Malamud, Bernard 1914–1986
Malamud, Bernard 1914–1986
PERSONAL: Born April 28, 1914, in Brooklyn, NY; died of natural causes, March 18, 1986, in New York, NY; son of Max (a grocery store manager) and Bertha (Fidelman) Malamud; married Ann de Chiara, November 6, 1945; children: Paul, Janna. Education: City College of New York (now City College of the City University of New York), B.A., 1936; Columbia University, M.A., 1942. Religion: Jewish Hobbies and other interests: Reading, Travel, music, waking.
CAREER: Worked for Bureau of Census, Washington, DC, 1940; Erasmus Hall High School, New York, NY, evening instructor in English, beginning 1940; Harlem High School, New York, NY, instructor in English, 1948–49; Oregon State University, Corvallis, 1949–61, began as instructor, became associate professor of English; Bennington College, Bennington, VT, Division of Language and Literature, member of faculty, 1961–86. Visiting lecturer, Harvard University, 1966–68. Honorary consultant in American letters, Library of Congress, 1972–75.
MEMBER: National Institute of Arts and Letters, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, PEN American Center (president, 1979–81).
AWARDS, HONORS: Partisan Review fellow in fiction, 1956–57; Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award, and Daroff Memorial Award, both 1958, both for The Assistant; Rockefeller grant, 1958; National Book Award in fiction, 1959, for The Magic Barrel, and 1967, for The Fixer; Ford Foundation fellow in humanities and arts, 1959–61; Pulitzer Prize in fiction, 1967, for The Fixer; O. Henry Award, 1969, for "Man in the Drawer," and 1973; Jewish Heritage Award of the B'nai B'rith, 1977; Governor's Award, Vermont Council on the Arts, 1979, for excellence in the arts; American Library Association Notable Book citation, 1979, for Dubin's Lives; Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in fiction, 1981; Gold Medal for fiction, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1983; Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for fiction, 1983; Mondello prize (Italy), 1985; honorary degree from City College of the City University of New York.
The Natural, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1952, with introduction by Kevin Baker, 2003.
The Assistant, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1957, with introduction by Jonathan Rosen, 2003.
A New Life, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1961.
The Fixer, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1966.
The Tenants, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1971, with introduction by Aleksandar Hemon, 2003.
Dubin's Lives, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1979, with introduction by Thomas Mallon, 2003.
God's Grace, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1982.
The Magic Barrel (includes "The Magic Barrel" and "The First Seven Years"), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1958, with introduction by Jhumpa Lahiri, 2003.
Idiots First (includes "Idiots First" and "The Maid's Shoes"), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1963.
Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition (includes "The Last Mohican," "A Pimp's Revenge," and "Glass Blower of Venice"), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1969.
Rembrandt's Hat (includes "The Silver Crown" and "Man in the Drawer"), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1973.
Two Fables, Banyan Press (Pawlet, VT), 1978.
The Stories of Bernard Malamud, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1983.
The People, and Uncollected Stories, edited by Robert Giroux, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1989.
Bernard Malamud: The Complete Stories, edited and introduced by Robert Giroux, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1997.
A Malamud Reader, edited by Philip Rahv, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1967.
Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work, edited by Alan Cheuse and Nicholas Delbanco, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1996.
Contributor to Writing in America, edited by John Fisher and Robert B. Silvers, Rutgers University Press (Rutgers, NJ), 1960. Contributor of short stories to various magazines, including American Preface, Atlantic, Commentary, Harper's, New Threshold, and New Yorker. Contributor of articles to New York Times and New York Times Book Review.
A collection of Malamud's manuscripts and other papers is housed at the Library of Congress.
ADAPTATIONS: The Fixer was filmed by John Fran-kenheimer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1969. The Angel Levine starred Zero Mostel and Harry Belafonte and was adapted by William Gunn for United Artists, 1970. The Natural, starring Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, and Kim Basinger, was directed by Barry Levinson for Tri-Star Pictures, 1984. The First Seven Years was filmed by Gigantic Pictures, 1997. A New Life and The Assistant were both optioned for films.
SIDELIGHTS: Esteemed twentieth-century novelist and short story writer Bernard Malamud grew up on New York's East Side where his Russian-Jewish immigrant parents worked in their grocery store sixteen hours a day. Malamud attended high school and college during the height of the Depression. His own and his family's experience are clearly echoed in his fiction, much of which chronicles, as Mervyn Rothstein declared in New York Times, "simple people struggling to make their lives better in a world of bad luck." Malamud's writings were also strongly influenced by classic nineteenth-century American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Henry James. In addition, Malamud's works reflected a post-Holocaust consciousness in addressing Jewish concerns and employing literary conventions drawn from earlier Jewish literature.
The first major period of Malamud's work extended from 1949 to 1961 when he was teaching composition at Oregon State College. Producing three novels and a collection of short stories during this period, he won several fiction prizes, including the National Book Award. Each of the first three novels features a schlemiel figure who tries to restore a Wasteland to a Paradise against a Jewish background. The setting varies in the novels, but in the short fiction it is most often the East Side of New York. "The Prison" portrays a small New York grocery store based on that of Malamud's parents, in which a young Italian, Tommy Castelli, is trapped. Similarly "The Cost of Living"—a predecessor of The Assistant—and "The Bill" both present the grocery store as a sort of prison. As Leslie and Joyce Field observed in Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, "In Malamud's fictional world, there is always a prison," and in an interview with the Fields given a decade before his death, the author noted: "Necessity is the primary prison, though the bars are not visible to all." Beneath most Malamudian surfaces would lie similar moral and allegorical meanings.
Malamud's first novel, The Natural, would serve, as Earl R. Wasserman declared in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, "the necessary reference text for a reading of his subsequent fiction." The 1952 work is a mythic novel, based on the Arthurian legends, in which the Parsifal figure, Roy (King) Hobbs, restores fertility to the Fisher King, Pop Fisher, the manager of a baseball team called the Knights. Pitcher Roy appears as an Arthurian knight modeled in part on Babe Ruth, but his character also probably is drawn from Chretién de Troye's medieval tale, Lancelot of the Cart, featuring a Lancelot who is most often unhorsed and frequently humiliated. As Peter L. Hays noted in The Fiction of Bernard Malamud, "Like Lancelot, Malamud's heroes are cut to ribbons in their quests for love and fortune."
The novel's title is baseball slang for a player with natural talent, but it can also mean, as it did in the Middle Ages, an innocent fool. As Philip Roth commented in Reading Myself and Others, this is "not baseball as it is played in Yankee Stadium, but a wild, wacky game." Roy thinks of himself as "Sir Percy lancing Sir Maldemer, or the first son (with a rock in his paw) ranged against the primitive papa." Even more Freudian is Roy's lance-like bat, Wonderboy, which droops when its phallic hero goes into a slump and finally splits at the novel's conclusion.
In an echo of the Black Sox scandal of 1919, Roy is bribed to throw the pennant game by evil-eyed Gus Sands, whose Pot of Fire nightclub and chorus girls wielding pitchforks suggest hell itself. Though there are few obvious Jewish traces in The Natural, the prank Roy plays on Gus is a retelling of a Yiddish prankster tale, with the challenge by the prankster, the foil or victim's reaction, and the retort or prank—here Roy's pulling silver dollars out of Gus's ears and nose. Yet Roy's success is only temporary. As Glenn Meeter noted in Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth: A Critical Essay, "From the grail legend also we know that Roy will fail; for the true grail seeker must understand the supernatural character of his quest, and Roy does not." In the end Roy, defeated, throws his bribe money in the face of Judge Banner, who is a dispenser of "dark wisdom, parables and aphorisms which punctuate his conversation, making him seem a cynical Poor Richard," as Iska Alter remarked in The Good Man's Dilemma: Social Criticism in the Fiction of Bernard Malamud. This dramatic scene, and others in Malamud's work, accords with the statement he once made that his novels were akin to plays.
Other influences are also clearly at work in Malamud's first novel. The Natural contains significant references to birds and flowers and steady reminders of the passage of the seasons. The simplicity of this pastoral style at its best allowed the presentation of complex ideas in a natural way. A second influence, as Malamud himself acknowledged, is cinematic technique. For example, there are quick, movie-like changes of scene—called jump cuts—when Roy and Memo Paris are tricked into sleeping with each other. In addition, the portrayal of Roy has a Chaplinesque quality of humor to it. Though Malamud would never again write non-Jewish fiction, The Natural served as a treasure house of reusable motifs and methods for all his subsequent work.
In 1954 Malamud published one of his greatest short stories, "The Magic Barrel," which Sanford Pinsker, in Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, called "a nearly perfect blend of form and content." In this story, collected in the 1958 volume of the same name, the matchmaker Pinye Salzman, using cards listing eligible women and drawn from his magic barrel, tricks student rabbi Leo Finkle into a love match with Salzman's daughter, Stella, a streetwalker. In Judaism, Marcia Booher Gealy described the structural essence of such Hasidic-influenced stories: (1) the inward journey; (2) the older man tutoring the younger; (3) the triumph of love; (4) the reality of evil; and (5) transformation through the tale itself. This structure merges with another influence, that of nineteenth-century American romanticism, for Malamud often joined the Hasidic and Hawthornian in his fables. As Renee Winegarten commented in Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, "His magic barrels and silver crowns, whatever their seal, firmly belong in the moral, allegorical realm of scarlet letters, white whales and golden bowls."
Concerning protagonist Salzman, as Irving Howe noted in World of Our Fathers, "The matchmaker, or shad-khn, is a stereotypical Yiddish figure: slightly comic, slightly sad, at the edge of destitution." Such confidence men reappear throughout Malamud's fiction, in "The Silver Crown," for example. And Salzman shows Malamud's early perfection of a Jewish-American speech, which is neither pure Yiddish dialect nor mere literary chat, but an imaginative combination of both. Kathryn Hellerstein observed in The State of the Language that Yiddish speakers in Malamud's works are "elderly, static, or declining" and concluded that for Malamud, Yiddish figures serve as "a spectral presence of the constraining, delimited, stultified past."
What many critics would refer to as Malamud's finest novel, The Assistant, appeared in 1957. Ihab Hassan wrote in The Fiction of Bernard Malamud, "The Assistant, I believe, will prove a classic not only of Jewish but of American literature." Frank Alpine, "the assistant," suggests St. Francis of Assisi, whose biography, The Little Flowers, is Alpine's favorite book and whose stigmata he at one point seems to emulate. Like Roy in The Natural, Frank is a Parsifal figure who must bring fertility, or at least new life, to the Fisher King, here the grocery store owner Morris Bober. Some critics have contended that Bober may parallel philosopher Martin Buber, whose I-THOU philosophy of human relations Bober seems, however instinctively, to share, though Malamud himself denied any use of Buber in this novel.
When he stands under a "No Trust" sign, Bober also recalls Melville's novel, The Confidence Man. Giving food to a drunk woman who will never pay, Morris teaches Frank to have compassion for others. Yet Frank cannot control his passion for Morris's daughter, Helen. Thus when Frank saves Helen from an attempted rape, he fails the trial of the Perilous Bed, rapes her just as she is about to admit her love for him, and loses her.
Frank and Morris represent a familiar motif found throughout Malamud's works: that of the father-son pair, the schlemiel-schlimazel twins. Malamud liked these doublings and included three other father/son pairs in the novel. A favorite definition of these types is that the schlemiel spills his teacup, and the schlimazel is the one he spills it on. Norman Leer, thinking perhaps of Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, wrote in Mosaic of "the notion of the divided self, and the attraction of two characters who mirror a part of each other, and are thereby drawn together as doubles."
Another recurrent feature in Malamudian narrative, the Holocaust, remains never far from the surface, though it appears almost always in an oblique way. Morris, in despair over his luckless grocery store/prison, turns on the gas to commit suicide, a reminder of the gas chambers of the Holocaust. And here Malamud introduces from the world of fantasy a professional arsonist who is like a figure from hell—recalling the night club women and their pitchforks in The Natural. In The Assistant, at Morris's funeral, Frank halts the ceremony by falling into the open grave while trying to see the rose Helen had thrown into it. The characters in Malamud's fiction frequently dream, and in Frank's dream, St. Francis successfully gives Frank's rose to Helen.
In 1958, with the publication of his first volume of short stories, The Magic Barrel, Malamud received national recognition and in 1959 won the National Book Award for the collection. All the stories in the volume display Malamud's continuing debt to Hawthorne; as Jackson J. Benson said in The Fiction of Bernard Malamud, both writers possessed "the ability to combine, with great skill, reality and the dream, the natural and supernatural." Thus a kinship can be perceived between Malamud's "Idiots First," "The Silver Crown," and "The Magic Barrel" and Hawthorne's short stories "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," "Young Goodman Brown," and "The Birthmark." Moreover, "The First Seven Years"—featuring Feld, a Polish immigrant shoemaker who refuses to speak Yiddish and who wants his daughter Miriam to marry a rising young suitor, Max, rather than his middle-aged but devoted helper, Sobel—is reminiscent of Hawthorne's "Ethan Brand," with its warning about "hardness of the heart." However, "The First Seven Years" was Hawthorne plus Holocaust, for Sobel had barely escaped Hitler's incinerators.
In the years from 1949 to 1961 Malamud grew in stature to become "one of the foremost writers of moral fiction in America," as Jeffrey Helterman commented in Understanding Bernard Malamud. Of his last work in this first period, Sheldon J. Hershinow remarked in Bernard Malamud that A New Life "is Malamud's first attempt at social satire, and much of the novel is given over to it." The novel's hero, marginal Jew Sy Levin, shows the complexity behind the names Malamud would give to practically all his major characters. In City of Words: American Fiction 1950–1970, Tony Tanner explained that the name Levin means the east, or light; it is also associated with lightning. Tanner wrote: "I have it direct from Mr. Malamud that by a pun on 'leaven' he is suggesting what the marginal Jew may bring in attitude to the American scene." Levin, whose fictional career resembles that of his creator, is a former high school teacher who joins the faculty at Cascadia University in Easchester, Oregon, a name that suggests a castle of ease. According to Mark Goldman, in a Critique review, "Early in the novel, Levin is the tenderfoot Easterner, the academic sad sack, or schlimazel of Yiddish literature, invoking nature like a tenement Rousseau." Levin, then is the schlemiel as lecturer, who teaches his first class with his fly open, then bumbles his way into an affair with coed Nadalee, a lady of the lake who has written an essay on nude bathing. As Sandy Cohen remarked in Bernard Malamud and the Trial by Love, "Malamud's favorite method of portraying a protagonist's struggle to overcome his vanity is to symbolize it in terms of the Grail myth. Thus Levin's journey to meet Nadalee takes on certain aspects of the grail quest." Indeed, Levin journeys "in his trusty Hudson, his lance at his side."
Later Levin makes love in the woods to Pauline Gilley; in an echo of English novelist D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Pauline also has an impotent hus-band, Gerald Gilley, future chairman of the English Department. Against this pastoral background, complete with the passage of the seasons, Levin is also the American Adam: as Hershinow observed, "Immersed in the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, Levin believes wholeheartedly the metaphors about America as a New-World Garden of Eden. By going west he feels he can recapture his lost innocence and escape the past—become the New-World Adam."
This major love affair is also Hawthornian: as Paul Witherington noted in Western American Literature, "Levin's affair with Pauline matures in Hawthorne fashion to an inner drama of the ambiguities of paradise." In fact, Levin sees himself as "Arthur Dimmesdale Levin, locked in stocks on a platform in the town square, a red A stapled on his chest." From Levin's point of view, Pauline, whose love earned him his scarlet letter "A", is also the tantalizing shiksa, the Gentile temptress of so many Jewish-American novels, not only those of Malamud but also of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth among others. As Frederick Cople Jaher pointed out in American Quarterly, to Jewish men, such women seem to be "exotic insiders" and so represent "tickets of admission into American society."
At the conclusion of the novel, Gilley asks Levin why he wants to take on two adopted children and Gilley's apparently barren wife. Levin replies, "Because I can, you son of a bitch." And Levin, defeated in academe, but having impregnated the barren Pauline, whose flat breasts are beginning to swell, drives away with his new family, having agreed with Gilley never again to teach in a university. This ending, as so often in Malamud, is ambiguous, for Levin is no longer in romantic love with Pauline. Here is what Critique contributor Ruth B. Mandel called "ironic affirmation"—"The affirmation itself is ironic in that the state of grace is unaccompanied by paradise."
After Malamud's move back East to Bennington College, his second period—roughly 1961–1970—began, and both his stories and his next two novels took a more cosmopolitan and international direction. In Bernard Malamud, Sidney Richman observed that the title story in 1963's Idiots First is "a morality [play] a la Everyman in which the sense of a real world (if only the sense of it) is utterly absorbed by a dream-landscape, a never-never-land New York City through which an elderly Jew named Mendel wanders in search of comfort and aid." Mendel is indeed a Jewish Everyman, who tries to dodge the Angel of Death (here named Ginzburg) to arrange for the future of his handicapped son, Isaac.
Another short story, "The Maid's Shoes," reveals the new subject matter and style. Professor Orlando Krantz, who plays the part of the comparatively wealthy American as Everyman, tries to give a small gift to his poor Italian maid, Rosa, but it is a gift without the understanding that the impoverished European needs: "But though they shared the same roof, and even the same hot water bottle and bathtub, they almost never shared speech." Here, failures of the heart, common to the fiction of the first period, are extended to complete failures of empathy. Furthermore, the story is no longer fantastic, as in Malamud's first period, but realistic. Of Rosa, Malamud wrote: "She was forty-five and looked older. Her face was worn but her hair was black, and her eyes and lips were pretty. She had few good teeth. When she laughed she was embarrassed around the mouth." Finally, the story has a single, consistent point of view instead of the omniscient point of view of the earlier stories. Yet since that omniscient narration contained Malamud's often compassionate comments that were characteristic of his first period manner, these newer stories have a bleaker cast to them.
Next to The Assistant in critical reputation would come The Fixer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1967. In a search for a suffering Everyman plot, Malamud had thought of several subjects—the trial of Alfred Dreyfus and the Sacco-Vanzetti case, among others—before deciding on a story he had heard from his father as a boy, that of the trial of Mendel Bei-liss for ritual bloodletting and murder in 1913 in Russia. Through this story, Malamud also tried to answer the question of how the death camps in Germany had been possible. Hero Yakov Bok's last name suggests a scapegoat, and also the goat mentioned in the song chanted for the end of the Passover Seder as a symbol of Jewish survival. As Malamud once said in an interview with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in New York Times Book Review, it was necessary "to mythologize—that is, to make metaphors and symbols of the major events and characters."
The novel itself covers two years, spring 1911 to winter 1913, during which Bok is imprisoned after being falsely accused of the ritual murder of a Gentile boy. Without legal counsel Bok suffers betrayal, gangrene, poison, and freezing cold, and finally turns inward to develop a sense of freedom. In prison this Everyman fixer learns through suffering to overcome, at least in part, his initial agnosticism, and his doubts of what is meant by the Chosen People. He rejects both suicide and a pardon, and accepts his Jewishness. Finally, in a dream encounter with Tsar Nicholas II, Bok shoots the Tsar. As John F. Desmond wrote in Renascence, "Yakov has come to understand that no man is apolitical, especially a Jew; consequently, if his chance came, as it does in the imaginary meeting with the Tsar, he would not hesitate to kill the ruler as a beginning step towards purging that society of its agents of repression and injustice, and thus strike a blow for freedom and humanity." Bok, at least in his dream, is no longer the passive, suffering servant of Isaiah portrayed in many of Mala-mud's first-period fictions, but one who seeks revenge. Has Bok lost more important values? The dream setting leaves the ending ambiguous, but Malamud's real subject was never so much Bok himself as those—like the Germans, other Europeans, and Americans did during the Holocaust—who either participate in, or passively observe, the treatment of Everyman as victim. As the Fields remarked, Malamud repeatedly tried to make clear, especially in this second period, that Jewish victims are Everyman as victim, for history, sooner or later, treats all men as Jews.
The final major work of this second period is Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition. As Leslie A. Field wrote in Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, "Of all the Malamud characters, early and late, one must return to Arthur Fidelman as the Malamud schlemiel par excellence." The Fidelman stories appeared both separately in magazines and in two story collections from 1958 to 1969, and they were not originally thought of as a unit. But the last three stories are tightly linked, and as Robert Ducharme asserted in Art and Idea in the Novels of Bernard Malamud: Toward "The Fixer," Malamud deliberately saved the last story for the book because he did not want to let readers know the ending. Three genres merge in Pictures of Fidelman, that of the kunstlerroman or artist novel, the bildungsroman or education novel, and the Huckleberry Finn-like picaresque novel, in which the main character wanders through a series of adventures. Fidelman (faith man) encounters Susskind (sweet child) in the first story or chapter, "Last Mohican." Susskind is a Jewish folktale type, a chnorrer, or as Goldman termed him, "a beggar with style," who wants the second of Fidelman's two suits. Rebuffed, Susskind steals the first chapter of Fidelman's book on Italian artist Giotto di Bondone. Hershinow suggested that "Susskind becomes for Fidelman a kind of dybbuk (demon) who inhabits his conscience, destroying his peace of mind." As Cohen remarked, "So Fidelman begins an active search for Susskind who begins to take on the roles of alter-ego, superego, and symbol for Fidelman's true heritage and past." Here again would be the familiar Malamud motif of the journey that changes a life.
In pursuit, Fidelman visits a synagogue, a Jewish ghetto, and a graveyard that contains victims of the Holocaust. Both at the cemetery and in his crazy pursuit of Susskind, Schlemiel Fidelman recalls Frank Alpine in The Assistant, for Fidelman too is linked to St. Francis. In a dream Fidelman sees Susskind, who shows him a Giotto fresco in which St. Francis gives his clothing to a poor knight. As Sidney Richman affirmed in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, "In the same fashion as Frankie Alpine, Fidelman must discover that the way to the self is paradoxically through another; and the answer is heralded by a sudden alteration of the pursuit." At the end of this artistic pilgrim's progress, "against his will, Fi-delman learns what the ancient rabbis taught and what Susskind has always known: Jews—that is, human beings, menschen, in Malamud's terms—are responsible for each other. That is the essence of being human," Michael Brown related in Judaism.
Fidelman learns in the next stories what makes a great artist. For example, in the fourth story, "A Pimp's Revenge," he returns his mistress, Esmeralda, to prostitution to pay for his constantly repainted masterwork, a portrait of her, first as Mother and Son, then as Brother and Sister, and finally as Prostitute and Procurer. "The truth is I am afraid to paint, like I might find out something about myself," Fidelman says. Esmeralda knows the secret: "If I have my choice, I'll take life. If there's not that there's no art." Barbara Lefcowitz argued in Literature and Psychology, "Where Malamud excels is in his subtle and nearly always comical juxtaposition of a neurotic character against a deeper and wider moral and historical context." Fidelman finally produces a masterpiece, but, second-rate artist that he is, can't let it alone, and mars it. The genius knows when to stop, but Everyman does not, and Esmeralda calls him a murderer.
In the final story, "Glass Blower of Venice," Fidelman tries to play artist once more, under the reluctant teaching of his homosexual lover Beppo, but at last gives up art for craftsmanship and returns to America. Fidelman, the craftsman, no longer the inadequate artist, has finally achieved the goals toward which Susskind—and later Esmeralda—pointed him. Samuel I. Bellman argued in Critique that "more than any other Malamudian character Fidelman is constantly growing, realizing himself, transforming his unsatisfactory old life into a more satisfactory new one." In Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays, Sheldon N. Grebstein praised the juxtaposition of "the coarsely sexual and the sublimely aesthetic." Indeed, no other work of Malamud would show so much appetite for life; as Helterman argued, Fidelman "also seeks, and occasionally participates in, a richness of passion not typical of Malamud's urban heroes." The epigraph for Pictures of Fidelman is from Yeats: "The intellect of man is forced to choose Perfection of the life or of the work." However, the new Fidelman chooses "both."
The Tenants inaugurated Malamud's third and final period. In the works of this period the heroic structuring of the first period would vanish, as would the Wandering Jews and the Everyman motifs of the second. Beneath differing surface plots, though, a new structural likeness would appear. Before 1971 Malamud's typical Jewish characters tended to move towards responsibility rather than towards achievement; from 1971 on, they became extraordinary achievers, or machers.
In 1971's The Tenants, Harry Lesser, a minor Jewish novelist, is writing a novel about being unable to finish a novel, in a kind of infinite regression. He keeps on living in the apartment building that landlord Levenspiel (leaven game) wants to tear down; then a squatter, black writer Willie Spearmint (Willie Shakespeare), moves into the building. Willie and Harry are the kind of doubled pair (drawn from Edgar Allan Poe and Dostoevsky) that Malamud was fond of, for Harry's writing is all form, and Willie's is all vitality. Harry takes over Irene, Willie's Jewish girl; Willie burns Harry's manuscript; Harry axes Willie's typewriter; and in a final burst of over-achievement, Willie brains Harry and Harry castrates Willie. The Tenants "ends in a scream of language," reported Malcolm Bradbury in Encounter. Though the novel hints at two other possible endings—by fire, or by Harry's marriage to Irene—Levenspiel has the last word, which is Rachmones, or mercy.
Though The Tenants did little for Malamud's reputation, he continued to publish short fiction in top U.S. magazines up until his death in 1986; as he told New York Times critic Mervyn Rothstein near the end of his life, "With me, it's story, story, story." In Malamud's 1973 collection, Rembrandt's Hat, only one story, "The Silver Crown," is predominantly Jewish, in sharp contrast to his first collection, while other stories are more reminiscent of Chekhov. There is even a visit to the Chekhov Museum in "Man in the Drawer," a story that shows the fascination with achievement so dominant in Malamud's final period. Howard Harvitz, an intellectual tourist in Russia and a marginal Jew, has changed his name from Harris back to Harvitz. Hardly a creative writer himself, he is doing a piece on museums. A Russian writer, Levitansky—also a marginal Jew, but a determined achiever in spite of official opposition—intends to smuggle his stories out of Russia. Harvitz at first doesn't want this charge, but discovers that four of the stories show heroes not taking responsibility. After reading them, Harvitz timorously takes the stories out of Russia.
The 1979 novel Dubin's Lives took Malamud over five years to write, twice as long as any previous novel. Ralph Tyler in New York Times Book Review reported that Malamud referred to the work as "his attempt at bigness, at summing up what he … learned over the long haul." In the novel, the biographer Dubin is an isolated achiever, no mere recorder of biographical facts but a creative, even fictionalizing biographer: "One must transcend autobiographical detail by inventing it after it is remembered." Dubin is trying to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence, a writer who made passion his religion, yet was impotent. There had been a glancing counterpointing of Lawrence's career in A New Life, but here this motif is much enlarged; as David Levin observed in Virginia Quarterly Review, "The complexities of Dubin's subsequent adventures often run parallel to events in Lawrence's life."
In the kind of psychomachia, or inner struggle, which some critics saw as the essence of American fiction, Dubin, as Helterman noted, "loses his memory, his sexual powers, his ability to work, even his ability to relate to his family. At first, the only compensation for these losses is a kind of high-grade nostalgia brought about by a process called reverie." These reveries lead Dubin to a liaison with young Fanny Bick, whose first name comes from English novelist Jane Austen's heroine in Mansfield Park, Fanny Price; Fanny Bick is an Austen heroine with glands. Like a number of heroines in Malamud's fiction, she is significantly associated with wildflowers, fruit, and bird flights. Chiara Briganti remarked in Studies in American Jewish Literature that "all the female characters in Malamud's fiction share a common shallowness and common values: they all respect marriage and family life, and, whatever their past, they all seek fulfillment through a permanent relationship with a man." But Fanny breaks this stereotypical pattern, for at the end of Dubin's Lives she ambitiously intends to become a lawyer.
Dubin's affair in Venice, where the youthful Fanny almost immediately betrays him with their gondolier, is that of the schlemiel lover seen before in Frank Alpine and Sy Levin. Barbara Quart, in Studies in American Jewish Literature, saw a further problem: "While Mala-mud's central characters try to break out of their solitude, they appear to fear love and women as much as they long for them." But dominant among familiar motifs is the character of Dubin as the isolated over-achiever, who moves his study from his country house into the barn to devote all possible energy and space to his biography. Dubin even begrudges time wasted thinking about Fanny, with whom he is genuinely in love.
Malamud's last finished novel, 1982's God's Grace, treats both the original Holocaust and a new, imagined Holocaust of the future. In Immigrant-Survivors: Post-Holocaust Consciousness in Recent Jewish-American Literature, Dorothy Seldman Bilik pointed out that the question of why God permitted the Holocaust was a central issue in Malamud's fiction for thirty years; indeed, for Malamud the Holocaust is the ultimate mark of inhumanity, and God's Grace treats the Holocaust not only as man's inhumanity to man, but as God's inhumanity to man. The novel is a wild, at times brilliant, at times confusing description of a second Great Flood. Calvin Cohn, a paleologist and the son of a rabbi-cantor, had been doing underseas research when the Djanks and the Druzhkies (Yanks and Russians) launched an atomic Holocaust and destroyed every other human. Calvin recalls many Biblical and literary figures: Parsifal, Romeo, Prospero, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver, and Ahab. His Eve and Juliet is Mary Madelyn, a chimpanzee. An albino ape appears (possibly an oblique reference to Moby Dick) with other apes as Yahoos from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and the chimpanzee Buz serves as Cohn's Isaac, Caliban, and man Friday. There is even an Arthurian spear used to harpoon the albino ape.
On Cohn's Island Calvin turns into an overachiever, and even an un-Job-like defier of God, in spite of God's pillars of fire, showers of lemons, and occasional warning rocks. The foundation of God's Grace is Biblical in part, but also characteristically American, for it is the story of the Americanized—and reversed—Fortunate Fall. The idea conveyed by the Fortunate Fall is that Adam and Eve, driven from Paradise by eating of the tree of Knowledge, in fact obtained benefits from their fall, notably free will and a consciousness of good and evil. Cohn has treated the chimpanzees as his inferiors; as a schlemiel lecturer he has imposed his admonitions and teachings on them, rather than encouraging them to learn for themselves. He has promised but never given Mary Madelyn the marriage she has wanted, and he has prevented the marriage or mating of Buz and Mary Madelyn, which could have been just as desirable for the future gene stock as Cohn's half-chimpanzee child Rebekah. In short, over-achieving Calvin Cohn has eaten from the tree of hubris, or sinful pride, rather than knowledge.
This complex novel baffled its first reviewers; for example, Joseph Epstein wrote in Commentary: "Much of the humor in the novel is of the kind known as faintly amusing, but the chimp humor, on the scale of wit, is roughly three full rungs down from transvestite jokes." Part of the difficulty in the novel is that God's Grace does not fall into a clear genre category; in a 1982 Christian Science Monitor article, Victor Howes called it "somewhat east of sci-fi, somewhat west of allegory." However, like much of Malamud's work, God's Grace not only reflects the Jewish Old Testament but also partakes of an American colonial genre, the Jeremiad, or warning of future disaster.
At Malamud's sudden death in the winter of 1986 he left behind him sixteen chapters of a twenty-one-chapter novel tentatively titled The People. The novel, which concerns the adventures of a Russian Jewish peddlar named Yozip in the American West, was included in its draft form in The People, and Uncollected Stories, in 1989. As Nan Robertson explained the work in New York Times, the schlemiel hero Yozip becomes a marshal, is kidnaped by a tribe of Native American Indians, and has a dialogue with an Indian chief about obtaining his freedom. In addition to The People, the collection also contains fourteen short stories written between 1943 and 1985, six of which had never before been published. While critics noted that the collection has interest for Malamud scholars, the author's decision not to collect these works was made due to their relative merits. While noting that the unfinished state of Mala-mud's posthumously published novel precludes any serious discussion of its merits, Jonathan Yardley commented in Washington Post Book Review that "Of the stories, one … has merit, and the apprenticework is mildly interesting for the foreshadowing it offers of Malamud's mature writing; but the world would not be the poorer had these tales been allowed to go undisturbed."
In 1998, Malamud's fifty-five short stories were published in one volume as Bernard Malamud: The Complete Stories. It features an introduction by Robert Giroux, Malamud's good friend and his editor throughout his career. Giroux also edited The Complete Stories, and his introduction is "valuable" reading, in the estimation of America contributor Loren F. Schmidtberger. Schmidtberger also approved of the book's organization. Placing stories in the order they were written, it allows readers to get a sense of Malamud's stylistic development over the course of his four-decade career. The Complete Stories also gives the dates and places of the first publication of each of the stories. Schmidtberger was enthusiastic about the quality of Malamud's work, stating, "All of the stories are a joy to read, even the early ones from non-paying magazines." He men-tioned the "zaniness of imagery and situation" that marks much of Malamud's writing, and pointed out that many of the stories in the collection are "funny—not side-slappers, to be sure, but bittersweet comedies. They explore serious themes with the moral intensity of a Nathaniel Hawthorne, but they are seasoned with humor." The reviewer also praised Malamud's command of the Yiddish idiom, finding his dialog to be realistic and appealing. Although Malamud's characters are frequently struggling under painful burdens, they "are not quitters," mused Schmidtberger. They cannot always express themselves perfectly, but whatever happens, "they keep on talking. Through Malamud's art, they show us what it means to be human." Schmidtberger concluded that The Complete Stories proves Malamud to be "a marvelous storyteller of the first rank."
During his life, Malamud was a reclusive writer, giving few interviews. However, those he did grant provide perhaps the most illuminating commentary on his work. After his death, several collections of interviews, speeches, and lectures were published. In 1991's Conversations with Bernard Malamud thirty interviews transcribed from various sources represent the bulk of the public disclosure of this private literary figure. Within his brief, to-the-point responses to questions regarding his life, Malamud reflected his belief that the tale is far more important than the teller. "He was definite in asserting that to be a writer one must have talent and discipline," Daniel Walden explained in Modern Fiction Studies. Calling Conversations "an exceptionally useful book," Walden added of the late author: "What he saw in the writing act was a moral act, in constantly seeking the highest opportunities to do well…. Indeed, Malamud as moralist, although not as preacher, comes through the body of his work. The daring writer … who reinvented himself with each book, despite the occasional dark vision, never wavered from his positive [humanist] premise."
"People say I write so much about misery," Malamud once confided to Michiko Kakutani in a rare interview for New York Times, "but you write about what you write best. As you are grooved, so you are grieved. And the grieving is that no matter how much happiness or success you collect, you cannot obliterate your early experience." Malamud's contribution to twentieth-century literature can be seen most clearly in his greatest invention, his Jewish-American dialect, comic even at the height of tragedy. Recall Calvin Cohn, sacrificed in God's Grace by the chimpanzee Buz in a wild inversion of the story of Abraham and Isaac, as he reflects that God after all has let him live out his life. Cohn then asks himself—forgetting his educated speech and reverting to the Yiddish rhythms of his youth—"Maybe tomorrow the world to come?" In such comic-serious questioning, Malamud captured the voice of the past and gave it relevance in the modern era.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
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Astro, Richard, and Jackson J. Benson, editors, The Fiction of Bernard Malamud, Oregon State University Press (Corvallis, OR), 1977.
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Bilik, Dorothy Seldman, Immigrant-Survivors: Post-Holocaust Consciousness in Recent Jewish-American Literature, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1981.
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"Malamud, Bernard 1914–1986." Concise Major 21st Century Writers. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/malamud-bernard-1914-1986
"Malamud, Bernard 1914–1986." Concise Major 21st Century Writers. . Retrieved January 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/malamud-bernard-1914-1986
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