Just before his death, Edward Lewis Wallant wrote, “I suggest that most people are nearsighted, myopic in their inability to perceive the details of human experience.” It was a condition he found perfectly normal; there is simply too much energy used up in everyday life, having families, supporting oneself, and living in a community, for much insight into the lives of fellow human beings, except as they relate to one’s own immediate needs. Yet there are times, Wallant noted, when people experience an unrecognized yearning to “know what lies in the hearts of others.” “It is then,” he wrote, “that we turn to the artist, because only he [sic] can reveal even the little corners of the things beyond bread alone.” It is revealing that Wallant, first trained as a graphic artist, should title the one essay in which he set forth his artistic credo “The Artist’s Eye.” In this essay, Wallant explores the relationship between the observable, everyday world and the interpretation of that world through the writer’s heightened sense of awareness.
In all four of Wallant’s published novels, this theme of heightened perception is central. Theprotagonist, who has become emotionally insulated from life, experiences a reawakening of feelings and rejoins the world around him. This spiritual and emotional rebirth comes as the result of the death of someone who has become close to the protagonist. The impact of this death, which often happens in a shocking way and with suddenness, penetrates the emotional barriers Wallant’s characters erect against the onslaught of modern, urban life: Joe Berman escapes the past, Sol Nazerman is rescued from both the past and the dim recesses of his pawnshop, Angelo DeMarco gets beyond his streetwise sassiness, and Norman Moonbloom overcomes his inertia and learns to act. In each case and with each novel, Wallant takes his readers into the lives of his characters and reveals the little corners of the human heart.
The Human Season
Wallant’s first novel, The Human Season, is the story of a middle-aged, middle-class man who must come to grips with himself following the death of his wife, Mary. Joe Berman is recognizably a twentieth century Everyman who lives a life barely distinguishable from that of his neighbors. He is a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States when he was a little boy, and he seemingly has attained the American Dream, founding his own plumbing business, owning his own modest home, marrying, and fathering three children.
Mary, of “obligatory blonde, American prettiness,” as one critic has described her, dies prior to the beginning of the novel, leaving Berman alone to face life and his largely unrecognized emotions. The structure of the novel intensifies the tension between past and present by alternating scenes from the present, in which Wallant skillfully renders Berman’s daily life through a series of highly detailed episodes, with incidents from the past, each of them exposing some traumatic memory. In their reverse progression into the earlier years of Berman’s life, these dreams deepen one’s understanding not only of Berman’s character but also of the formation of his emotional paralysis. Beginning on April 30, 1956, the day of Mary’s fatal stroke, the dreams go back to September, 1907, when Berman was a little boy of nine years living in Russia. The dreams contrast sharply in their emotional vividness with the increasingly comatose quality of Berman’s present life. He has become an automaton, living without connection in an environment increasingly alien to him. He lashes out at the objects that remind him of his wife’s delicacy and sensitivity as he succumbs to his “numbing, disorienting grief.” Finally, Berman tries to kill himself.
As he becomes more and more blind to the real world, the world of his dreams, his past, becomes more vivid until it begins to intrude into his present, waking life. Increasingly, Wallant returns to images of the natural sources of Berman’s earlier feelings in his memories of his father and of his life in Russia. Although there is a pastoral quality to these memories. Wallant does not suggest a return to some agrarian ideal. Berman’s dreams remind him of his human capacities and inaugurate his search for something that will approximate the bond with the nature of his youth. Among the dreams are recollections of his father and Judaism. Berman realizes how neglectful he was of his own son, who was killed in the war, and how estranged from the healing qualities of his Jewishness he had become. The death of his wife, after all, merely provides a catalyst for his sickness, causing his self-doubt and sense of alienation to surface. The initial moment of his illumination quite literally comes as a shock: In an attempt to fix a faulty television set, Berman is thrown across the room, and in his fear and astonishment, he begins to pray in a jumble of English, Yiddish, and Russian. In that moment, he discovers the meaning of all the months of his suffering: He is alone.
It is from this revelation that he begins to reconstruct his life, one that will be authentic and will result in a new self. He discovers a craving for people; his dreams no longer haunt him but rather provide him with soothing images that strengthen his zest for self-renewal. In a scene that elevates the fiction to a mythical dimension, Berman is born again as he walks home in the rain after having “witnessed” the life around him. As the novel ends, Berman is waiting in his empty house for his son-in-law to take him home for a family dinner. In this final chapter, Wallant convincingly depicts a poignant example of people’s infinite capacity for self-renewal.
Wallant abandoned work on a comic fiction, Gimple the Beast, to write his second novel, The Pawnbroker. As in his first novel, the central character is a middle-aged Jewish immigrant. Sol Nazerman, however, did not arrive in the United States as a youth; instead, the forty-five-year-old former professor from the University of Kraków fled Europe and the death camps in which he had been a prisoner during World War II. Now he is the operator of a pawnshop in a black ghetto in New York City. The shop is owned by a minor underworld figure who uses it as a drop point for the transferral of illegal money. Nazerman is aware of the criminality of the operation but does not protest. He uses his...
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