past. For what actually happened to Mendl Beilis is far less important than what the fixer and the reader experience of the condition of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. In addition, Malamud avails himself of the reader's knowledge of the contemporary Jewish tragedy to illuminate both past and recent history. The fact that there was a Beilis case allows Malamud to ignore its historic particulars and thereby create an imaginative truth that is more effective than fictionalized history. (p. 64)
In Malamud's fictional world, with its emphasis on the unexpected, Jewish characters do not enjoy an innate moral superiority. Some, like Julius Karp and Nat Pearl in The Assistant, are demonstrably inferior, especially to the gentile Frank. But history, economics, circumstances, and the unsought experience of suffering are what define the Malamudian teachers and tsadikim, and Malamud's Jews qualify. Even among the less admirable, like Karp, Feld, and the appropriately named Harry Lesser of The Tenants, there is a potentiality for moral growth. The reader is induced to see embodied in the most unlikely spirit a spark of righteousness. Only the ambitious accountants and lawyers, those who follow the American Dream of worldly success, are refused Malamud's mercy and are denied possibilities for moral development. (p. 70)
Robert Alter, among others, complains of Malamud "that nowhere does he attempt to represent a Jewish milieu, that a Jewish community never enters into his books except as the shadow of a vestige of a specter." Clearly it is not because Malamud cannot write realistic, socially and historically rooted fiction. The Tenants, The Fixer, and A New Life are all strongly rooted in history, event, and social milieu. But in the immigrant stories the particular strength of these Diaspora Men resides in their not being rooted in space, in their unassimilated, alien transcendence of milieu. Unlike the prewar immigrant, Malamud's Jews do not perceive of America as a "promised land." Alfred Kazin complains of Malamud's "abstractness" and contrasts him to the Yiddish masters who "gave the earth of Russia, the old village, a solid reality, as if it were all the world they had to cherish." But Malamud, although close to them in spirit according to Kazin, does not show "the world, but the spectral Jew in his beggarly clothes—always ready to take flight." Is this not precisely what Malamud intends? The setting, like the language, attempts to capture that which is essential, that which can be distilled into something ultimately portable.
Malamud is not, as Kazin avers, abstract out of despair; rather, he attempts in language, setting, and character to preserve what is most ephemeral and yet what can best be preserved. That which an immigrant can carry with him may be nonmaterial, may suffer a sea change, may even be debased, but it is transmittable, capable of living under the most adverse conditions, and hence the only heritage worthy of transmission. It is ambiguously compounded of common suffering, common humanity, common responsibility, and common peril. And how well Kazin (still carping) sees what Malamud is trying to do with his surreal language: "He makes you think not that Jews really talk that way but how violent, fear fraught, always on edge, Jewish talk can be." (pp. 74-5)
The essentially comic form, albeit qualified, of Malamud's work points to the distance that separates America and Americans from much European experience of the Holocaust, although Malamud, like other Jewish American writers, is in the position of a "witness-through-the-imagination," one who has "(merely) 'heard the terrible news'." And news of such magnitude has considerable effect as Malamud's prose shares with the "schizophrenic art" of the Holocuast a metaphoric language employed to "sustain the tensions that inspire it" rather than to resolve those tensions. Like the "literature of atrocity," Malamud's works are characterized by "irrealism"—"a reality whose quality is unreal. The line between the comic and the tragic often becomes blurred as the authors struggle to express the inexpressible." (pp. 75-6)
Dorothy Seidman Bilik, "Malamud's Secular Saints and Comic Jobs," in her Immigrant-Survivors: Post-Holocaust Consciousness in Recent Jewish American Fiction (copyright © 1981 by Dorothy Seidman Bilik; reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press), Wesleyan University Press, 1981, pp. 53-80.
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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.
Certain questions immediately strike the reader. Is the boldness of the attempt at neobiblical wisdom and prophecy paid for at too high an artistic price? Are there enough effective scenes and moments to cancel out the troubling elements and the borderline risks?
Constructing fables, we should remember, is nothing new for Malamud. As far back as his first novel, "The Natural" …, his best novel, "The Assistant" …, and many of the splendid short stories in "The Magic Barrel" … and "Idiots First" …, Malamud has been in the fable business, so to speak…. Unlike Bellow and Roth, writers with whom he is mistakenly aligned, Malamud has always had a fondness for telling tales arranged for the purpose of a specific moral lesson; for a story surface deceptively simple, a prose style artfully direct; for an atmosphere marked by the childlike and pristine, even the religious. Moreover, he has not been averse to presenting animals that speak—witness stories like "Talking Horse" or "The Jewbird." I mentioned a fondness for such tales, but I must add, of course, an excellence in execution too, for Malamud, at his best, is a kind of folk artist of genius. Despite his intellectual ambitions, his strong suit has always been writing from the gut, a kind of literary primitivism. Neither realism nor surrealism has been his forte through the years, but the fable, the parable, the allegory, the ancient art of basic storytelling in a modern voice; through this special mode he has earned his high place in contemporary letters.
"God's Grace" is the most up-front fable he has yet written, complete with a defensive Yahweh, an ironic Moses, Jesus, talking chimps and perverse gorillas, biblical rites of sacrifice, plus, of course, the pointed moral wisdom—this time full of dark prophecy. Does the darkness emerge from the author himself growing older, facing his own end, or his living in an age of crisis, when civilization is facing its own possible end? Whichever, there are in this novel moments of lucid beauty beside moments of harrowing blackness—Eden and Apocalypse between two covers. The result is an odd, fanciful book, a mixed bag of surprise characters and enchanting emotions that sometimes jar alongside unlikely happenings and obvious artifice. In part because it emanates from authentic strains in the author's imagination, "God's Grace" yields certain main-stream Malamudian pleasures. In part because it attempts to be a prophetic allegory, it suffers as a novel from the nature and burden of that beast. (pp. 1, 14)
Alan Lelchuk, "Malamud's Dark Fable," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 29, 1982, pp. 1, 14-15.
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"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 human race is to have successors, they too will be fallen, they too expelled from the Garden.
I can't deny that from a highland of delight, as his reader, I found myself plunged into a chasm of depression that disappointed me sorely, making the title of the book, "God's Grace," and of its last chapter, "God's Mercy," seem harshly ironic. Jonathan Swift excoriatated our kind as "the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the face of the earth," but at least kept his noble horses noble.
A few hours of reflection and a rereading of the end softened my reaction. There is a kind of painful majesty to his closing pages, with their inversion of the Abraham and Isaac story, also with their hint of Babel. In the last line, George, the gorilla, is the key to a hope, a grace, a mercy, not easy, not sentimental, not guaranteed, yet the stronger for its austerity. In the inventive, reflective, tragicomic, ultimately reverential fable of "God's Grace" Mr. Malamud may have created his most lasting work.
Edmund Fuller, "After the Holocaust: A Somber and Funny Fable," in The Wall Street Journal (reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, © Dow Jones & Company, Inc. 1982; all rights reserved), September 13, 1982, p. 30.
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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 self-consciously Jewish of all his books. Its hero, Calvin (née Seymour) Cohn, the son of a rabbi and himself a former rabbinic student, carries his dog-eared copy of the Pentateuch into the strange new world in which he finds himself, tries to transfer its ethical teaching to the new reality, conducts inward arguments with God, sometimes even alluding to rabbinic texts, and, above all, broods over the awesome story of the Binding of Isaac and wonders what it might suggest about God's real intentions toward humanity. What I mean by "paradigm" is, in essence, the phenomenological substructure of Malamud's fictional world—its constant tilting of its protagonists into narrow enclosures, preferably cluttered and dirty, and ultimately with no real exits. The novelist has repeatedly sought to give his own claustrophobic sensibility a moral as well as thematic justification by intimating that these sundry traps, prisons, and living graves in which he places his protagonists (Morris Bober's grocery store, Yakov Bok's cell, Harry Lesser's condemned tenement) are the harsh limits within which a true moral life of commitment is realized. But … this is precisely the least convincing aspect of Malamud's work.
God's Grace, as a future fiction, sets to one side—without, however, entirely suppressing—the Malamudian vision of cluttered incarceration by sweeping the global slate clean…. By an absurd oversight of God—or is it, Cohn wonders, a new twist of His inscrutable design?—Cohn alone of all humanity is saved in the insulated roundness of his deep-sea submersible. Up to this point, the plot follows a familiar enough route of reasonably plausible science fiction, but by rapid stages, uninhibited fantasy takes over. Summary is bound to be a little unfair to the novel because Malamud makes it far more engaging than will be suggested by the bare fictional data….
Cohn's island might of course be construed as another version of the Malamudian prison, but it has a speciousness, a paradisiacal sense of benign nature, absent from the characteristic roach-ridden cells, literal and figurative, of Malamud's previous fiction. Even the Crusoesque cave that Cohn makes into his home, complete with rough-hewn-furniture, shelves, and a rolling wooden barrier at the mouth, is more cosy womb than tomb. This mode of fantasy, moreover, releases an element of exuberance in Malamud's writing that was exhibited in some of his most attractive early stories, like "Angel Levine" and "Idiots First." The opening chapter, in which Cohn, in his dripping wet suit, discovers that, despite the promise recorded in Genesis, the Flood has come again, and then finds himself addressed from above by an impatient Lord of Hosts, is a bravura performance. Many of the pages that follow are informed by a winning zaniness of invention. Modulations of tone are always essential when Malamud's writing is working well, and the quality of wry bemusement, hovering between sad reflection and self-ironic laughter, lends a certain emotional authority to the fantasy. (p. 38)
Malamud has described his own novel as "a visionary tale with a prophetic warning." Some of his efforts, I fear, to convey a visionary argument through the story betray an underlying weakness, and the prophetic warning at the end, though it may seem to the author to serve a moral purpose, is a painful illustration of how Malamud's materials can go wildly out of control. Let me first address the visionary argument. Given the calamitous state to which humankind has brought the world, and, if you are a believer, to which God has permitted humankind to bring the world, Malamud not only questions human nature but also the nature of the God who allows His own handiwork such a cruel genius for self-annihilation. This theological inquiry is focused chiefly through a confrontation between Jewish and Christian views (in the persons of Cohn and Buz) of the story of the Binding of Isaac, the compelling and baffling parable of how God might seem to require the slaughter of His human sons. Christian tradition calls the story the Sacrifice of Isaac because it is taken as the typological intimation of the Crucifixion; Judaism calls it the Binding because the actual denouement of the story is stressed, in which the angel's voice stays the sacrificial knife just before it plunges. Cohn is led to speculate, considering what has happened to his own century from the Holocaust through Hiroshima to the ultimate devastation, that the Lord who oversees this world might in fact want an actual immolation of humanity.
Struggling to perpetuate a humane Jewish ethics, Cohn promulgates to his fellow primates what he calls the Seven Admonitions (in deference to his Mosaic predecessor, he avoids the term commandment), which reflect a cautiously hopeful, pragmatic view of the necessity for altruism and of man's small but real potential for good. The Second Admonition reads: "Note: God is not love. God is God. Remember Him." This Jewish theological emphasis, it might be observed, reverses certain subterranean Christian motifs that can be detected in the earlier Malamud…. Late in the book, at a point when Cohn's hoped-for new covenant is manifestly disintegrating, Buz, who has played a shadowy role in the process of disintegration, makes bold to erase the word "not" from the Second Admonition. The theological assertion, thus Christianized, that God is love, might seem benign enough, but in view of what is afterward perpetrated by the hand that has revised the Admonition, an anti-Christian polemic is clearly implied. Those who make such an ideal claim about God, we may infer, are the most likely to slip into the abyss of the anti-ideal; or, alternately, a God who is supposed to be love in a world where so little of it is in evidence may also enact the outrageous paradox of sacrificing mankind, His only-begotten beloved son, in the most ghastly way to demonstrate that He is love.
Malamud's theological argument, unlike the tonality and humor of his fantasy, is not misrepresented by summary. It is, in other words, schematic, sketchy, lacking weight of experience and density of intellectual texture. One symptom of this lack of anchorage is that Cohn's abundant references to Jewish tradition are patently secondhand and in some instances misinformed. More serious is the fact that this polemic with Christianity in the end contradictorily reimagines a doctrine of Original Sin, the plot concluding with an irresistible assertion of the Old Adam. There is an ambiguity here that is confused rather than fruitful: a reader, contemplating the conclusion, could easily turn the whole book around, something I doubt the author intends, and claim that Cohn's guarded Jewish optimism about humanity was all along a superficial view and, worse, an abysmal delusion.
The denouement involves a horrific orgy of infanticide and cannibalism and then dire consequences of a rather strained symbolic character for Cohn himself. Malamud wants this to be taken as prophetic warning, but it seems far more like sheer punishment inflicted by the author on his protagonist and thus implicitly on the reader as well. Punishing his incarcerated characters has been a temptation to which Malamud has of course succumbed again and again. The feel of the ending here is unfortunately very like that of the ghastly ending of The Tenants, when Harry Lesser sinks an ax into the skull of Willie Spearmint at the exact moment his black rival lashes off his testicles with a razor-sharp knife. Even without pursuing psychoanalytic conjecture, we may note that there is a palpable gap between such unleashing of aggression against characters and readers, and the moral claims made for the fictional expression of all that rage. (pp. 38-40)
The moral message [in God's Grace] is unexceptionable, but the vehemence with which the brutish counterforce to kindness and pity is imagined at the end is disquieting. Instead of holding a prophetic mirror to the contorted face of mankind, the novelist—at least so it seems to this reader—has once again taken his lovingly fashioned creatures, bound them hand and foot, and begun to play with axes, knives, tearing incisors, and other instruments of dismemberment. (p. 40)
Robert Alter, "A Theological Fantasy," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1982 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 187, Nos. 12 & 13, September 20 & 27, 1982, pp. 38-40.
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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 carry its own meanings. Cohn, a self-anointed prophet bursting with conventional wisdom, is constantly telling the beasts to surmount their animal qualities. Yet he does a bit of surmounting himself—of the only girl chimp, a charming creature named Mary Madlyn, in the hope of "depositing in her hospitable uterus a spurt of adventurous sperm" to carry the seed of his future order.
Cohn tries in bizarre ways to teach Judaism to the animals…. But the chimps rebel against him, turn into Christians (of a sort), and make him the object of a little pogrom. Malamud would have us see Cohn as a classic Jewish victim—first a survivor, then a bearer of enlightenment, then a martyr for the cause of intellect and civilization. But the reader may feel that Cohn's own failings have helped precipitate disaster. Cohn plays God with his charges, but they tire of his moral superiority and reassert their own nature.
God's Grace is Malamud's most pious and most literary work, in some ways closer to Cynthia Ozick's territory than to the marvelously earthy fiction he once wrote. Its style is a dour pastiche of biblical English, especially the Book of Genesis. The novel echoes and retells the stories of Noah and the Flood, Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, and the sufferings of Job. Its hero even has occasional dialogues with God, who speaks in a weird mixture of solemn cant, tangy Yiddishisms, and bureaucratese. (p. 54)
The book gets stronger when it puts this feeble humor aside and builds starkly toward catastrophe. What begins as a fable about survival gets transformed, like other late Malamud novels (The Fixer, The Tenants), into a study in isolation, anti-Semitism, and futility. In his great early stories, collected in The Magic Barrel and Idiots First, Malamud wrote about the tensions—moral, personal, generational—among Jewish characters, about the problematic nature of Jewish identity, quite apart from religion. Starting with The Fixer, though, Malamud shifted his attention to the confrontation between Jews and goyim; his work began to deal in victims and villains, became more predictable, and lost some of its inner richness. God's Grace follows this pattern. For the brutal Russians in The Fixer and the wary, hostile blacks in The Tenants, Malamud here substitutes a small society of animals, gratifyingly malleable at first but ultimately vengeful and destructive, as in the other books.
Instead of giving us "a complete departure from his previous novels,"… Malamud has rewritten his racial fable, The Tenants, substituting atomic apocalypse for urban disintegration, a remote island for an abandoned tenement, and a batch of chimpanzees for the angry blacks of the sixties. The New York of his earlier book is a kind of jungle. Dense foliage sprouts in vacant apartments, and the physical devastation resembles the effects of nuclear war…. A Jewish writer, explicitly compared to Robinson Crusoe, is the last inhabitant of the empty tenement ("the only man on the island") until a black writer takes refuge there. Their tentative friendship, fostered by a devotion to craft that transcends their difference of background, eventually turns to bitter animosity, for reasons that recur exactly in God's Grace: the hero's incessant preaching, which demoralizes and finally unhinges his listeners, and a sexual conquest that deprives them of their women. These may seem contradictory, but both acts arise from an unconscious sense of racial superiority, which the author himself scarcely acknowledges. Sex and race show up the narcissism that can lie concealed in "higher" values.
God's Grace is marred by a sloppiness of detail in the way the fable is worked out. Malamud, hurrying toward his larger moral, shows little patience for the particulars of the acquisition of language, the practical problems of survival, the aftereffects of nuclear war, and Cohn's former life as a scientist. But these harm the novel less than the blinkers that restrict its vision. Malamud portrays his protagonist, as he did in The Tenants, as a kind of alter ego: a troubled, thoughtful, well-meaning man who tries—as this novel itself does—to bring a gleam of moral truth into a benighted world already far advanced in destroying itself. But his heroes, wrapped up in their exalted aims, rarely see the futility of their well-worn message or notice their own lapses into hypocrisy. (pp. 54-5)
Morris Dickstein, "The Sedulous Ape," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1983 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 15, No. 38, September 27, 1982, pp. 54-5.
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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 against Arthurian and other myths, and does so in a way that is both charming and serious. Although it was a first novel, the book sets out most of the themes, motifs, and character types its author would work with over the next few decades. The hero of The Natural, Roy Hobbs, is a loner, the first in what will be a fairly heavy traffic in Malamudian hard-luckers who can usually be counted upon to fade and fall within sight of the finish line. Suffering is at the heart of this novel, its point and its purpose….
While there was more than a dash of Ring Lardner in The Natural, and a touch or two of Nathanael West, the dominant style was Malamud's own, and this was most impressive. Anchored in realistic detail, it yet was able to fly off into the regions of the fantastic at the drop of a comma. By means of this style Malamud could see the comedy of his characters while retaining his—and engaging our—sympathy for them….
There are no Jews in The Natural; or at least no Jews to whom being a Jew has any importance. The point is worth making because being a Jew, its responsibilities and the consequences of not living up to those responsibilities, became central to Malamud's work over the next decade or so….
The Assistant, Malamud's novel of 1957, is about little other than the question of what it means to be a Jew. I won't recapitulate the details of this carefully made yet exceedingly cheerless novel, except to say that it is saturated with pain and filled with the dignity of suffering. To be a true Jew, for Morris Bober, the book's exemplary character, is "to do what is right, to be honest, to be good." It is also, according to the rabbi who delivers the eulogy over the dead Bober, to suffer and endure, "but with hope." (p. 50)
The importance of suffering, the need for hope no matter how heavy the burden of suffering, the necessity of not shutting one's heart to the suffering and hopes of others—out of these cards Bernard Malamud built the splendid literary house that is The Magic Barrel…. Each story in the book shimmers with implications. Malamud seems to have found the perfect plots to give unforgettable flesh to his themes. Comedy and grief rub shoulders, as when an immigrant Jew addressed the Lord: "My dear God, sweetheart, did I deserve that this should happen to me?" Malamud's stories come out of the Yiddish tradition of storytelling, from the way they open … to the way they can ignite suddenly into fantasy … to the way their particulars rise off the page into universal significance. And, finally, the book reveals Malamud to be a moralist, an intricate and subtle and unpredictable one—which is to say, a moralist of the most interesting kind.
A New Life, Malamud's novel of 1961, exhibited both a continuation of and a number of departures from his previous work. Among the notable departures is the fact that this novel is more firmly anchored in time and place than Malamud's earlier books….
But [it is] not, alas, much of a tale—or not as impressive a tale as one might have hoped for from the author of The Magic Barrel…. Bright patches there are in A New Life; laughs, too. Yet the novel seems, for the first time in a work by Bernard Malamud, thin. It sags in its middle. Lengthy though A New Life is, its substance feels light, while the stories in The Magic Barrel, though brief, have ballast….
If there is something a bit trivial and finally clownish about A New Life, no such thing can be said of The Fixer (1966). This novel, it will be recalled, is based on the 1913 Mendel Beiliss case…. [In] the pathetic person of Mendel Beiliss, the Russian Jewish community, indeed all Jews everywhere, stood on trial.
There is a natural gravity to this subject, and Malamud proves in every way up to it. The difficult materials of The Fixer are handled with great artistic tact. So serious is the subject that there isn't room for the least literary exhibitionism, and none is allowed. The phrase tour de force for once applies. (p. 51)
The Fixer was not only an artistic but a critical and a commercial success…. If Malamud was not yet hanging around the house awaiting a call from Stockholm, he nevertheless had every reason to think himself among the major writers of our day….
[The] first novel that Malamud produced after The Fixer was The Tenants….
Such as it is, the drama of The Tenants mainly has to do with whether the two writers [Harry Lesser and Willie Spearmint] will complete their manuscripts. Racial feelings mix with rivalry and these are further complicated by Harry Lesser's interest in Willie Spearmint's white lady friend. Whatever the novel's symbolic intent, it is spoiled because the details seem so wrong…. More, though, than small details are off. Tonally, the novel sound wrong. Malamud does not quite seem up to the violence of his black writer. No character in the novel is worthy of one's sympathy, so among them all one divides one's antipathies. Saddest of all, for the first time in a book by Bernard Malamud, you don't want to turn the page.
How can a really good writer write a really bad book? He can choose the wrong subject. He can—which is much the same thing—misgauge his own talent, and allow his literary ambition to exceed his literary equipment. He may become unfocused morally, the world suddenly seeming more complicated to him than once it did and hence less susceptible of being dealt with by his art. However serious he is as an artist, he may nonetheless come to take himself too seriously. In the case of Bernard Malamud, with The Tenants a new heaviness set in, and it was not the weight of authority.
Dubin's Lives (1977), Malamud's next novel and also his longest, is about a professional biographer, a husband and father who in his late fifties has a bout of eleventh-hour adolescence and sets out to prove the adage about there being no fool like an old fool. Which is to say, at fifty-six William Dubin falls in love with a girl of twenty-three. There is every reason to think that Bernard Malamud would not agree with this brief summary of his nearly four-hundred-page novel. My guess is that he views this novel as a profound investigation of middle age, and that he sees his biographer, William Dubin, as a quester, a man ardent not to let life slip away from him….
The earlier Malamud would have made fine ironic hay of this, and spun it into interesting moral material. The late Malamud takes it straight…. Cliché of clichés, we are talking, in Dubin's Lives, about a bloody mid-life crisis. But the crisis is not only William Dubin's; it is also Bernard Malamud's as a novelist. Signs of this novelistic crisis are that Malamud's language has begun to fall apart—"presently" is misused, "into" (as "into an affair") crops up again and again, "experience" is used as a verb—his self-indulgent and boring descriptions of landscape go well beyond the permissible, and winters in the novel seem longer than they do in life; Malamud's writing about sex, earlier always witty, here becomes chiefly embarrassing. Worst of all, William Dubin is a selfish, charmless man, and it is far from clear that Malamud is aware of this. This is what makes reading Dubin's Lives such a chore. As Jane Austen puts it in Mansfield Park: "The indignities of stupidity, and the disappointments of selfish passion, can excite little pity." And, one might add, less interest.
Why do novelists seem to feel the need always to be changing—to be, in the cant word, "growing"? Did Tolstoy feel this? Did Dickens? Is this a contemporary phenomenon? Is it chiefly an American one? No one, surely, can accuse Bernard Malamud of disobeying the dictum to change, of ignoring the urge to innovate. Now, after the straight realism of Dubin's Lives, he has turned, in his latest novel, God's Grace, to fantasy. (p. 52)
The novel's early pages have some of the pleasing excitement of Robinson Crusoe, with Cohn setting up house on the island. Then Cohn discovers that the chimpanzee Buz has been trained to talk. Soon the other chimpanzees show up, attesting to God's "cosmic absent-mindedness" and, more important, the novelist's need to keep his story going. Cohn sets out to renew life by establishing a community among the chimpanzees and the ape and himself—one that is more civilized, founded on sounder principles, than the one that has just destroyed itself, apparently with God's willingness, in a nuclear devastation.
Naturally, this plan will come to grief. Despite Calvin Cohn's lecturing the chimps on the best thought of the Bible, Freud, Kierkegaard, Ortega y Gasset, despite his holding a seder for them to honor God and his impregnating of the one female chimpanzee on the island, the animals revert to type—human type, that is. They become, in other words, competitive, aggressive, divisive, finally vicious. But the novel goes bad before the chimpanzees do. Once the chimpanzees are allowed to speak, God's Grace takes on something of the quality of a television situation comedy, with symbolism added. Much of the humor in the novel is of the kind known as faintly amusing, but then chimp humor, on the scale of wit, is roughly three full rungs down from transvestite jokes. Someone once defined charm, negatively, by saying that if you think you have it, you don't. In God's Grace one feels Malamud thinks he has it.
Poor Malamud, the larger he strains to become, the smaller his talent begins to appear. In God's Grace he sets out to understand the ways of God, which is quite a project. In his earlier fiction, when a shoemaker, a grocer, a "fixer" spoke, one felt one could hear God in the background; in this novel, where God does speak, all one can hear is the reedy voice of a novelist. (p. 53)
Joseph Epstein, "Malamud in Decline," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 74, No. 4, October, 1982, pp. 49-53.
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[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 inescapably a part of society, and that the central literary values, though they are not totally socially determined, do respond in a dialectical manner to what takes place and is believed in that society.
Bernard Malamud, a writer with a strong investment in the craft tradition and the literary work as object, has dramatized the deconstruction of the literary text in a way which makes clear why it is becoming impossible for the writer any longer to believe that literature can remain independent of the world. Malamud begins with an image of what he considers the present situation of the writer…. [The] House of Fiction built by Flaubert and Henry James, has degenerated in The Tenants into a squalid New York City tenement inhabited as the story begins by a solitary writer. Once there had been a small garden on the roof where the writer often sat after a day's work, looked at the sky and the clouds, "and thought of Wm. Wordsworth."… But those recollections in tranquility have passed, along with Wordsworth's belief that poets make the world in their poetry, and now the garden is sterile, and unvisited. Below the garden, the building is untenanted except for a solitary person, the latter-day writer Harry Lesser, who lives, with many locks on his door, as high up in the building as he can, but without a view. The landlord Levenspiel has found the old-style tenement unprofitable and, in order to tear the building down and replace it with a more economical structure of modest size with stores on the bottom floor, has evicted all the tenants except Lesser, who refuses to go. But he is prevented from carrying out his practical plans by Lesser's refusal, protected by various laws on tenants' rights, to vacate. The House of Fiction has been invaded by the world and has degenerated into a fearsome place of decay and terror. (pp. 76-7)
The Tenants is a carefully constructed parable in which every detail has meaning on at least two levels, and the tenement is not only a realistic depiction of the desperate state of much of New York City, particularly such areas as the South Bronx, but of the wasteland of modern western society and the incursion of this reality into literature toward the end of a terrifying century. The battered fragments of an older, better-ordered society, it is now foul, barely functioning, its corridors filled with darkness and terror, the temporary shelter of wounded, homeless, indistinguishable men and animals, haunted by nightmare visions such as the hermaphroditic Hitler and the scapegoat-eating flower. Responsibility for this invasion is divided between the profit-seeking capitalist landlord with his dream of wealth and the artist who by refusing to leave when the capitalist landlord tries to empty the old building for the wrecker, keeps it standing and therefore subject to the forces which reduce it to a grotesque chamber of horrors. Perhaps, The Tenants suggests, it might be better for the artist to move on and let the old culture and the old art end rather than to try to keep them standing in a world in which art has no function and against which it therefore no longer has any real defenses. Levenspiel's new world, his building in which the apartments above rest on the shops below, both architecturally and economically, might be preferable to the monstrosity that has resulted from the artist's stubbornly trying to work amid the ruins.
The artist, however, supported by the tangled laws of the old liberal society which ignore economic realities to protect the tenant from the owner, keeps the old building standing, trying to maintain the old literary values in the midst of the wasteland world. Lesser the novelist "squats"—Malamud's world is an intensified realistic version of Eliot's wasteland and frequently refers to it—in a few gray and cold rooms on the top floor which contain the minimal necessary furnishings of the old culture, the bookshelves with the patiently assembled library of cherished books, the hi-fi equipment and a few jazz and classical records, the desk, the typewriter, and the notes and files. The arrangements for eating, sleeping, and washing are rudimentary, but these matters of the flesh are not of much concern to the artist Lesser…. Behind the many locks on his door, he lives out the ultimacies of the totally dedicated romantic artist in a hostile world, a parody of Flaubert at Croisset or Proust in his cork-lined room of silence exploring his memories, of Joyce in his exile of silence and cunning creating a great work in the smithy of his soul.
Lesser reasons that he must stay on in the old building, despite the dangers and discomforts, because it is here that he began the book he is presently working on, and it is therefore here that he must finish it, if it is to be finished at all. He has written two earlier books, the first a succès d'estime which pleased him despite its small sales, and the second, in his opinion a poor book which nevertheless did well and was bought by the movies, providing him with enough money to live, very frugally, for a number of years while working on his third novel…. Lesser is now deep into this third book which will, he hopes, prove to himself and to the world that he is a true writer; but he has been at it, like the Greeks before Troy, for over nine years, and the book is in deep trouble, for he cannot find the necessary ending for the already-written beginning and middle. Levenspiel cannot understand, of course, either why the book should take so long—"What are you writing, the Holy Bible?" which is what a craftsman-artist like Lesser thinks he is writing—or why it cannot be written in another, more comfortable place just as well. But Lesser knows that it must be finished here where it was begun because, on the surface level, only here can he find that complete isolation needed for the intense effort of completing the book. On the allegorical level the meaning would seem to be that only in this particular romantic stance of isolation from and antagonism towards a broken and ugly world is the concentrated, introspective, priestly work of the Dedalian artificer possible. His art is not possible in a setting, or condition of being, other than that which the scene of The Tenants realizes, for another setting would necessitate a different kind of art. He needs the ugliness of the world as a foil against which to create the beauty of the perfectly articulated work.
For Lesser art is "glory," a "sacred cathedral … with lilting bonging iron bell,"… and he is its high priest or rabbi, whose service is a willing servitude. He is a professional writer, a workman who lives for his work. He rises in the morning eager to begin writing, and he falls asleep each night planning the work of the next day. (pp. 78-80)
Lesser not only has the compulsive work-ethic his art requires, but he has the technical skills and tools of the verbal craftsman as well. Words, language, grammar, rhetoric are his tools, and he can "no longer see or feel except in language."… He prefers a sharp, precise, sparse, clear style, the exact style of Flaubert, le mot juste, and he finds that writing flawed which contains irrelevancies, repetitions, or underdeveloped possibilities. He avoids the blurred image or the "shifting effect," and finds meaning in sharp focus, careful arrangement of the parts, in proportion and orderly development….
For Lesser, art is finally "a matter of stating the truth in unimpeachable form" …, but the truth is always determined by language and form, not by any reference to the world…. Thus Lesser turns inward away from the world, living his solipsistic priestly life, ignoring the devastation around him, and trying to meet the merciless formal demands of a book which asks him by its own structure to "say more than he knew." "Form sometimes offers so many possibilities it takes a while before you can determine which it's insisting on,"… and so the writing goes on for nine long years. (p. 81)
The Tenants opens with Lesser waking to work on his book and "catching sight of himself in his lonely glass," and the book he is writing is another mirror, for its subject is a writer created in almost the exact image of Harry Lesser, who is in turn writing a novel about love, hoping that the book will create the love he cannot find in or feel for people. Art seems to stretch out to infinity, pre-empting reality by simply duplicating itself, a perfect realization of the claim of the romantic literary text to depend on nothing but itself. Malamud's novel about a writer trying to write a novel about a writer trying to write a novel is a wilderness of mirrors, a completely enclosed and infinite world of formalistic art. (p. 82)
The title of Malamud's novel, The Tenants, suggests that Lesser is but a temporary resident in, not the owner of, the House of Fiction, and reminds us as well that there is more than one resident. The other tenant is a new arrival, the Black, Willie Spearmint—an obvious and not very happy reference to Shakespeare—who represents in the novel a view of writing which is the antithesis of Lesser's formalistic tradition of art for art's sake. Willie's life recapitulates the primitive phases of the development of the poet as romanticism hypothesizes it. His "election" takes place in prison where, suffering primal fear and bewilderment, he first begins to sing the blues and then finds in the song both comfort and his own identity as lyric singer: "he listens and hears, 'Willie Spearmint sings this song.'" He then begins to read and gradually begins to feel that he too can write…. Once out of prison Willie continues to write, and his stories, in contrast to Lesser's involuted and isolated self-reflecting novel about a writer trying to write a novel, are almost unbearably painful reflections of the most terribly immediate aspects of life in Harlem, of wretched jobs and beaten children, of drugs and whores, of men cornered and shot in alleys and women who in despair drink lye and hurl themselves off buildings, and above all of the hatred and violence between black and white, a violence which culminates in the story "No Heart."… (pp. 82-3)
But Willie Spearmint's writing is in trouble too, for all the power that drives it. He cannot find the form which adequately expresses his experiences and feelings, and so he too comes to the isolated tenement to find the distance from himself and the world his writing also requires. If Lesser's work lacks reality and energy, Willie's suffers from the absence of what Lesser has too much of, art and form. (p. 83)
In Malamud's romantic view, art is the work of the outsider, in this case the Jewish writer and the black writer, and these marginal men need one another, for each has what the other lacks…. If Willie introduces Lesser to some of the vitality and passion his life and work lack, Lesser in turn introduces Willie to the concept of literary craft, reads and criticizes his manuscript, gives him a dictionary and a handbook of grammar…. At first the results of the relationship seem ideal, for Willie begins his story again as a novel, moves into the tenement, and sweats the necessary long hard hours over his writing. But the attempt to become a craftsman destroys his writing, for he begins to overwrite in a florid, rhetorical style, employing a pressured stream-of-consciousness technique with elaborate mechanical connections between its various parts. This grotesque "arty" style conflicts directly with the "tensile sparseness" of Willie's "sensibility" and the raw facts of a tale of a black mother trying to kill her son with a breadknife before drinking lye and "throwing herself out of the bedroom window, screaming in pain, rage, futility."… Under the weight of Willie's rhetoric, the characters turn into zombies, and the language becomes "a compound of ashes and glue." When Lesser is forced by his own honesty and craft responsibility to tell Willie these truths about his work, Willie is nearly destroyed and vows to quit writing forever, turning to direct action to relieve his frustrated feelings and further his revolutionary cause.
Without art or self-conscious literary technique, The Tenants shows, literature lacks meaning and effect, remaining only a crude unmediated egoistic cry of rage and the satisfaction of hatreds, but craft, when applied, seems to desiccate all that it touches, destroying the artist and making it impossible for him to complete the work.
In Malamud's view, Flaubert is wrong: a book cannot be written "about nothing," form cannot complete itself, for writing is in the long run dependent upon the world in which it exists. Western poetry has traditionally expressed this interaction of life and art by marrying the craft of the poet to the love story, for love expresses in physical terms the beauty, completeness, and harmony of being which the craft of the poet also creates in his art…. The love story the poet tells, and the skill he uses to tell it have traditionally been but two aspects of the same desire for the beautiful which art seeks to create as an ideal in an ugly and fragmented world.
But earthly physical beauty, which Irene Bell (née Belinsky), represents in name and person, and the beauty of artistic form, which Lesser pursues, are separated in the grotesque world of The Tenants. At the beginning of the novel, Lesser lives a loveless existence, unmarried, without family relations. Seizing rare opportunities for occasional, and usually unsatisfactory, sex, he pursues an abstract Flaubertian beauty exclusively. Irene Bell belongs to Willie Spearmint, who frees her from her middle-class life and teaches her the power and pleasure of sexual love. But the finds that he cannot write near Irene, near the actuality of beauty, and so in order to complete his story he begins to work in the House of Fiction. At first he spends only weekdays there, but as his involvement with his craft becomes more intense he moves out of Irene's apartment and spends longer and longer periods in the tenement, foregoing all the physical pleasures of life, food, warmth, and love. But the farther he drifts away from physical love and its embodiment of beauty, the more difficult and less effective his writing becomes. At the same time, Lesser, who has gotten to know Irene through Willie, begins to love her and find comfort with her, and as he does so, his writing improves and moves easily and powerfully towards the promised end.
The point could not be made more clearly: the beauty of art depends upon the real beauty of flesh and the world, even as art rests inevitably upon an experienced reality. To write about nothing is not only cruel indifference but an impossibility. The "knot intrinsicate" of the form of art and the act of human love is drawn even tighter by the involvement of the two writers who need one another. Willie Spearmint has all the primal energy, the ego, the moral passion, and the deep involvement with the world which Lesser's writing lacks; Lesser has all the dedication, concentration, and formal skills Willie's writing lacks. They need each other as writers, even as in their circumstances as Black and Jew they need each other as men. But despite early uneasy movements toward brotherhood, to the apparent benefit of both men and both books, the relationship breaks down because of an insurmountable antagonism. Lesser steals Irene from Willie, who has already more or less abandoned her, and Lesser's attempts to improve Willie's writing destroy it. In fury at the knowledge that he has been cheated in both senses, Willie tries to kill Lesser, beats Irene, and in a culminating act which explains all the others, he breaks into Lesser's apartment and burns all his manuscripts. Since Lesser, close to the promised end, has removed the copy of his book from the safe deposit box for corrections, this means that his book is destroyed, even as Willie's has been, and both writers must either abandon their work or start over again. The mixture of art and life is, apparently, an ideal no longer available to the modern writer as it was to his predecessors. Art and life have become separate and the literary text cannot be written any longer, or if it is it is destroyed. Abandoning art and returning to the world seems to be the only answer, and Willie storms off proclaiming "Revolution is the Real Art," while Lesser considers marrying Irene and going with her to San Francisco to begin a new life. But the power of writing over the writer is absolute, and both men drift back to the tenement…. The writers seldom meet, but each avidly reads the scraps of writing the other discards in the ashcans, each hoping that the other will both fail and succeed. But the writing of both degenerates in hatred of the other. Having rejected form, at least outwardly—though he still endlessly rewrites and constantly changes subjects—Willie's writing grows more incoherent, and its formlessness is reflected in its themes, self-loathing and obsessed hatred of all whites, particularly all Jews…. In the end, his writing, unable to become anything more than his own raw feelings and his own actual experiences, reduces itself to pages of paper which begin with two opposing words, BLACK-WHITE, and gradually eliminates WHITE, letter by letter, until only the single word BLACK appears over and over again. As Willie's writing realizes the tendency of a number of modern writings, such as Beckett's plays, to disappear into the vortex of a single word endlessly repeated, Lesser's skill gradually dies and he, the man of words, becomes "nauseated when he wrote, by the words, by the thought of them."… [As] their books are drawn down into silence, Lesser and Willie are consumed by their hatred for each other. (p. 87)
Levenspiel, the owner of the house, is the appropriate person to put the question that society from Plato to the present has asked of poetry: "What's a make-believe novel, Lesser, against all the woes and miseries that I have explained to you?" To which the craftsman-artist had once answered proudly with Nietzsche, "No artist tolerates reality," or had pointed to Joyce's "luminous silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure" as the true reality redeeming a fallen world. But Malamud speaks for a later generation of authors. Art depends upon the world, and its values must be lived out in the world. It cannot generate its own conclusion but must find that conclusion in actual experience; that experience, however, is not satisfactory by itself, and if it is to live and have meaning it must take the shape and form that only art can give, transforming particular facts into believable and effective truths. Malamud cannot find any way of bringing these seeming opposites together to a promised end. Instead, art and experience seek their extremes, and in this extremity love dies and the art which seeks love's end through skill and form expires into silence or a single obsessive word sounded over and over again. Having failed to reconcile its artist protagonists, Malamud's own novel cannot reach the promised end but dies away with another word repeated hopelessly, "Mercy, mercy, mercy." Art no longer has the power to bind together a world of racial and class hatred, of decayed cities, individual isolation, of endless war and the broken forms of a former civilization. Nor can it any longer create, as the romantics believed they could, an abstract image of perfect beauty in words which will outlast the world. As its texts lose their power, unable to overcome any longer the destructive forces represented by the tenement and the racial hatred it contains, they lose their reality and become only unfinished manuscripts, a single word endlessly repeated, scraps of yellow paper in the garbage can. (p. 88)
Alvin B. Kernan, "Battering the Object: The Attack on the Literary Text in Malamud's 'The Tenants'," in his The Imaginary Library: An Essay on Literature and Society (copyright © 1982 by Princeton University Press; excerpts reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1982, pp. 66-88.
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[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 intuition for saying a great deal with the most minimal narrative gestures, and a delicacy of feeling about the characters that cannot be reduced to any simple technique. (p. 1)
[The typical protagonist]—the isolate pensioner as everyman—is more often than not a Yiddish-speaking immigrant Jew who seems to have known little in his life but hard work and hard times. He is typically beset with painful and humiliating ailments—hernia, bad back, weak heart, arthritis, a veritable cornucopia of the physical ills flesh is heir to. He is also typically on the brink, or below it, of poverty, counting pennies in the back of his rundown grocery store or in his dingy rented room, wondering where next month's rent will come from, perhaps dreaming sometimes of a sufficiency he knows he will never enjoy. (Malamud's vision is pre-eminently that of a writer whose formative years were spent in the Great Depression.) Finally, the characteristic Malamud protagonist often proves to be desperate for love. In several instances, it is a father whose love for a rebellious child has soured into a resentment bordering on hatred. In other stories, it is the pathetic love or mere erotic longing of an older man for a younger woman which will get him nothing but mockery and frustration.
As my composite portrait of the Malamudian hero may suggest, this is bleak and narrow stuff for the making of a fictional world, but in his stories Malamud has often been able to transform this material into the most arresting images of the human predicament. There is no single formula that will explain how this transformation takes place, but I think it has a good deal to do with the laconic lyricism with which his prose evokes loneliness and abandonment and poverty. For such subjects, too little stylistic elaboration would produce mere flatness, too much, insistent pathos or masochistic self-indulgence. But in his best stories Malamud works in a perfect middle register that elicits compassion through its very terseness….
Rereading these stories, I am surprised to find that the tautness of the prose owes something to a writer radically removed from Malamud in sensibility and values—Ernest Hemingway. In his fondness for sequences of short sentences and monosyllabic words, the shifting of much of the emotional burden to strategically chosen physical objects rendered with flatly descriptive terms …, Malamud shows at least an affinity with the writing in perfect Hemingway achievements like "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" and "Old Man at the Bridge." The difference, of course, is that Malamud does not hesitate to point directly to Davidov's limp and his weariness, or to Rosen's "wasted" appearance and "despairing" eyes, though he is prudent in simply stating these attributes of adversity and then allowing Rosen's dreadful room to speak for itself. Also unlike Hemingway is the interpolation of a bit of interior monologue…. (p. 35)
Perhaps one of Malamud's difficulties as a novelist has been that anxiety deployed over 300 or more pages begins to rasp, the anxious characters often driving themselves in the end to some orgy of self-immolation. In the short stories, however, where the writer can catch a revelatory moment of distress that intimates a lifetime, Malamud has been able to become the bard of anxiety, making the more successfully realized of his protagonists large and resonant in their smallness and their plaintive groans, allowing us as readers to see the fears and uncertainties of our lives figured, however grotesquely, in theirs.
The actual fictional rendering of these eternal flounderers is often a good deal less bleak than any summary of their predicament might lead one to suppose. In this regard, what I have said about the "Hemingwayesque" aspect of the style is a little misleading; though the prose is usually not very metaphorical and certainly avoids pyrotechnic effects, there are little eruptions of figurative perception that are funny or mysterious or magical, tokens of an imagination outside the grimy walls of the trap in which the protagonists are typically caught….
[In] the most memorable of Malamud's stories there are often significant glimpses of a shimmering horizon of fantasy beyond the grim scenes of impoverishment and loneliness in the foreground. The fantasy can enter through an image, a dream, a hallucination, or occasionally through the configuration of the whole story, as in "The First Seven Years"; for all its realistic depiction of immigrant existence, it is a touching fairy tale of an apprentice winning the master's daughter, with an echo of the Bible (Jacob working seven years for Rachel) and perhaps a reminiscence of I. B. Singer….
Of all these stories, it can be said that only Bernard Malamud could have written them. They are neither imitative nor imitable. Not every story in the selection is equally strong, and there are four or five pieces that strike me as flat or even abortive. But this volume includes stories like "The First Seven Years," "The Magic Barrel," "The Last Mohican," "Idiots First" and "Angel Levine," which I think will be read as long as anyone continues to care about American fiction written in the 20th century. (p. 36)
Robert Alter, "Ordinary Anguish," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1983 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 16, 1983, pp. 1, 35-6.
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"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 time and place solely of Malamud's contriving—because, with his deft prose, his flat and funny dialogue, his absolute authority as storyteller, he makes us believe. These are odd, taut, tortured stories, and not all of them work—"Take Pity" and "The Mourners," for example, ask the reader for an emotional response that neither the characters nor their situation has earned. But at their best they achieve something rare and wonderful…. In the witty "Rembrandt's Hat," in the magical "Silver Crown," in the heartbreaking "My Son the Murderer" suffering becomes a function of personal choice, of the unwillingness or inability to communicate, of fate modified by free will. Surprise here takes the form of irony, elevated and sweetened by Malamud's intelligence and sensitivity.
All of Malamud's stories are shot through with feeling and fantasy. The hard, observed images of real life combine with the passionate thrust of his imagination to produce for the reader wondrous impossibilities…. The depth of feeling in these stories, the breadth of life lived, is not undercut but enriched by the evident fantasy…. Fantasy is made to bear witness to the unfathomable mystery at the heart of all suffering and desire.
Malamud's best stories surprise and illuminate; the great ones redeem. "Angel Levine," "The Magic Barrel," "The Last Mohican" are, by any standard, great stories. They are more than magical; they are mystical. In each of them an overwhelming need—ostensibly physical, but ultimately spiritual—propels a man into a preposterous relationship with someone who pursues him….
From each of these relationships the pursued character flees into the darkest recesses of his own soul, and there he encounters an overwhelming question. Unless I become a whole man, can I claim to be a Jew? Do I truly love God if I do not also love people? Am I my brother's keeper? If I give the beggar four dollars, why not five? If five dollars, why not my suit? If my suit, why not my life? In his response to the terrible question, the pursued becomes the pursuer, joyous now, hopeful, because in his pursuit he loses everything he thought had mattered and wins the one thing he valued least: his possible self. Suffering here is at once personal and cosmic…. These stories anatomize our human isolation, and redeem it.
And everywhere there is that funny, inflected, fatalistic voice. "My dear God, sweetheart, did I deserve that this should happen to me?…."
Here is Malamud in all his richness, humor, pathos, heartbreak. An analyst of suffering, a moralist with a ripe sense of irony, Malamud finally is a pessimist who nonetheless believes in the possibility of redemption. Stories is a surprising and welcome book indeed.
John L'Heureux, "The Angel of Life," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1983 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 16, No. 41, October 17, 1983, p. 94.
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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 distinction seem irrelevant. In sufficient concentration, small objects achieve critical mass, enough fast victories add up to a triumphant long haul.
Malamud's world reveals itself bit by bit: a place of stony certainties and infrangible laws, brightened occasionally by enclaves of unexpected magic. Those who live here are predominantly poor, oppressed by hard work. Most are men without women. More than half the heroes in these stories are bachelors or widowers…. The main character in a story called The Model speaks for most of Malamud's men: "Is there nothing more to my life than it is now? Is this all that is left to me?"
These people must bear Old Testament burdens, punished not just by life but by the suspicion that they somehow deserve all the troubles heaped upon them….
In Idiots First, Mendel has been approached by Ginzburg, a messenger of death, and warned that his life expires at midnight. Mendel must somehow raise the train fare to send his son Isaac, who is 39 and unable to care for himself, to an uncle in California. He succeeds, and the fierceness of his determination frightens even death himself….
This is one of the handful of happy endings in Malamud's stories. Yet all the tales radiate a joy that has nothing to do with consequences. The author consistently portrays a kind of heroism devoid of self-consciousness or sentimentality. Convinced that their fates have already been determined, characters go on stubbornly behaving as if their actions mattered….
Malamud is probably the most severe writer of his generation, a trait that may explain why his work has been extensively admired but less widely loved. Still, the gathering of these stories reveals a gentleness in Malamud's art that was not always clear before. He admires the sheer cussedness of his characters, their backs to the wall, squabbling in the maw of annihilation. He relishes the cranks and eccentrics who, destined to suffer and die, still insist on making noise in a vast, indifferent universe. Mendel, grappling with his fate, screams, "You bastard, don't you understand what it means human?" This book offers 25 vivid and unforgettable answers.
Paul Gray, "Heroism without Sentiment," in Time (copyright 1983 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 122, No. 18, October 17, 1983, p. 92.