The central statement in Bernard Malamud’s fiction that reflects his subject matter is perhaps revealed in the recognition that the old tailor Manischevitz comes to after accepting the Negro Levine as a divine messenger at the end of “Angel Levine”: “A wonderful thing, Fanny,” Manischevitz says to his revitalized wife, “Believe me, there are Jews everywhere.” For although Malamud does focus on the so-called Jewish experience in the United States, especially the ghetto experience, the Jew in his short fiction is more an embodiment of the complex moral experiences of suffering, responsibility, and love than he is a realistic representative of a particular ethnic and social situation.
This typical thematic concern also indicates the central stylistic and technical nature of Malamud’s short fiction. As has always been characteristic of the genre, Malamud’s short stories are closer to the oral tradition of parable than they are to realistic fiction. Although one can discern traces of the Yiddish tale in Malamud, however, one also realizes that his short stories reflect the tight symbolic structure and ironic and distanced point of view one has come to associate with the short story since James Joyce and Anton Chekhov. Because Malamud is a master of the tradition of the oral tale as well as a highly self-conscious artist aware of the short story as a written form, he perhaps represents better than any other contemporary artist the essential characteristics of the short story as a genre. Indeed, Frank O’Connor could have been describing Malamud’s isolated and alienated Jewish refugees when, in The Lonely Voice (1963), he characterized the typical short-story character as representative of a “submerged population group.”
In this selection of twenty-five stories largely drawn from such previously published collections as The Magic Barrel (1958), Idiots First (1963), Pictures of Fidelman (1969), and Rembrandt’s Hat (1973), one can enjoy the entire range of Malamud’s accomplishments in the often-underrated art form known as short fiction. The stories range from such thoroughly fantastic tales as “Angel Levine,” “The Jewbird,” and “Take Pity” to the more realistic stories such as “The German Refugee,” “Man in the Drawer,” and “Rembrandt’s Hat.” More typical Malamud can be seen in those stories in which the fantastic and the realistic are mixed in an ambiguous way, such as “Idiots First,” “The Last Mohican,” and his best-known story, “The Magic Barrel.”
In fact, “The Magic Barrel,” the title story of the collection that won the National Book Award in 1958, might be seen as typical of Malamud’s short fiction both in theme and technique. Thematically, the story unites tragedy and comedy; technically, it combines fantasy and realism. Structured on the pattern of the quest, it makes use of an archetypal figure to center on the identity crisis of a character who fails to see his real self behind his façade. Moreover, it seems a perfect example of what has been referred to as the formal concentration and symbolic design of Malamud’s stories as well as his heavy reliance on a technique of epiphany.
Although the story opens in a fairy-tale manner, it immediately moves to a realistic level with the young rabbinical student Leo Finkle’s practical need for a bride. As soon as Finkle summons the matchmaker Pinye Salzman, who appears out of nowhere, the reader is no longer in the real world but rather has entered into the interior world of Leo’s own psyche; it is here, in a mythic and symbolic world, that Leo must “establish the level of his need.” The story ends in a highly charged epiphanic tableau when Finkel confronts and accepts the ambiguous mixture of innocence and experience in Salzman’s daughter, Stella.
As is usually the case in the short-story form, Malamud’s stories move inevitably toward a conclusion in which complex moral dilemmas are not so much resolved as they are frozen in a symbolic final epiphany or ironic gesture. Malamud’s characters are always caught in what might be called the demand for sympathy and responsibility. The moral character configuration is structured, however, in such a way that the reader is not permitted the luxury of an easy moral judgment. There are those characters who try to give sympathy or pity, but because genuine identification is not possible, it is not acceptable. For example, at the end of “Take Pity,” Rosen, the former coffee salesman, after trying to help the proud widow Eva, finally makes a will leaving all to her and sticks his head in the oven; he confronts her beseeching face in an afterlife and shouts, “Go ’way from here. Go home to your children.” In “Black Is My Favorite Color,” Nat Lime tells of his constant, frustrated attempts to “help” black people, only to have them, as he says, kick him in the teeth. At the conclusion of the story, which focuses primarily on his desire to marry a widowed black woman, Nat shouts to...
(The entire section is 2067 words.)