Several basic characteristics of the short story as a genre merge in the stories of Bernard Malamud to make his short fiction prototypical of the form and to ensure his place in world literature as one of the most masterful short-story writers in the twentieth century. First of all, in a complex aesthetic way, Malamud combines elements of the folktale with a post-Chekhovian poetic technique. Second, he focuses on what Irish short-story writer Frank O’Connor once called a “submerged population group.” Third, in a concrete way he illuminates complex and universal moral issues that bind all humans together.
Despite the current critical obsession with multicultural groups, postcolonial polemics, and political issues as criteria for literary and critical worth, Malamud will always pose challenges as a great writer, not because he is Jewish or because he wrote about a marginalized group but because he exhibits himself as that rare and wonderful combination of consummate craftsman and profoundly imaginative and morally concerned human artist. Malamud particularizes universal human suffering and the difficult human challenge to come to terms with the mysterious other in the concrete experiences of Jews, thereby universalizing the Jewish experience as being wholly human. As the old tailor Manischevitz says in “Angel Levine” after accepting the Black Angel Levine as a divine messenger, “Believe me, there are Jews everywhere.” Indeed, in Malamud’s worldview, all who suffer are Jews.
The suffering that plagues Malamud’s ghetto Jews is not the result of economics or politics or social injustice; it is the result of being merely human and thus ultimately alone in the world. Consequently, the suffering of Malamud’s characters cannot be relieved by social reform, organized charity, or political change, but only by the love, understanding, and sacrifice of other human beings. Whereas the former is merely political, the latter is constantly a challenge, for it places impossible demands on each individual in the community.
Made up of fifty-five stories from Malamud’s four separate collections—The Magic Barrel (1958), Idiots First (1963), Pictures of Fidelman (1969), and Rembrandt’s Hat (1973)—as well as a few uncollected stories from both early and late in Malamud’s career, this anthology, edited by Robert Giroux (who has edited Malamud’s fiction since the 1950’s), organizes all of Malamud’s stories from 1940 to 1984 in the order of their composition rather than their publication. This structural device enables one to see the development of Malamud’s wide range, from realistic stories such as “The Prison,” “The First Seven Years,” “The Bill,” and “The Loan” to such thoroughly fantastic stories as “Angel Levine,” “The Jewbird,” and “Take Pity.”
Although Malamud is a master of both the realistic and the fantastic, he is at his best when he mixes conventions of the two styles in such stories as “Idiots First” and his best- known story, “The Magic Barrel.” This mixture is not so much the straight-faced acceptance of the incredible to which readers are accustomed in the Magical Realism of Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel García Márquez, but rather a fictional world in which moral demands seem to force the supernatural into being from the psychic depths of the individual character’s secret need. It is the technique most responsible for the uniqueness of Malamud’s stories.
“The Magic Barrel,” the title story of Malamud’s 1958 National Book Award winner, is one of his most characteristic works, for it combines both symbolism and allegory and unites fairy-tale fantasy with depression-tract reality to create a world that seems both believable and incredible at once. Malamud’s manner here is that of the traditional Yiddish teller of tales, but his tight poetic technique is learned from Anton Chekhov. Although the story opens in a fairy-tale way, it soon moves to a realistic level with the young rabbinical student Leo Finkel’s practical need for a bride. Pinya Salzman, the matchmaker whom Finkel calls, is a mythic trickster from the world of Finkel’s own psychic need, appearing out of nowhere as if by magic summons. The story ends in a famous tableau in which Finkel accepts with fear and trembling the ambiguous fusion of his own need in the form of Salzman’s angelic/whorish daughter, Stella.
Malamud’s stories, although they involve age-old moral dilemmas, do not end with moral resolution, as is conventional in the traditional folklore parable; rather, in the modern post- Chekhovian manner, moral dilemmas in Malamud stories are not so much resolved as they are left frozen in a symbolic epiphany or ironic gesture. Malamud’s characters are often caught in a moral quandary that they not only cannot resolve but also cannot understand, at least until it is too late. At the end of “Take Pity,” for example, Rosen does all he can to help a proud widow, but when she continues to refuse his aid, he...
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