Wallace (Arthur) Markfield

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Markfield, Wallace (Arthur)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Markfield, Wallace (Arthur) 1926–

American novelist and short story writer, Markfield combines experimental techniques borrowed from Joyce with a subject matter of Jewish-American urban life to produce a distinctive, and often underrated, fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)

One of the reasons we read novels is to learn about the exotic world: how do Portuguese priests go about seducing their parishioners, why are the Japanese forever injecting themselves with vitamins? Wallace Markfield's first novel, To an Early Grave, is about a way of life just as exotic and glamorous as those, if one can stand away from it for a while: the life of New York Jewish intellectuals. Jewish? Indeed, to paraphrase Nietzsche, all too Jewish. The book is broad satire, wonderfully funny and mean….

I do not think that To an Early Grave is a work of major importance, or that Markfield intended it to be. It is a small comic triumph, the sunniest novel about death that I know. The book deals with one Sunday in the life of Morroe Rieff, during which he and three other friends of Leslie Braver-man, a gifted writer dead at 41, attend Leslie's funeral in Brooklyn. Markfield makes only the most perfunctory effort to unify the incidents: Morroe finds that he cannot cry over Leslie's death; everyone else cries at the funeral, but instead Morroe embarrassingly gets an erection at the sight of Sandra Luboff, Miss Social Welfare, and his memory of their dalliance; finally, at the end of the long day, rubbing his wife Etta with insect repellent, Morroe is able to cry. But this is less a serious development than Markfield's final irony: the tears come just as inappropriately as did Morroe's earlier reaction. (p. 214)

The other three mourners are broad caricatures. Holly Levine, a most pretentious literary critic, owns the Volkswagen that takes the four to the funeral. Levine's Volkswagen is introduced with a marvelous soliloquy that begins: "To own a car in Manhattan is like towing a camel across the Sargasso." A seven-page scene in which Levine tries to write a review should be enough to drive anyone of decent impulse, susceptible to shame, out of the profession. Levine's form of mourning for Leslie is to say to a friend at the funeral: "We must first determine whether we want memoir or critique."

We first see Barnet Weiner, poet and critic of the arts, spending his Sunday morning in bed with a thin Bronx girl named Myra Mandelbaum, who had previously refused to stay the night, she explains, because her hair is oily and he has such hard water. Weiner "used to correspond with Gide in French and call him Cher Maître." In his criticism Weiner is fastidious and delicate, in reality he is a lecherous vulgarian, calling Morroe's attention to a girl walking by with the comment: "That little tochiss. I could bite into it like a piece of hot pastrami."

The fourth mourner, Felix Ottensteen, is an older man (the other three are about Leslie's age) who writes literary articles for a Yiddish daily and lectures to Hadassah groups…. Ottensteen is a refuser, but he is the most likable of Morroe's companions, he is the one most loyal to Leslie, and his rhetoric about Jewish woes is a relief from the culture-faking of the rest of them.

The most interesting character in To an Early Grave is of course the dead Leslie, who is endlessly resurrected for us. He was a small fat man, who walked like "a little bubbe loaded down with shopping bags." Leslie was dirty, tirelessly promiscuous, and a shameless sponge; he was a ruthless exploiter of his wife, who eventually evicted him; before his death he lived by writing pornography. But Leslie was also a brilliant critic and fiction writer, a conscientious stylist, and a man who saved his integrity for his work. (pp. 215-16)

The women in To an Early Grave are all minor. Morroe's wife Etta comes through as a nagging voice and "absurdly large breasts." Leslie's widow, Inez, a Yiddish-speaking Gentile, is made "radiant, positively radiant" by her...

(The entire section is 2,097 words.)