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People of the Book 101: Bernard Malamud

Marek Breiger
May 20, 2012

by Marek Breiger

“All men are Jews, though few men know it.” —Bernard Malamud

For those of us who came of age reading Bernard Malamud, it seems impossible to contemplate the present situation in which, only twenty-six years following his death, many American Jewish college students and indeed many American Jews under the age of 50 have not read this crucial Jewish writer. For Malamud (April 26, 1914 – March 18, 1986) was and is the essential first-generation American Jewish novelist, the writer who more than any other built a bridge between the East European Yiddish masters and the experiences of American Jewish life — and did so with compassion, empathy and artfulness.

In Malamud’s world, comedy and tragedy are inseparable, and the human ability to transcend suffering is a given, as is the knowledge that life has meaning and is not a cosmic joke, and that humans are engaged with one another and our choices matter. He teaches these eternal lessons in a voice that incorporates, as in music, both sounds and silence. There is a clarity of sound in his narratives that evokes both the crowded tenements and American open spaces, the rush of New York City and the lonesome trains winding through twilight in the Northwest. One reads Malamud as one hears both the Gershwin of “Rhapsody in Blue,” the Copland of “Appalachian Spring,” the Bernstein of “West Side Story,” and the Marx Brothers in “Go West.” His landscapes are the setting where human beings struggle with their destiny and their fate.

Philip Davis’ 2007 biography of Malamud, Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life was, I believe, an honest attempt to convey and interpret Malamud’s art and life, and led me back to Malamud’s novels and stories with even more appreciation. Davis, to his credit, gives much more attention to Malamud’s novels than most critics. He points out that if Malamud’s corpus of short stories contains many masterpieces, his major novels are also world-class. Each deals with issues that are very much alive today, which makes Malamud both classic and contemporary.

The Natural (1951), his first published novel, is about much more than baseball. Malamud writes beautifully about the game, but he never lets us forget about the essential human drama it represents. There is a lyricism in Malamud’s descriptions that even the greatest baseball writers aspire to. (Roger Angell, America’s greatest baseball writer, was a great fan of The Natural.)

Here is Malamud describing young Roy Hobbs pitching to an egotistical slugger called “The Whammer.” Youth opposes middle age, and arrogance opposes innocence . . .

The ball appeared to the batter to be a slow spinning planet looming toward the earth. For a long light-year he waited for this globe to whirl into the orbit of his swing so he could bust it to smithereens that would settle with dust and dust leaves into some distant cosmos. At last the unseeing eye, maybe a fortune teller’s crystal ball — anyway a curious combination of circles — drifted within range of his weapon, or so he thought, because he lunged at it ferociously, twisting round like a top. He landed on both knees as the world floated by over his head and hit with a whup into the cave of Sam’s glove.”

The pitcher is Roy Hobbs — the “natural” soon to be gunned down by a woman in a Chicago hotel room and fated to wait sixteen years before he makes it to the big leagues.

Yet Roy Hobbs, in order to fulfill himself as a true hero, needs more than natural ability, and his eventual failure not to understand his obligations to others makes The Natural a very moving tragedy. In the end — in contrast to the hopeful movie version of the novel — Roy turns away from obligation and real love. He is embittered by his years of pain, and has not learned Malamud’s lesson. He has suffered not for others but for himself alone: “I never did learn anything out of my past life, now I have to suffer again. . .”

The Natural is about our need for heroes, for men and women who, when they succeed, help us all to be better. It is also a novel about the possibility of redemption. Critics, including Philip Davis, have interpreted the book in light of the story of Sir Gawain, but there is, I believe, a Biblical subtext as well. Hobbs has crossed America as a hero, but without understanding his obligations. He balks just as surely as Jonah balks at God’s command to prophesize and save Nineveh. Hobbs’ failure, like those of modern day steroid-using ballplayers, is therefore cosmic. It is not surprising that Malamud’s own baseball hero, according to the biography, was Jackie Robinson, for Malamud believed in a universe where morality is necessary and possible and where baseball is far more than a game.

This belief in a moral universe is reiterated in his next novel, The Assistant (1957), in which Frank Alpine, an Italian-American hold-up man, becomes the assistant to the man he has robbed, Morris Bober — a character based, Davis tells us, on Malamud’s grocer father. Alpine, unlike Roy Hobbs, does learn through his own suffering, and attempts to gain manhood through atonement. Grateful for Morris’ acceptance, forgiveness, kindness and courage, Frank becomes Morris’ spiritual son and a model of a true penitent.

One day in April Frank went to the hospital and had himself circumcised. For a couple of days he dragged himself around with a pain between his legs. The pain enraged and inspired him. After Passover he became a Jew.

Davis makes clear that Malamud was not a strictly autobiographical writer, yet transformed real events into fiction. He had survived a painful, even nightmarish childhood. At 11, he had returned home from school to find his mother foaming at the mouth after having swallowed poison in a suicide attempt. She would die in a mental hospital a few years later. Malamud’s brother, Eugene, was also mentally ill. Malamud supported him financially, as well as through letters of encouragement and advice, until Eugene’s death in the early 1950s. Like his own best fictional heroes, Malamud did not cave into his suffering but tried, through his writing and in his life, to make sense of suffering and pain and transform it into communication and connection with others.

When The Assistant was published, Malamud was 43, living in Oregon with his wife and child and teaching at Oregon State College, a locale that he would use for his next novel: A New Life (1961). Levin, its hero, is a former alcoholic and arrives in the Northwest town of “Cascadia” without a girlfriend or wife. He gains his self-respect through battles for academic freedom in conflict with the conservative English department, and through his love affair with Pauline, the wife of the department chairman. This love affair leads him into responsibility, as Levin becomes stepfather to Pauline’s children as well as her lover. Again, for Malamud, while suffering for oneself changes nothing, suffering for a loved one can transform us. (“We have two lives, Roy,” Iris told Hobbs in The Natural, “the life we learn with and the life we live after that. . . suffering is what brings us toward happiness.”)

The novel that followed A New Life is The Fixer (1966), which amplifies the tragedy of using our time on earth to oppress instead of redeem. Based on the Mendel Bellis blood libel case of 1913, The Fixer presents an innocent Jewish hero, Yakov Bok, who is wrongly accused and convicted of the ritual murder of a gentile boy and eventually realizes that he is suffering not only for himself but also for the Jewish people. In a prison dream, Yakov confronts the Tsar and makes this speech:

. . . Excuse me, your majesty, but what suffering has taught me is the uselessness of suffering, if you don’t mind me saying so. Anyway, there’s enough to live without piling a mountain of injustice on too. Rachmones, we say in Hebrew, mercy, one oughtn’t forget it, but one must also think how oppressed and miserable most of us are in this country, gentiles as much as Jews. . . what it amounts to, Little Father, is that whether you wanted it or not you had your chance. . . In other words, you’ve made out of this country a valley of bones. You say you are kind and prove it with pogroms.”

The Fixer was more than an historical novel. A Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, the book resonated with the condition of oppression faced by Jews and all dissidents under totalitarian domination. Malamud was not writing for entertainment’s sake. His reception in Hungary is reported by Davis, a reception that verified, for Malamud, that being a writer was not about fame or money but about a higher calling, a sacred obligation to help humanity move forward. Davis writes:

In Hungary, surrounded by the country’s literary Jews, Malamud patiently signed 500 copies of The Fixer. . . What he saw was the remains of an East European culture which had survived the Soviet attacks on its writers, to value literature at a level deeper than any that modernist consumerist America could recognize. And what they valued above all was The Fixer, with its story of imprisonment. The experience offered Malamud what he had most wanted — a sense beyond the merely personal and psychological of the writer as serving a formal and impersonal mission: the ancient function of storyteller carrying news out of the isolation of prison from town to town and country to country. . .”

Malamud’s next novel, The Tenants (1971), was set squarely back in the United States and dramatizes a direct confrontation between two writers, one Jewish and one Black, both men who represent groups who have suffered greatly — who yet confront each other in scenes that offer no communication or sympathy.

In The Tenants, Malamud had the courage to cut through the veil of racism and anti-Semitism that characterized the late 1960s and early 1970s. Simply put, he saw Jews and Blacks as similar victims of historical oppression. He was not involved with “radical chic” and he did not become a neo-conservative. He was sober, thoughtful, instructive. As Malamud told Alan Forrest, as quoted by Davis: “It is a great pity that two groups of people, each with an identical history of persecution, are living together with that amount of antagonism. One can only hope that eventually they will recognize each other’s history and come together.”

For Malamud, this was not platitude but moral statement. He was keenly aware of the suffering of both Blacks and Jews. He had taught night school in Harlem and had written sympathetically but realistically about African-Americans in the short stories, “Black is My Favorite Color” and “Angel Levine.” The Tenants is not an optimistic novel, but there is nothing false in it. Malamud has captured, honestly, a place and a time, and downplayed neither the racism of some Jews nor the existence of anti-Semitism among some African-Americans.

The Black writer, Willie Spearmint, confronts the Jewish novelist, Harry Lesser: “No Jew can treat me like a man — male or female. You think you are the chosen people. Well, you are wrong on that. We are the Chosen People from as now on. You gonna find that out soon enough.”

“For God’s sake Willie, we’re writers. Let’s talk to each other like men who write. . .”

But, writes Malamud, “Nothing comes of it. A faint unpleasant odor rises from the paper. . .”

Malamud was 57 years old when The Tenants was published. In between his novels, he had published short story collections that were totally unique. The Magic Barrel (1958), as well as Idiots First (1963) and Rembrandt’s Hat (1974), among his other collections, established Malamud as a literary grandson of both Mark Twain and Sholom Aleichem. His heartfelt dialogue was not a caricature but a method of heightening human experience. It was not only that Malamud had a sure ear for the blend of English and Yiddish that typified his characters; his secret was not based on magical technique but on heartfelt feeling that cannot be taught or faked.

Case in point: Malamud’s understanding of the mentally handicapped. Perhaps his empathy for his mentally ill mother and brother gave him a special insight into the lives of those handicapped not through illness but through retardation. The story“Idiots First” is emblematic. Mendel, an old man, tries to raise enough money to send Isaac, his retarded adult son, to California. Mendel has only until midnight before he must die — the Angel of Death has been explicit. Mendel dreams of good for someone of his flesh but not himself.

“Mendel dreamed for a minute of the sky lit up, long sheets of light in all directions. Under the sky in California sat Uncle Leo drinking tea with lemon. Mendel felt warm but woke up cold.”

Mendel receives the money needed for the train ticket when a rabbi gives Mendel his new coat. “Who can go among poor people, tell me,” the rabbi asks, “in a new coat?” As in other Malamud stories and novels, money is important only in its ability to relieve suffering. When Ginzburg, the Angel of Death, refuses to let Isaac pass—Mendel engages him:

“Whatever business are you in, where is your pity?”

“This ain’t my commodity. The law is the law.”

“Which law is this?”

“The cosmic universal law, goddamit, the one I got to follow myself.”

In a rage, Mendel attacks Ginzburg. As they fight, Ginzburg “beheld a shimmering, starry, blinding light that produced darkness.”

“Go,” Ginzburg muttered. “Take him to the train.”

The love of father for son, Mendel for Isaac, affects the cosmos, and the scene is swept with light — for man has moved the heavens, and the will of a just God has been revealed to humanity. As a rabbi in another Malamud story says of his retarded daughter: “This is my daughter Rifkele. She’s not perfect, though God who made her in His image is Himself perfection.”

We all share, Malamud tells us, whatever our “handicap,” a portion of divinity, and we can only contact God through helping fellow human beings.

Malamud’s last major novel, Dubin’s Lives (1979) is not an easy book to read. Yet Philip Davis is right to see the book as nearly touching greatness. The novel would not be completed until Malamud was in his sixties and facing premature old age, with a bad heart. In Dubin’s Lives, the author has created a character almost as complex as himself — a biographer, not a novelist, but, like Malamud, a caring yet at times hurtful and unfaithful husband, and a dedicated artist who is also, at times, a selfish, distracted father.

Dubin has overcome childhood poverty, a nightmare childhood, and has become famous as a biographer. Yet he is estranged from his stepson, who during the Vietnam War deserted the Army and lives in Sweden. Dubin also fears he has not been loving enough to his daughter, who is a Berkeley student pregnant by her married professor of Spanish. While working on a biography of D.H. Lawrence, Dubin has embarked on a sexual affair with Fanny Bick, a college dropout less than half his age, and has lied to his wife over and over again. Malamud reveals to us a man unmoored, who must face not only a corrupt society but a corrupt self.

The most Jewish of writers, Malamud paints scenes of the middle-aged Dubin in sexual congress with the 22- year-old Fanny and engrossed in both pleasure and guilt.

The character has given up traditional religion yet he is a moralist who finds it difficult to live with himself. It is 1973 and, Malamud notes, “Nixon is lying on television as usual” — but William Dubin, award-winning writer, is no longer pure. His goodness and ability to love are in question. His childhood pain, his fame as a writer, his Jewishness, will not save his soul. Nixon is not the only one who lies.

What does save Dubin, and what did save Malamud, was his calling as a writer. Whether in the fiction created by Malamud or the non-fiction recreated by Dubin, the writing is of value when it connects soul to soul. Here Dubin is remembering how he became a biographer. Substitute non-fiction for fiction and Malamud has defined his own writing life:

One morning he was typing out the obituary of a poet who had killed himself by jumping from the George Washington Bridge into the icy Hudson — a fragment of ice floe, like a bloody raft, carried his body down the river — Dubin felt as he wrote that the piece had taken on unexpected urgency. The dead poet was terribly real. He felt an imperious need to state his sorrow, understanding, pity wanted with all his heart to preserve the man from extinction. . . . you can’t relight lives but you can recreate them. In biographies the dead become alive, or seem to. He was moved, tormented, inspirited; his heart beat like a tin clock, his head aching as though struggling to pop through the neck of a bottle in which it had become enclosed, imprisoned. He felt for a brilliant moment as though he had freed himself forever.

Bernard Malamud created some of the greatest fiction of the 20th century while struggling and sometimes failing to live up to his own high ideals of what it means to be a good son, brother, husband, father, and friend. His writing did not, he felt, free him from his obligations to others. His knowledge that even the greatest book was not as important as a single human life made his writing even more powerful. Literature did not replace life for him, but was created to help humanity survive with dignity and courage and empathy. Literature could immortalize good and simple men like his own father, transformed into Morris Bober. Literature could help us change for the better, give us connection and hope.

Marek Breiger has published over sixty essays, short stories and poems dealing with Jewish-American life and literature. His work has appeared in Jewish Currents, Midstream, and J, and his essay on multicultural America is included in the anthology, Where Coyotes Howl and the Wind Blows Free, University of Nevada Press.