For Further Study
Bernard Malamud based The Fixer on the case of Mendel Beilis, a Jewish bookkeeper for a brick factory who was accused of ritualistically murdering a Christian child. With very little evidence against him, the Russian government pushed for the conviction of Beilis in order to justify anti-Semitic policies that were being enacted at the time. The novel's protagonist, Yakov Bok, also works in a brick factory, and he is charged, for no particular reason except being Jewish, for a crime just like the one with which Beilis was charged. As in Malamud's fictionalized version, the actual case occurred between 1911 and 1913 in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. The Beilis case is credited with being one of the main contributing factors in bringing about the Russian Revolution by raising the sense of distrust Russian citizens felt toward their government and the anger of people around the world. The political situation surrounding the case is hardly touched upon in The Fixer. Most of the book focuses on Yakov's life in solitary confinement, waiting for years in prison for the murder charge to be formally levied against him so that he can get on with the trial.
The Fixer was published in 1966, more than fifty years after the Beilis case had been settled in court, but Malamud could count on his audience to be familiar with the circumstances of what had happened because the case was and is an important event in the history of the Jewish struggle for peace and security. The book won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and is considered one of the finest in the canon of books by one of America's finest authors.
Bernard Malamud was born in 1914 in New York City, in a neighborhood that had become famous as the settling place of Jewish immigrants throughout the first half of the twentieth century. His parents, Jews who had emigrated from Russia, worked sixteen hours a day in their grocery store. Malamud spent his childhood in Brooklyn, attending Erasmus Hall High School. It was in high school that he first began writing, starting with short stories about the life he knew best, urban Jewish life. He attended City College of New York—graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1936—and Columbia University, also in New York, where he earned a Master of Arts degree in 1942. While working toward his degree, he taught at high schools at night, and after graduation he continued to use his spare time writing and publishing short stories.
From 1949 to 1961, Malamud taught composition at Oregon State University in Corvallis. During this time, he wrote his first three novels: the first one, The Natural, was published in 1952 and made into a popular movie over thirty years later. It was followed by The Assistant in 1957, and A New Life in 1961, the latter about a Jewish writer from New York who moves to Oregon to teach composition, as Malamud himself did. His first collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel, established Malamud as a contemporary master of the form, winning him the National Book Award as well as international respect. In 1961, he moved back to the East Coast to teach at Vermont's Bennington College. It was while at Bennington that he published The Fixer in 1966. This novel won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and was made into a movie by John Frankenheimer in 1968.
Malamud wrote three more novels in his lifetime: The Tenants (1971), Dubin's Lives (1979), and God's Grace (1982). The Collected Stories of Bernard Malamud, published in 1982, was considered a major event in the publishing world. Malamud died in 1986 in New York City. He is often categorized as a "Jewish writer" because many of the characters and themes in his books concerned Jewish history and especially the Jewish-American immigrant experience. However, he is also recognized as simply one of the best fiction writers of his generation, especially for his craftsmanship of the short story.
The first section of The Fixer is divided into three chapters. The book's first chapter takes place at a point that is outside of the ordinary flow of time. While most of this book follows in chronological order, this chapter occurs after some of the plot events and before others. In the first chapter, Yakov Bok is already living at the brickyard when he hears the commotion of people running outside the factory gate because the body of a murdered boy, Zhenia Golov, was found stabbed to death. One of the drivers for the brickyard brings in leaflets from the Black Hundred, accusing the Jews of murdering the boy for his blood, which they would use for the making of Passover matzos. This chapter includes background information about other incidents of violence against the Jews. Within a year of Yakov's birth, his father had been killed by a pair of drunken soldiers out to shoot the first three Jews in their path, and Yakov himself had in his childhood survived one of the state-supported rampages against Jews, known as a pogrom. If this chapter were worked into the normal chronological order of the book, it would appear near the end of Part II, where the discovery of the boy's body, his funeral, and the public backlash against the Jews are recounted again.
The remaining two chapters of part I start with "five months ago, on a mild Friday in early November." Bok, whose wife has left him, is preparing to leave the Pale of Jews where he has been living to try to make a better life for himself in Kiev, possibly saving enough to go to Amsterdam and then to America. He has said good-bye to the few friends he had and traded the cow his wife kept for a horse her father used in his business, intending to take the horse and its carriage to the city, twenty miles away. Along the road, though, when he stops to pick up an old woman who turns out to be a Christian, the carriage wheel breaks, and he is left to ride on horseback as far as the bank of the Dnieper River. In order to get across the river, he trades the horse to an anti-Semitic ferryman. The first section ends with Yakov dropping his Jewish prayer things into the river.
The second section of the novel spans the five months between Yakov's arrival in Kiev and his arrest. On first entering the city, he lives in the Jewish quarter in the Podol district, working what few odd jobs he can find. One night, he finds a man drunk in the snow and helps him get home. The man, Lebedev, offers him a job fixing up an apartment upstairs in his house. Desperate for work, Yakov takes the job, even though as a Jew he is not supposed to. He gives a false, Russian name to hide his Jewish identity and answers questions carefully so that his identity will not be revealed. While he is working, Lebedev's daughter, a lonely cripple, seduces him. When the apartment is fixed up, Lebedev is so impressed that he offers Yakov another job, as overseer of a brick factory that he inherited from his brother. Yakov tries to turn the job down, but Lebedev keeps increasing his offer, with a free apartment at the factory and more and more money, until he accepts.
The workers at the factory resent him. They had been pilfering bricks and selling them on the side, and now must stop because Yakov has been put in charge of inventory. The foreman, Proshko, threatens Yakov carefully, alluding to his Jewish looks and asking about his work papers in order to convey the point that he knows Yakov could face legal trouble. When Yakov finds an old Hasidic Jew wandering dazed in the snow, having been hit with stones thrown by some boys, he takes the man up to his apartment until the snow stops, but when Yakov falls asleep, he dreams of killing the man. The next day news arrives that a boy has been found dead in a nearby cave, and after several days of rising violence against Jews, the secret police show up at the brickyard and arrest Yakov.
The book's third section concerns Yakov's early days in confinement. When he is visited in his cell by the Investigating Magistrate, a man named Bibikov, he finds out how all of the events of his recent life have been twisted to make him seem guilty. Lebedev has testified that Yakov misled him in order to get the job at the brickyard; Zina testified that he tried to rape her; and Proshko testified about seeing the old Hasidic Jew, which is interpreted as evidence that the murder of Zhenia Golov was part of a Jewish conspiracy. Bibikov admits that the evidence is weak and gives Yakov hope that he might not be charged with murder and might only serve a month for being a Jew without the proper documents for working outside of the Jewish quarter. The Prosecuting Attorney, Grubeshov, pursues a conviction, and his political influence is stronger than Bibikov's. At the end of this section Yakov is thrown into a jail cell with other criminals: they all claim their innocence, but when they hear that Yakov is the Jew accused of killing the Christian boy, they gang up on him and beat him.
In this section, more testimony emerges, as people spread lies that conflict with reality as Yakov knows it, but no one except Bibikov will believe his version of the facts. Yakov has to listen to Proshko's testimony that Yakov had cheated the brickyard and that he sneaked Jews into the brickyard. In his version of the night Yakov brought the battered old Hasid home, "they both tied horns on their heads and prayed to the Jewish God." He also testifies to having seen the old Jew burn down the stable while Yakov was in jail to destroy evidence. The dead boy's mother, who seems to babble like a crazy woman, says that her son told her he had been threatened with a knife by Yakov and also lured with candy to Yakov's apartment. Yakov is taken to the cave where Zhenia was found, and his body is dug up and returned to the scene of the crime. Father Anastsy, a local Catholic priest who has a reputation for being an expert on Jewish beliefs, spins a distorted history of folk tales and superstitions about Jews sacrificing Christian children at Easter time, drinking their blood and cutting their victims in the precise ways that the dead boy has been cut.
Yakov still holds hope that he might not be charged with a crime, that the weakness of the evidence will protect him from prosecution. Put into a cell with other prisoners, he fears another beating, but instead finds that one of them, Fetykov, dismisses the allegations against Yakov as fabrications. Unlike the superstitious people Yakov has been encountering, Fetykov has worked with a Jew and knows that the charge about blood rituals is ridiculous. Another prisoner, Gronfein, talks confidentially to him, offering to mail a letter for him, but fifteen minutes after Gronfein's release, the authorities have the letters Yakov wrote. Accusing him of conspiracy, they throw him into solitary confinement. When Bibikov visits him there one night, he goes over the details of the case that is being prepared against Yakov. Bibikov makes it very clear that he does not believe any of the charges against Yakov and that he thinks a jury probably will not either. At the end of this section, though, Yakov finds Bibikov in the cell next to his, having hung himself from the cell bars, beaten by the conspiracy.
This part chronicles the slow deterioration of Yakov's mind in solitary confinement. He suffers freezing conditions, infections in his feet, and subtle poisoning of his food. Forbidden anything to read or anyone with whom to talk, he occupies his mind by recalling psalm verses that he learned in childhood. At one point he is transferred to the courthouse and is told that the indictment against him is finally ready. However, in his meeting with Grubeshov, the Prosecuting Attorney offers to have him driven to the border and released in exchange for a confession, a deal that Yakov does not believe and rejects. He is then refused the indictment for which he has been waiting, and he is sent back to the numbing boredom of his cell again.
During his long wait, Yakov is allowed to read a New Testament that one of the guards has given him as well as parts of the Old Testament from a phylactery given to him in order to make him appear more Jewish to visitors. He also is allowed to read a long, rambling letter from Marfa Golov, the mother of the murdered boy, asking him to confess to the crime and stating her foolish prejudices about Jews. His father-in-law, Schmuel, arranges to sneak into the jail one night and visit him. Schmuel urges Yakov to rely on his religion to help him survive his ordeal, but Yakov rejects religion, still bitter about the unfair miseries that he has suffered.
The guard that Schmuel bribed to get into the prison has been found out immediately and transferred away. In his place is a new, meaner guard. At the same time, Kogin, the guard who never gave Yakov any help, talks to him, overcome with sadness about events in his own life: his son has been arrested for committing a murder during a robbery gone bad, and will probably be sent away. An indictment is issued, and Yakov is heartened to find that it is full of the same rumors and assumptions that Marfa Golov had in her letter, not at all the sort of thing a jury could take seriously. The next day, though, the indictment is taken back and called a mistake. To Yakov's surprise, his estranged wife, Raisl, is allowed to visit him. She tells him that she had a child after living with him and was abandoned by the man who is the child's father. She states that the people of the village treat her poorly because of this, and asks Yakov to write a letter saying that the child is his, although they both know it couldn't be. He agrees, and writes the letter on the back of an envelope containing another confession that the Prosecuting Attorney sent for him to sign. On the confession he writes, "Every word is a lie."
In the novel's final section, Yakov listens to one more request from Grubeshov, the Prosecuting Attorney, to confess. Grubeshov proclaims that social violence that results from his trial will hurt the Jews. "You can take my word for it that in less than a week after your trial, there will be a quarter-million fewer Zhidy (Jews) in the Pale." After his refusal, Yakov is allowed finally to meet his lawyer, Julius Ostrovsky, who tells him about the recent history of anti-Semitism in Russia. He also reveals that the government wants Yakov convicted in order to convince the public that the crumbling of the economy is all part of a Jewish plot.
As he is finally being taken to trial, Yakov, who is ready to leave the jail behind him at whatever cost, is called back in by the Deputy Warden to suffer the indignity of a strip search once more. When told to take off his last stitch of clothes, his undershirt, he throws it defiantly in the Deputy Warden's face. As punishment for insulting a prison official, the warden tries to shoot Yakov. However, his efforts are thwarted by Kogin the guard, and the warden shoots Kogin instead.
The carriage that finally takes Yakov to his trial is surrounded by mobs of Jews and anti-Semites. In the pandemonium that ensues, someone sets off a bomb that damages the carriage wheel, but it speeds off for the courthouse. As a result of the indignities suffered upon him, Yakov realizes that he must continue to fight for freedom, resolving to never give up. The book ends with him on his way to his trial, with no clear indication of the outcome.
Father Anastasy is the priest who offers moral support to Marfa Golov. He is a priest of the Orthodox Catholic Church, and is considered a specialist in Judaism. When the investigative party goes to the cave where the body was found, Father Anastasy gives a long, pseudo-scholarly history of ritualistic murders supposedly committed by Jews throughout history, giving twisted understanding of Jewish scripture as a basis of proof. "In the past," he says, "the Jew has had many uses for Christian blood. He has used it for sorcery and witches' rituals, and for love potions and well poisoning, fabricating a deadly venom that spread the plague from one country to another, a mixture of Christian blood from a murdered victim, their own Jewish urine, the heads of poisonous snakes, and even the stolen mutilated host—the bleeding body of Christ himself."
The guard who replaces Zhitnyak, Berezhinsky is an ex-soldier "with swollen knuckles and a broken nose." He taunts Yakov, pointing his gun at the prisoner and shouting "Bang!" to indicate how willing he is to shoot him. He is as cruel to Yakov as the Deputy Warden wants the guards to be, showing less mercy than Zhitnyak, but, in the end, when Yakov is leaving the jail to go to his trial, Berezhinsky tells him, "good luck and no hard feelings."
B. A. Bibikov
Investigating Magistrate for cases of extraordinary importance in Kiev, Bibikov is the person who questions Yakov after he is first arrested, and he turns out to be the only person of official capacity who is willing to believe that Yakov might be innocent. When he questions him in his cell, Bibikov is friendly, asking questions about philosophy, offering cigarettes, and even mentioning his own child's sickness. The next day, though, the interrogation in his office, in the presence of other Russians, is much more aggressive. Bibikov is divided between his suspicions that the case against Yakov is weak and the pressure from his superiors in the legal hierarchy, who want him to accept Yakov's guilt without question. Later, he visits Yakov in his cell to confide that there is little evidence against him, but that the authorities are set on having him found guilty. He promises to speak to a prominent lawyer about defending him. Soon after his visit, though, Yakov hears another prisoner being thrown into the cell next to him and tortured. Sneaking out of his cell, he is able to look into the other cell and see Bibikov hanging from his belt from the bars. Grubeshov later tells Yakov, "He was arrested for peculating from official hands. While awaiting trial, overwhelmed by his disgrace, he committed suicide."
A military officer who is present when Yakov is interrogated by Grubeshov, Bodyansky threatens the suspect frequently with violence.
Yakov is the "fixer" to whom the book's title refers. Thirty years old, he is despondent in the book's beginning because his wife has left him and run off with another man. Having nothing to live for in the "Step," the Jewish settlement in the countryside, he leaves for the city of Kiev, hoping to make enough money to someday immigrate to a country where Jews are treated more fairly. In Kiev, he first finds himself surprisingly lucky—a man he meets, Lebedev, gives him a job overseeing a brick factory. He is, however, a Jew in an area where Jews are not supposed to live or work. When a boy is found murdered nearby, others take advantage of Yakov's social disadvantage, and arrange to have him arrested. The workers under him want him out of the way so that they can continue the petty thievery they had practiced before he came, and the real killers, presumably the boy's mother and her boyfriend, use him as a scapegoat (the name "Bok" means "goat" in German).
At first, Yakov believes that his time in jail will go quickly, that the murder charge will be dropped and he will only be punished for living in the non-Jewish area, but as the novel progresses he finds out that the authorities intend to convict him for this crime. As time goes on, the evidence against him changes: witnesses claim to have seen him and other Jews holding ritualistic practices, to have seen him threaten the victim with a knife, and to have seen him with a body-shaped package on the night of the murder. For over two years, Yakov remains in jail, awaiting the formal indictment will start his trial. His health deteriorates, and he nearly goes crazy in solitary confinement. He is poisoned by the authorities and humiliated daily. Throughout this time, he learns that his religious faith, which he made light of before all of this trouble, is necessary in order for him to persevere. In the end, he accepts the fact that the government has made him a symbol of all Jews, and he vows to fight injustice at whatever cost, in the name of freedom.
The Deputy Warden is never called by name in this book, but he is Yakov's chief antagonist. His first words to Yakov are "Hello, blood-drinker, welcome to the Promised land … Here we'll feed you flour and blood until you shit matzos." He is the one who gives Yakov's guards their orders: when they feel some sympathy toward Yakov, they must take care that the Deputy Warden will not show up and prosecute them for disobeying. The Deputy Warden objects when Bibikov visits Yakov in jail, and soon after Bibikov is himself arrested and tortured. The Deputy Warden tries to make Yakov uncomfortable—holding out on firewood for his stove in the winter, keeping him chained to the bed, keeping him isolated, and strip-searching him several times a day. In the end, he pushes Yakov to the point of breaking, of openly rebelling, which would give the Deputy Warden a legal right to shoot him. One of his subordinates, Kogin, becomes tired of witnessing all of this cruelty and he intervenes, and the Deputy Warden kills him instead.
Yakov Ivanovich Dologushev
Fetyukov is the murderer who shares Yakov's first jail cell. He is prepared to kill Yakov when he thinks the fixer is a stool-pigeon who has been put in the cell to spy on the prisoners there, but he be-lieves Yakov when he says that he did not kill the child. Drawing from memories of a Jew for whom he had once worked, Fetyukov is too sophisticated to believe the gossip that the state presents as evidence for Jews' willingness to kill and drink blood.
Marfa Vladimirovna Golov
Marfa is the mother of the boy who was killed. She lives in a squalid little house near the brickyard. The story that she tells the prosecutors is inflated from the experiences relayed earlier in the book—for instance, she says that Yakov threatened her son with a knife, and that her son and another boy saw a jar of blood on Yakov's table (it was actually strawberry jam). Although the details of her life make her testimony suspicious—such as the fact that she blinded her lover, Stepan Bulkin, by throwing acid into his eyes but later reunited with him—the prosecutors still believe her over Yakov. As Yakov stares at her, wondering if she is insane, she shouts to the policemen to make him stop looking at her. Later, while Yakov is in jail, he receives a long, rambling letter from Marfa that alternates between begging him to confess to the crime and insulting him and all Jews. When the first indictment is handed down, Yakov suspects that the charges in it are based on the irrational claims in Marfa's letter.
A counterfeiter who is in jail with Yakov, Gronfein listens to Yakov sympathetically and gives him a pencil and paper with which to write letters to people who have not found out about his arrest. Gronfein offers to mail the letters, but instead he hands them over to the Warden, who is outraged. Yakov also finds out that Gronfein has claimed that Yakov spoke of being part of a well-connected conspiracy and that his friends would bribe Marfa Golov to change her testimony.
Grubeshov is the Prosecuting Attorney in the case against Yakov and the Procurator of the Kiev Superior Court. While Bibikov is friendly toward Yakov and tries to assure him that the case against him is weak, Grubeshov is firm about seeking a conviction, threatening Yakov when he asks questions or gives answers that do not support the state's conspiracy theory.
The less talkative of Yakov's two guards, he has worries on his mind—sometimes he mentions his troubled son, who steals from him. It is Kogin who keeps a diary of Yakov's mutterings in his sleep, and although nothing from them is incriminating, his cries are nonetheless taken as signs of a guilty conscience. In the end, Kogin takes the one courageous act of anyone in the novel. Tired of watching the Deputy Warden abuse Yakov and distraught about his own son being in jail, he prevents the Deputy Warden from killing Yakov for insubordination by drawing his gun on the man. The Deputy Warden shoots Kogin dead.
- The Fixer was adapted as a film by John Frankenheimer in 1969, starring Alan Bates and Dirk Bogarde. The film was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists and is available from MGM Home Video.
- The Short Stories of Bernard Malamud is a six-cassette program released in 1988 from the Listening Library, Old Greenwich, Connecticut. The writings are read by Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach.
- Malamud's famous short story "The Magic Barrel" is included on the eighteen-hour collection Jewish Stories from the Old World to the New. The dozens of celebrity readers on this collection are as diverse as William Shatner, Joseph Gordon-Leavett, Julie Kavner, and Hector Elizondo. Available on eighteen compact discs, the collection was released by KCRW of Santa Monica, California.
Ivan Semyonovitch Kuzminsky
Kuzminsky is Bibikov's assistant. After being told that Bibikov is dead, Yakov asks to speak to Ivan Semyonovitch, hoping that he would have the notes that were compiled in the case, but he is told that the assistant was sentenced to a year in the Petropavelsky Fortress for failing to remove his hat when a band played "God Save the Tsar" at an Agricultural Fair.
Latke is a printer's assistant. When Yakov first moves to Kiev, he stays at Latke's flat while looking for work.
Nikolai Maximotitch Lebedev
Yakov helps Lebedev to his feet one night after finding him lying drunk in the street, despite the fact that he is wearing a double-headed eagle insignia on his coat—the sign of a society that hates and persecutes Jews. Lebedev does not realize that Yakov is Jewish, and as a gesture of appreciation hires him to paint an apartment in his building. Impressed with his work, Lebedev goes on to offer him a job as an overseer at the brick factory that he owns. Later, after his arrest, Lebedev testifies in his deposition that he had been suspicious of Yakov all along, but that he had been tricked and lied to.
The daughter of Yakov's employer in Kiev, Zinaida is a cripple, and lonely. She invites Yakov to have supper with her several times because her father, who drinks heavily, goes to sleep early. She then invites him to make love to her, but when he sees that she is menstruating, he cannot consummate their relationship, and so, apologizing, he leaves. After her arrest, she says in her deposition that he had tried to rape her that night in her room, despite the fact that a letter from her was found in his room asking him to come and see her again.
Tsar Nicholas II
Tsar Nicholas is the Monarch of Russia. Yakov imagines that the tsar visits him in his cell as he is awaiting trial. In the book's final, chaotic scene, Yakov imagines that Tsar Nicholas II is in the coach with him on the way to his trial. In this fantasy, he takes a gun and shoots the tsar through the heart.
Ostrovsky is Yakov's lawyer, whom he is not allowed to meet until the final chapters of the book. In the course of explaining his chances for acquittal, Ostrovsky explains the social background, how Jews had been treated in Russia in recent decades and the significance that the government is putting on convicting Yakov.
Proshko is the foreman at the brick factory. He resents Yakov from the start, because Yakov's presence makes it difficult for him to cheat his employer, Lebedev, by selling off some of the merchandise on the black market. Proshko suspects Yakov of being a Jew—"a man with a nose like that ought to be careful where he puts it," he says, as a veiled threat. He asks Yakov for his working permit, but Yakov lies and tells him that it has already been taken care of, fueling Proshko's suspicion further.
The father of Yakov's wife, Raisl Shmuel is ashamed of his daughter for having run away, but he is of a more forgiving and compassionate nature than Yakov, as evinced when he tries to borrow money from Yakov to give to a beggar. Before leaving the province for Kiev, Yakov trades his cow for Shmuel's horse and carriage. Shmuel visits Yakov in his cell one night, having bribed the guard and taking a chance with his life to do so. He continues to encourage Yakov to have faith in religion when all Yakov can feel is despair.
Zhitnyak is the guard who seems most compassionate to Yakov: he talks to him and shows interest in listening to Yakov recite the bible verses he has memorized. He shows some slight decency, trusting Yakov with a needle and thread to fix his raggedy clothes. It is Zhitnyak who, for a hefty bribe, allows Shmuel to visit Yakov in his cell, an infraction that is found out almost immediately by the Deputy Warden. Zhitnyak's fate following this event is unknown.
Yakov starts out very limited in his freedom and as the novel progresses finds he is losing more and more. From the beginning of the novel, he is limited in where he can live or travel or work since he is a Jew. Briefly, because he is willing to deny his Jewish heritage, he is free to go beyond his confines. However, this freedom does not last long and he is soon falsely accused of murder. While in jail, a period that makes up the bulk of the novel, Yakov becomes more and more confined. He loathes the first cell he is in because he is at the mercy of the other prisoners, but the solitary confinement he moves to is even worse. When he becomes accus-tomed to solitary confinement, his movement is limited further by being chained to the bed. And throughout it all the sadistic Deputy Warden conducts full body searches, looking in Yakov's mouth and anus while fully knowing that there is no way Yakov could have obtained a weapon: even the inside of his body is not free at this point. During his last days in jail he gives up on any hope of freedom, but on his ride to the courthouse, looking out of the carriage at all of his fellow Jews lining his route in defiance of the Tsar's government, he comes to believe in freedom. "Where there's no fight in it there's no freedom," he thinks. "Death to the anti-Semites! Long live revolution! Long live liberty!"
The political struggle between Christians and Jews depicted in this book has little to do with the actual beliefs of each group. More significant is the personal growth of Yakov as he goes from his initial disillusionment to embracing his identity as a Jew. In the beginning of the story he leaves the Pale of Jewish Settlement because he does not feel he belongs. "Torah I had little of and Talmud less," Yakov tells his father-in-law, Schmuel, "though I learned Hebrew because I've got an ear for language." With little work available, and his wife of six years having run away, he does not trust the consolations of his religious heritage. Instead, he has faith only in himself, as symbolized by his keeping his tool kit and dropping his prayer things into the Dnieper River.
Ironically, it is the authorities who try to force a Jewish identity on Yakov while he is in prison. They force him to grow his hair long, in the Jewish style. They give him phylacteries, small leather boxes containing parchments with Hebrew scripture quotations, which Orthodox Jews wear strapped to their heads and arms; he reads them eagerly to alleviate boredom. They give him a prayer shawl, which he clings to for warmth. Their purpose in giving him these things is to make him seem more likely to be part of an Orthodox Jewish conspiracy, but as he stays in jail Yakov learns to value his Jewish identity. This point becomes clear in the end, when he objects to having the Orthodox ringlets cut from his hair.
Topics for Further Study
- Conduct a trial for Yakov Bok. Elect representatives from your class to play prosecutors, defendants, and witnesses.
- Some people have asserted that the 1994 murder trial of former football star O. J. Simpson was motivated by racism, making him a representative of blacks in the same way that Bok is made to represent all Jews in this novel. Research the facts of the Simpson trial and make a case for or against this theory.
- Interview some police officers or prison guards and see how they feel about prisoners who might be innocent. How much sympathy do they feel they are allowed to show the prisoners in their care?
- Compile a list of myths and superstitions that people have about others of different races, religions, and classes. What do these ideas tell you about the people who hold them?
- Make a chart comparing the rights that Jews had in Tsarist Russia, in Stalin's Soviet Union, and in Nazi Germany.
- Research a modern form of the pogroms that the Russians held against Jews, such as the "ethnic cleansing" campaigns in Rwanda, Serbia, or East Timor. Point out the similarities and the differences in the methods used to discredit the oppressed people.
- International awareness of the Nazi Holocaust made it possible and necessary for Jews to form their own country in 1948. Report on the Zionist movement, which had fought for a Jewish homeland since 1898, and how that led to the formation of Israel.
In general, the classes represented in this book correspond to religious affiliations, with the Russian Christians comprising the dominant social order and the Jews kept in the lower class by government constraints. There are, however, significant cases in which religious differences are put aside and people relate as class peers. When Yakov first comes to Kiev, for example, Lebedev is impressed with him as a person and as a worker, and offers him the position as an overseer in the brickyard based on what he sees in him. He tells Yakov that he also worked up from poverty, establishing a bond based on recognition.
Later, when Yakov is in jail, he fears that his cellmates will blame him for the child's murder of which he is accused. However, the convict Fetyukov shows that, despite Yakov being from the lower class, he knows better than to believe superstitions about Jews. "When I was a boy I was apprenticed to a Jew blacksmith," he explains. "He wouldn't have done what they say you did. If he drank blood he would have vomited it up." A Christian Russian of a higher social class would not have had a similar contact with anyone Jewish, and would therefore have accepted rumors as truth. The most telling case of class affiliation overriding religious affiliation is Kogin's sacrifice at the end of the book. Because his own son is in jail, Kogin is able to empathize with Yakov more than with the Deputy Warden, even though he and the warden are in a sense coworkers. After treating Yakov indifferently through most of his confinement, Kogin, despite religious differences, ends up giving his life in order to save Yakov, feeling that if the system can treat one prisoner harshly it is just as likely to be unfair to his son.
Modern American audiences often are outraged to read this story of a man held in prison for a crime he did not commit with no access to any help from outside. Because the U.S. Constitution specifically names the right to a speedy trial, and because organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union diligently watch out for abuses of this right, Americans take for granted basic civil rights that simply are not recognized in repressive, totalitarian countries. Many countries offer no guarantee of the right to legal representation: in some, political prisoners are left to rot in jail while their families are not even told whether they are alive or not. Political prisoners are often killed in jail with the transparent excuse that "they were trying to escape," as Ostrovsky warns Yakov against in the book, while others are tortured and then left with the means to commit suicide, as is Bibikov. One sign of Tsarist society's recognition of the rights of prisoners is that in this novel nobody questions the fact that Yakov will have a trial once his indictment is handed down: a society without rules would not be bound by any such commitment.
Point of View
Most of this novel is written in the third person limited point of view. This means that characters are referred to as "he" or "she." The narrator is not a character in the book and does not refer to him- or herself. The point of view is "limited" in that the narration is not free to describe anything that happens anywhere, but can only tell us about events and thoughts that are experienced by Yakov. Ideas in the minds of other characters, for instance, are beyond Yakov's knowledge, and so cannot be told to the audience. For instance, the book's narration cannot directly explain the political situation outside of the jail because Yakov would have no knowledge of what is happening. Since the narration is limited to what he knows, any background information is told to Yakov by Ostrovsky. The author uses this device to bring information into the novel that otherwise is beyond its range. Another element of the point of view is the tense: for the most part, this novel is told in the past tense describing the action as being in the past, as in "Yakov Bok saw people running," or "The fixer remained mute."
There are exceptions to the general point of view. The sixth chapter of section VI starts with Yakov himself functioning as the narrator, speaking in the first person ("I") present tense. The following chapter begins with one paragraph in the second person ("you") present tense. The first chapter of section VII starts with one sentence in the present tense form: "He waits." All of these have the effect of conveying Yakov's sense of reality unraveling as he sits in his cell, his mind deteriorating. Present and past, "me" and "you" and "him," all meld into one unclear frame of mind in his boredom.
Unlike some novels, which focus on the personal lives of their characters, the story of The Fixer places great emphasis on the time in which it takes place. Kiev, Russia, from 1911 to 1913, had just the right balance of political sophistication with peasant superstition; of dedication and corruption; of freedom and severe political consequences. Other settings have been dangerous for religious, political, and ethnic groups that were persecuted, but they have not ended in a few years with violent revolutions, and so they would have lacked the sense of hope that this story implies in the end.
Little is made of the fact that Yakov is a "fixer," other than the constant use of this word to refer to him. The term has literal significance in this story in that he is indeed a fixer, a handyman, as he proves with the work he does on Lebedev's spare apartment. As his troubles grow and freedom becomes less and less likely, he thinks of his tools more often. It is somewhat ironic that this novel is named The Fixer in spite of the fact that Yakov is trapped in his situation and for most of the book is unable to do anything to fix it. In the end, though, the purpose of the title becomes clear enough. In the last scene, he is hurtling along in a carriage with a broken, wobbling wheel that needs fixing (which echoes the wagon wheel that broke when he was first leaving for Kiev), trapped in a political system that also needs fixing. With his tools Yakov could fix the carriage, and by allowing himself to be a symbol of Jewish oppression he can further the growing revolution that might fix the corrupt government.
Malamud has described this novel as a "folk tale." The key element of a folk tale is that, true or false, it is repeated frequently within a culture because, whether they know it or not, it helps people define who they are. Malamud mentioned that the story of Mendel Beilis, upon which this novel is based, is a story that his father told him when he was a little boy. A story like "Cinderella," for instance, has elements of tragedy (such as the death of the natural mother, the stepmother's cruelty, and the father's insensitivity), but it also ends in triumph, with the stepsisters defeated and the prince declaring his devotion.
The Fixer follows a folk tale pattern in that it starts with a man leaving his home and traveling to a place with which he is unfamiliar—a different world. In this case, he is moving from the Jewish Step to the Christian-dominated Kiev. By leaving out the trial and its outcome, though, the novel takes a turn toward abstraction that a folk tale would never take. There might be a good intellectual reason to leave the ending open, so that the reader will have to think about it and perhaps even look up the history of the case it is based on. However, folk tales, even when they are mysterious, seldom leave the reader with unanswered questions about what happened. Folk tales are repeated by listeners who have heard them and fund them complete; they never leave readers unsatisfied.
Tsar Nicholas II
Nicholas II (1868–1918), who makes a brief appearance in Yakov's dream near the end of this novel, was the last tsar of Russia (the word is also translated as "czar"). He was driven from the throne and executed shortly after the events of The Fixer take place. To a large extent, it was Nicholas's arrogance and foolishness that brought about the Communist Revolution in Russia, although it is also likely that the country's weak economy would have crumbled under even the most competent monarch. Nicholas was a descendant of the Romanov dynasty, whose rule reached back to 1547, when the grand duke of Muscovy, Ivan IV (1530–1584), had himself crowned czar (the Russian word for "caesar"). His grand nephew, Ivan VI (1740–1764), was the first tsar with the Romanov name, a name that was passed down to Russian rulers until Nicholas was deposed. Nicholas himself became tsar in 1894, when his father became ill and died suddenly. Nicholas, then twenty-six, was unprepared for the throne, a fact that became clear almost immediately when thousands died attending his inauguration, trampled to death due to poor crowd control.
As the nineteenth century came to an end, while countries around the world were entering the Industrial Age, Russia struggled to end a feudal social order that locked peasant farmers into slavelike conditions. With the change in social order came massive poverty. From the 1870s on, revolution was in the air, with labor strikes and peasant revolts occurring frequently. Nicholas's answer to social unrest was to blame it on "outside agitators." In 1904, Russia went to war with Japan in a small dispute over land on the Korean Peninsula: one of the tsar's advisors had told him that "a victorious little war" would unite the population. Unfortunately and unexpectedly, Russia lost, further straining the economy. Strikes, demonstrations, and violence became common.
In 1905, hundreds of peasants, gathered outside the tsar's Winter Palace to present their grievances, were shot down by soldiers. To quell the public outrage that followed, Nicholas set up the Dumas, a Russian Parliament. He did not give the Dumas any political power, though, and the protests continued until later that year when he organized a second, functional Dumas. The public's distrust of the tsar and his family intensified in the following years as he came to rely on advice from Rasputin, a mystic known as the Mad Monk, who had won the Romanovs' trust by being able to treat their son Alexis's hemophilia. When Russia suffered heavy losses after World War I began in 1914, the fate of Nicholas II and his family was sealed. After the 1917 revolution led by Lenin, Trotsky, and others, the tsar abdicated his throne, and a Communist government was established in Russia. In 1918, Nicholas, his wife, and his children were executed, although unsubstantiated rumors persist to this day that one of his daughters, Anastasia, escaped.
The myth that Jewish people murder Christian children to use their blood for mystical rituals is called a "blood libel," and has existed for hundreds of years. Similar accusations were levied against early Christians, who were a small, persecuted cult in the early centuries after the death of Jesus. The first record of a blood libel against the Jews dates back to the death of William of Norwich, who was found beaten to death in the woods on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) in 1144. The proximity of the high Christian holiday certainly added to tensions between Jews and Christians, while the specific details about the Easter cycle—the bloody death of Jesus, the offering of bread and wine as "body and blood"—are thought to have fueled imaginations about secret mystic rituals.
While blood libel stories existed for centuries, the first recorded one that had official church recognition was the "Cult of Anderl," which started in 1462. The cult celebrated the sainted Anderl von Rinn ("Anderl" is a Germanic form of "young Andrew"; Rinn is a city in the Tyrolean Alps). The death of Anderl, allegedly at the hands of Jews, became a part of the local folklore, handed down from generation to generation. In 1614, Dr. Hippolyt Guarinoni wrote a book, Triumph, Crown, Martyrdom and Epitaph of the Holy Innocent Child, recording the story of Anderl as he said it came to him in a dream. The cult of Anderl continues to this day. In 1985, in an attempt to end this anti-Semitic cult, the Bishop of Innisbrook had the boy's remains removed from the church and put into a grave, but followers still conduct annual processions to the boy's grave.
The blood libel has such deep roots in Christian folk tradition that the Brothers Grimm, German scholars who are famous for fairy tales like "Hansel and Gretel" and "Cinderella," wrote a version of it in the 1400s. Their story "Der Judenstein" (The Jewry Stone) is about a father who sells his son to Jews, who kill the boy in a ritualistic fashion, tying the boy to a stone wheel and draining his blood. The blood libel has been authorized by Pope Sixtus V, who in 1588 gave official recognition to the martyrdom of Simon of Trent, allegedly tortured and murdered by Jews a hundred years earlier. To this day there are people who, like the Russian peasants in The Fixer, swear that Jewish people put the blood of young Christian boys into the Passover matzos, citing the longevity of the blood libel as proof that it is true.
Compare & Contrast
- 1913: Tsar Nicholas II, political leader of Russia, follows a policy of persecuting and suppressing Jewish citizens in response to social unrest.
1966: Leonid Brezhnev, premier of the Soviet Union, supports an official propaganda campaign to blame Russian Jews for the country's economic troubles.
Today: With the economies of former Soviet countries unsettled, old questions of ethnic identity lead people to identify themselves with smaller groups and to also demonize other groups.
- 1913: The American Cancer Society is formed at a time when 9 out of 10 patients diagnosed with cancer are destined to die.
1966: The Surgeon General releases findings that smoking causes cancer, as well as numerous other health problems. Cigarette companies deny this claim.
Today: Although the chances of surviving cancer has improved dramatically since 1913, the number of incidents of cancer has also increased, making it the second leading cause of death in America.
- 1913: Distraught Russian citizens, upset with the country's backward economy and the government's inability to do something about it, riot frequently. The government fuels anti-Semitism in order to keep angry citizens distracted.
1966: Race riots blaze across many major American cities, including Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta.
Today: Violent displays against social injustice have become rarer in the United States, having been replaced by more sophisticated forms of economic pressures.
- 1913: The Russian government can hold a suspect in custody for as long as it wants without proceeding with a trial.
1966: The U.S. Supreme Court rules in the case of Miranda v. Arizona that failure to allow suspects to have a lawyer present during questioning violates the Constitutional right against self-incrimination. At the same time, civil rights abuses are legendary in the secret workings of the Soviet Union's government.
Today: The Soviet Union no longer exists, having given way to more democratic forms of government. Amnesty International is a respected worldwide organization that monitors abuse of political prisoners.
- 1913: Before the First World War devastated their economies, the countries of Europe were the center of the world's finances.
1966: In the middle of the Cold War, the world was defined by the competition between two Super Powers: the United States and the Soviet Union.
Today: Since the Soviet Union voted to dissolve itself in 1991, the United States is recognized as the world's leading economic and military power.
The story of Yakov Bok is almost identical to the story of Mendel Beilis (also "Beiliss"), a bookkeeper in a brick factory in Kiev who was arrested in 1911 for suspicion of killing a Christian boy, Andrei Yushinsky. Beilis was held in jail for two years while the government tried to incite public anger against Jews. When Beilis finally did come to trial in October 1913, the jury unanimously declared him not guilty. Unlike Yakov, Beilis had a large family with whom he was reunited upon his release. The Russian government's attempt to distract citizens from the country's economic woes by stirring up religious conflict backfired, instead inciting international outrage against the government's anti-Semitic stance.
The Fixer has always been considered Mala-mud's best work by literary critics. Specific arguments, however, have arisen regarding its strong ethnic cultural heritage and the disturbing imagery it presents. In 1965, the year before The Fixer was published, Sidney Richman wrote a book-length survey of Malamud's fiction up to that point, in which he examined the author's popularity and growing reputation. Richman experienced the uneasiness that critics often encounter when discussing works by authors with distinct social or religious backgrounds. On the one hand, Richman wanted to separate the literature from Malamud's heritage and discuss it in its own right, but he also acknowledged that doing that would be impossible, that Jewishness was part of the fabric of the author's works.
During the early 1960s, as Richman pointed out, works by Jewish authors were in vogue, with the best-seller lists being topped by works by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Harvey Swados, Herbert Gold, and others. He applauded the writers, including Malamud, for using Jewishness "to effect an imaginative entry into American literature." If, at the time, many more Jewish writers were making it to the best-seller lists than ever had before, then Rich-man was right to wonder whether Malamud's popularity was part of an overall trend or fad. However, Richman quickly dismissed this notion in his introduction and went on to offer a serious examination of the themes in each of Malamud's works. As Richman concluded prophetically, "Despite the evidence of his and our senses, he manages to affirm man, to find the vision through which the elusive and enigmatic sense of life's possibilities counters (all reality to the contrary) man's fall from grace."
Critics such as Dorothy Seimen Bilek have pointed out that The Fixer is an exception among Malamud's works. While many of his writings deal with characters that retain unassimilated Jewish values and who deal with the Nazi Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s secondhand—through the window of history—The Fixer is rare in the immediacy of the horrors it recounts. Despite the difference in setting from Malamud's usual contemporary America, Sheldon J. Hershinow explained that there are many thematic issues that remained the same in The Fixer. "Bok is another of Malamud's poor Jews whose life seems to be an unending struggle to make ends meet," he explained. Hershinow went on to take note of a common criticism of the novel—that the characters, except for Yakov, are rather superficial and one dimensional, emphasizing the historical and symbolic over good writing. He agreed with this charge, pointing out as an example the character of Grubeshov, who is so fanatical in his anti-Semitism that he is willing to harm his career to persecute Yakov but at the same time is portrayed as a political opportunist. After recognizing this criticism, Hershinow countered by noting that providing more realistic opponents for Yakov would have made his experience less surreal and, therefore, less terrifying.
Other critics found the situations described in The Fixer to be less than compelling, in part because they are so cruel and difficult to experience, even from the distance of a reader's perspective. Whitney Balliet, writing for The New Yorker found the constant abuses of Yakov to be repetitive: "Human misery does not catalogue well," he observed wryly, to which critic Gerald Hoag responded in the Western Humanities Review, "If someone had long ago convinced Dostoevsky and some others of that principle, perhaps Malamud would not have found himself nose-to-nose with The New Yorker today." Hoag's point was that great writers always used human misery as subject matter, so it gives no reason to dismiss the quality of a work.
In fact, the disgusting details of Yakov's ordeal add to what critic Alan Warren Friedman, in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, referred to as the "Gothic" strain that could be found throughout Malamud's works. The unappealing nature of life is a fundamental part of the Jewish spirit that Malamud writes about, according to Friedman. In his essay "The Hero as Schnook," he summarized the relationship between the two: "The universe, the given, is impossibly antithetical to human dignity and worth, and its impoverished creatures struggle gamely to make a go of things."
Today, Malamud is remembered as much for his short stories as for his novels, possibly because his production of short stories stayed strong throughout his life, while his novel production became less frequent. The Fixer is still considered atypical for him because of its setting, but it is still among his most respected works, possibly because of the awards that it won. Most readers recognize Malamud's name as the author of The Natural, an early novel about baseball that was even more unusual than The Fixer. However, people are more aware of The Natural as it was successfully adapted into a blockbuster Hollywood movie starring Robert Redford and Glenn Close.
Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and drama at Oakton Community College. In the following essay, he examines how the aspects of identity and responsibility inherent in parenthood are implied throughout The Fixer.
"Permit me to ask, Yakov Shepsovitch, are you a father?"
"With all my heart."
"Then you can imagine our anguish," sighed the sad-eyed Tsar.
This exchange, coming at the end of Bernard Malamud's most harrowing novel, The Fixer, represents a staple in the articles of faith followed by fiction writers: that the truth one feels is more significant than the sum total of what has gone on in life. Yakov Bok is charged with the mutilation of a twelve-year-old boy, a charge that the Tsar's government hopes will create social unrest between Christians and Jews and distract them all from the government's near collapse. In actuality, Bok has no children. Nor does he have any reason to lie and say that he has. This discussion takes place during a fantasy en route to the court date that will decide his fate, after two years of pointless abuse and humiliation. If we assume that he has no reason to answer other than truthfully in his fantasy, and that he is not mistaken about offspring (a subject that is so close to his heart throughout the book that he surely would remember), then we have to conclude that he is telling the truth; if not the literal truth, then a psychological truth.
There are other moments that shine throughout the final chapters of The Fixer, that leap out at the reader, that suggest themselves as the Key to What All of This Suffering Has Been For. There is the sacrifice that Kogin the guard makes, for instance, putting his life on the line when he cannot witness any more torture, or Yakov defiantly throwing his filthy undershirt in the nameless Deputy Warden's face, or his exclamations in praise of liberty and revolution and "Death to the anti-Semites." These are all memorable dramatic moments, satisfying to readers who have spent several hundred pages waiting for something to happen. They all represent changes Yakov has gone through, and that the world had gone through because of him. All of the various dramatic moral twists come together in the question of fatherhood. In this novel, fatherhood represents both identity and responsibility, the two ways of knowledge that Yakov Bok has to accept if he is ever to escape his suffering. Responsibility is every parent's fate: it is in acting as a conduit, of conveying the identity of Judaism from previous generations into the future, that he fails and fails again until his sufferings have finally taught him better.
There is every reason for the thread of Jewish identity to die out with Yakov. Early in his life he learned the lesson that Judaism is trouble for its adherents. His father was killed for being a Jew, during an act of random violence that targeted him for nothing more than his religion. Yakov was raised in an orphanage, and, as if the story of his father's death hadn't been enough, experienced one of the periodical frenzies against Jews that swept over the Russian countryside in the late 1800s—a pogrom. Like a mythic hero, he had emerged from underground after three days, to take in the image of a Jew murdered and humiliated, his body being eaten by a pig. Of course nothing would be sacred for him. He had no religious training—"Torah I had little of and Talmud less," he explains of the orphanage he was raised in—but he was well trained in the social consequences of being a Jew.
One striking aspect of the early chapters of the novel, in Book I before Yakov leaves the shtetl, is the rapport that he has with his father-in-law, Shmuel. "A father-in-law's blood was thicker than water," he thinks regarding the uneven trade of his milking cow for the old man's decrepit horse. Still, it is not a blood relationship, but is founded on something that would seem even less substantial: their point of intersection is the wife who ran away from Yakov, and as a result one might expect his relationship to be even worse than an average in-law bond, not better. Yakov lets no opportunity pass to curse Raisl for leaving, and though it plainly hurts Shmuel he continually tries to soften his son-in-law, to make him a more forgiving man and consequently a better Jew. "What she did I won't defend—she hurt me as much as she did you," he tells Yakov. "Even more, when the rabbi says she's now dead my voice agrees, but not my heart … I've cursed her more than once but I ask God not to listen."
In no small way, Shmuel's relationship with Yakov mirrors the way Shmuel feels about his daughter: they both hurt him, but he absorbs it. It is not his religion that tells him how to accept misfortune, but instead he uses religion as a tool to put up with his lot. It is almost impossible to not see him as a father figure to Yakov, in the way that he frets, cajoles, bickers, pleads, and prays that the fixer will become a better man. When he visits Yakov in jail, though, his message is rejected. At the height of his tribulation, the last thing Yakov wants to hear is that faith will make his misery worthwhile. "Ach, why do you make me talk fairy tales?," he asks, rejecting his people's faith while at the same time showing the speech pattern taught him by his culture. In the end, though, Yakov sees the full significance of his responsibility to Shmuel for what he has taught him about himself: "If I must suffer," he thinks, "let it be for Shmuel."
What Do I Read Next?
- Austrian writer Franz Kafka's novel The Trial, first published in 1925, set the standard for novels about naive protagonists sucked into a complex, nightmarish legal system. Kafka's Joseph K. is so confused about of what he is supposed to be guilty that the term "Kafkaesque" has come to represent impersonal, irrational bureaucracy.
- Malamud has described The Fixer as a folk tale. Many of his shorter works fit this description. They have been collected in The Stories of Bernard Malamud, published by Farrar Straus Giroux in 1983.
- Isaac Bashevis Singer was a Polish-born Yiddish writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. Most of his stories take place in Jewish communities in rural Europe, and, like The Fixer, most of Singer's stories were written in a folktale style. Singer's first published novel, Satan in Goray (1935), deals with seventeenth-century pogroms in which Jews in Poland were brutally massacred by Cossacks.
- The case of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer who was unjustly imprisoned for treason in France from 1894 to 1899, is mentioned in The Fixer. Of all that has been written about the case, which has come to be known as "The Dreyfus Affair," it is "J'Accuse," an 1898 letter about the case written by novelist Emile Zola, that has stood the test of time as a great work of literature.
- Bernard Malamud's friend Philip Roth is said to have patterned the character E. I. Lonoff, protagonist of his novel The Ghost Writer, on Malamud.
- Mendel Beilis, the man who was the model for Yakov Bok in this book, published an autobiography of his ordeal in 1926. Originally published as The Story of My Sufferings, it is currently available under the title Scapegoat on Trial.
- Another author, Sholom Aleichem, also wrote a novel based on the Mendel Beilis case, The Bloody Hoax, published by the University of Indiana press in 1991.
- Throughout The Fixer, the protagonist refers to his readings of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza's best-known work, his Ethics, is available in paperback from Everyman Press.
There are minor father figures among the Russians. When Bibikov first interrogates Yakov, he mentions as he is leaving, "I have to hurry now. My boy has a fever. My wife gets frantic." At the time, his domestic concerns might seem small to Yakov, faced with a fabricated murder charge, but in the greater scope of the novel Bibikov's intact family stands out as a healthy concern, especially when he is compared to the Russians who spend their time persecuting Jews. The fact that he mentions this small detail shows the closeness and confidentiality that he feels toward Yakov which, ultimately, is what gets him killed.
Lebedev's relationship with his daughter is inverted: he has become, through alcoholism, the child that has to be watched after, to be found in the streets when he doesn't come home, and tucked in when he does, and she in return is promiscuous. Marfa Golov's nightmarish relationship with her young delinquent son, Zhenia, whom she insists was a saint, proves abusive from her own over-sweetened testimony, even without any proof that she was actually involved in his murder. It is the guard Kogin, though, who teaches Yakov the most about the suffering that must be borne in parenthood. Increasingly throughout the story, he expresses his worries about the trouble his son Trofim will get into, a fear that turns out justified when Trofim kills a man while robbing his house. "He came to an end I had predicted for him, all of a father's love gone for nothing," Kogin tells Yakov, and then he commits his most humane act toward his prisoner, offering him a cigarette. In the end, he takes responsibility for saving Yakov's life, the way he once took responsibility for his son, because he identifies with him: "I know his sorrows," he says while defending him.
While The Fixer moves upward, from the absent father figures introduced in the first chapter to fathers who accept their children and are willing to suffer for them, there is also a rise in the instances of child-images in Yakov's life. Chronologically, his story starts back even before the incidents that are described in the book. The chain of events is set into motion by his wife Raisl's abandonment of him, once it was determined that they could not conceive a child together. Early in the story, when her father asks him why he quit sleeping with her, he responds, "how long can a man sleep with a barren woman? I got tired of trying." His despair about being childless has led to Raisl leaving in frustration, which makes Yakov himself leave the shtetl. Departing from his religious surroundings gives him the illusion of freedom that makes him walk into the danger of working in an area where Jews are forbidden, which makes him a suspect. Much as he regrets not having children, he is not ready for fatherhood at the beginning of the novel. He is more prepared to be a drifter, lacking identity and lacking responsibilities. He is well suited to excel as a modern ur-ban man, with no family to tether his career, free to excel at his own pace. By going to Kiev instead of sitting around waiting for Raisl to come back or staying anchored within his religious community, he is making the most of his situation.
There are several ironies about his idea that Raisl is barren. First and most obvious is the fact that she is perfectly able to have children, proven by the fact that she becomes pregnant a few months after leaving Yakov. If the arc of events described in the novel springs from the idea that she could never conceive, it is sprung in error. Despair in itself is sad enough, but the despair that Yakov took for granted, the empty future he predicted, is a hoax in itself. Another twist of fate is that the family that would have held them together comes at a time when they can least use it: Yakov is in jail, and Raisl is struggling to make enough to feed herself and her father. Still, with no better reason than a growing sense of moral obligation, Yakov writes out a lie claiming responsibility for the child, an act that comes along with his refusal to lie about the truth of his guilt on a confession. Raisl's child, Chaiml, is Jewish, contrary to what Yakov has always suspected about the man with whom she ran away.
The one image of a child that shows readers that Yakov has come around to the mature sensibilities required by parenthood is the identification he has with the young Cossack soldier who is mutilated outside of his carriage during the chaotic final scene. Yakov notices him, riding on a gray mare, trying to keep the crowd in order, "[a]nd though he had no reason to, he smiled a little at the Cossack for his youth and good looks, and for being, as such things go, a free man, give or take a little." In the next minute, a bomb explodes, and as the smoke clears Yakov sees that the young man's foot has been blown off. As they carry him away Yakov feels empathy for this boy who is everything he is not—young, free, Catholic. He is able to understand the soldier's hurt and confusion, which mirrors his own suffering: "he looked in horror and anguish at Yakov as though to say, 'What has my foot got to do with it,'" showing a sense of absurdity with which Yakov could certainly identify.
From this experience, Yakov realizes that the fight is not between practitioners of different faiths or classes. He is as responsible for the young Cossack as he would be for his own son, and, when, in his fantasy, the Tsar tries to make himself a sympathetic figure by talking of his own son, Yakov realizes that he has a duty to all those who are suffering because of the privileged class. In his dream, he shoots the Tsar, so that in his reality he can make the world safe for the children of future generations.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
In the following article, Farber evaluates the film version of The Fixer, finding that it "inherits all of the weaknesses" of the "disastrous" novel that preceded it.
The movies invariably "discover" a novelist just after he produces his poorest work. Bernard Malamud is a gifted writer, and The Assistant seems to me a remarkable achievement, subtly controlled, tartly observed, harrowing, yet a genuinely poetic and compassionate vision of human pain. In The Fixer Malamud abandoned a world he knew firsthand to grapple with the Jewish Problem and the indomitability of the human spirit: a fictionalization of the case of Mendel Beilis, a Jew accused of the ritual murder of a child in czarist Russia. The result was a pretty disastrous novel, but a natural for the best-seller list, with just enough pretension for the Pulitzer committee and plenty of lurid thrills for the hungry suburban sadomasochists. The prison scenes in the novel, savored in rancid detail, are as sensational and as revolting as in any piece of pornoviolence I can imagine, but since Malamud's reputation had already been secured, sophisticated readers were quite prepared to suffer along with Yakov Bok. Even the novel's tepid liberal sermon about injustice and conscience is a fraud. Ostensibly a protest against hate and prejudice, The Fixer's cartoon-simple pageant of Russian sadists and bigots reveals exactly the kind of small-minded stereotyping that it pretends to deplore.
Now John Frankenheimer, one of the most talented American filmmakers working today, has fallen victim to the material. His film of The Fixer, though well photographed and well acted, inherits all of the weaknesses of the original. With a little less reverence for Malamud the film might have worked. The most interesting element in the novel was the characterization of Yakov Bok, particularly in the opening scenes. (These turn out to be the best scenes in the film too—Alan Bates perfectly captures Bok's timidity and self-deprecating sense of humor.) Malamud had done this character more fully before, and so had Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, and other Jewish writers. But to film audiences the character of the schlemiel, introverted, anxious, masochistic, may still be relatively fresh; only this past year, in Sidney Lumet's underrated Bye Bye Braverman, the first half of I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, moments of Barbara Streisand's performance in Funny Girl, have American movies begun to absorb some of the ethnic inflections of Jewish-American folklore.
But it was not the schlemiel hero of The Fixer that attracted Frankenheimer to the material. His films almost always deal with extreme forms of degradation, persecution, oppression, whether it is parental oppression in The Young Stranger and All Fall Down, political oppression in The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, or weird, inexplicable, almost preternatural oppression in the science fictional Seconds. And he has even done one other film about a man in solitary confinement, the excellent Birdman of Alcatraz. Frankenheimer is obsessively drawn to the figure of the victim, isolated, utterly defenseless, but struggling desperately to reassert his freedom against monstrous forms of tyranny. To say that there is something paranoid and masochistic in Frankenheimer's temperament is probably true, but those psychological labels do not help to understand his art. The pertinent point is that out of profound personal anxieties, he has created at least twice—in The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds—brilliant, original filmic nightmares of persecution. I felt that if anyone could salvage The Fixer, he could. I was not particularly looking forward to the film, but I thought it might turn out to be the definitive study of man in captivity. Instead, it remains a sluggish, morbid, pompous preachment.
The crucial question to be asked about the film, as about the novel: Why was it made? What is the purpose of lingering on the suffering of an abused Jew in pre-Revolutionary Russia? This may seem like a naive question; many people assume that the most awesome and uncompromising art concerns man's past barbarisms to his fellow man. I am not so convinced of the automatic relevance of watching the savagery of another era, and I should say that I am just as uneasy about most of the films that treat the Nazi experience: I resent the grim, gratuitous (though visually inventive) Czech film The Fifth Horseman Is Fear for essentially the same reasons that I resent The Fixer. It is supposed to be bracing to know of the atrocities that men have committed out of fear and hate and ignorance in this twentieth century. But we all do know by now. Does every reminder deserve our respect? Is it unreasonable to ask for some fresh insight, some illumination of our own society, or the human condition, or even the possible explanations for these atrocities? Just to present the atrocities is not illuminating.
Some of the best films ever made are historical fictions, but they do find a way of implicating us. Even simple horror films sometimes upset our complacency; The Fixer, gruesome as it is, only intensifies it. Audiences do penance for a couple of hours, devoutly acknowledging the wretchedness of the 1910 Russian Jew's existence, and then, cleansed of guilt, return to their newspapers and TV sets as stupefied as ever. The film doesn't connect with their own experience—it's too narrowly about a specific, remote time and place, and at the same time, paradoxically, too "universal", too general. It has no resonances, no aftertaste.
Of course it's easy enough to come up with some ringing statements about what The Fixer "really" means, but these probably don't have much to do with the experience of watching the film. For The Fixer, seizing at the prestigious laurels of High Art, in fact trades on the emotional responses of the very lowest. Who doesn't cringe at the closeup of a swollen, bloody foot or moan when a man is beaten to unconsciousness? Just as instinctively, the audience applauds when Yakov, ever humiliated, manages to score a minor point against his tormentors—identifying the Prosecuting Attorney's nose on a chart of "Jewish noses", or dressing up in prayer shawl and phylacteries to frighten off an idiot priest. The Torture Scene, The Triumph of the Underdog, even, for catharsis, The Martyr Thronged by Cheering Crowds—The Fixer is filled with familiar staples of pulp melodrama. These are the easiest responses a film can attempt, and the fact that The Fixer gets them should not be counted in its favor. The pity is that it so rarely tries for more subtle responses.
The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, and it may not be farfetched to perceive an allusion to his own suffering under the notorious Hollywood blacklist of the McCarthy period: the scapegoat, innocent of all crimes, victim of a government's paranoid "international Jewish conspiracy" theory (the words are from the film), imprisoned and tormented because his ideas are alien. There are some leaden nuggets of political theory—people are united by hate, not love, and it serves the government's purpose if they hate the Jews rather than the czar—but it makes just as much sense to interpret the film's solemnity as Trumbo's self-pitying identification with the innocent man subjected to monumentally inhuman treatment. This interpretation does not, of course, make the film any more interesting.
Trumbo, always interested in themes of social significance, may have influenced the film in another, less obvious, but very important way. The express message of The Fixer is that Yakov Bok, through his suffering, develops for the first time a social and political conscience, a hitherto unfelt loyalty to the Jewish people, a sense of responsibility to his fellow man. As he tells the minister of justice "Something in me has changed. I fear less and hate more…. If the state acts in ways that are abhorrent to human nature, it's the lesser evil to destroy the state". His own degradation is supposed to have transformed him from a nonpolitical man into a quiet sort of political revolutionary. But at another point late in the film, Yakov's lawyer gushes, "It's a great honor to defend you", and Yakov replies determinedly, "It's just a dirty suffering. There's no honor in it". In fact, this is how the film looks to us—simply one dirty humiliation after another, without honor, without meaning. But then Yakov's passionate, defiant speech to the minister of justice seems incongruous. Is the imprisonment "just a dirty suffering" or is it a semi-heroic endurance that leads to a significant spiritual awakening? The film cannot really play for both cynicism and inspiration. It would be extremely diffi-cult to dramatize an inner conversion, a growth of conscience and political involvement in any film. But it is impossible when another strain of the film—the desire to make the imprisonment look as dirty and gruesome as possible—is working directly against the conversion story. It is easy enough for Trumbo to write a few lines of dialogue in which Yakov asserts that a transformation has taken place, but film is a visual medium, and we believe what we see, not what we're told. A novel has an advantage in this respect because it can render the workings of consciousness. But the conversion motif was the book's biggest weakness too. Malamud tried to build the sense of Yakov's inner maturation through lengthy passages in which the fixer struggled with Spinoza, History, and Necessity or spoke sociology with a fantasized czar. These were the worst pieces of writing in the novel, because they did not belong to the consciousness of an ignorant handyman but were imposed from without, and written, besides, with all of the gassy awkwardness that usually overwhelms an artist when he wants to prove that he is also a philosopher. These monologues are luckily missing from the film, but nothing is there to replace them. Frankenheimer has been unable to find a way of visualizing an intellectual conversion, and so that conversion seems, as in the novel, merely a sop to the audience—a flimsy rationalization for all of the morbidity. Malamud and Trumbo and Frankenheimer piously raise their eyes to heaven at The Fixer's finale; our eyes, unfortunately, are still on the shit on the prison floor.
What destroys the film is that Frankenheimer, fascinated by images of extreme suffering, cannot quite explore that obsession because he is burdened with Malamud's, and Trumbo's, and undoubtedly his own social pretensions. In a strange way I would have more respect for the film if it were a relentless, grotesque, hysterical study of confinement—in other words, more sadistic—because then the film would be truer to Frankenheimer's personal vision of oppression; and only this kind of intense personal document, even if shrill and overwrought, could unsettle us by touching on the unspoken terrors that we are share. But the film is too "tasteful", too "responsible" to abandon its flat message about political commitment for fullscale cinema of cruelty. That is The Fixer is not quite harrowing enough to involve us deeply, not quite cruel enough to be invigorating; it is just cruel enough, basted with unctuous moral fervor, to be unpleasant and offensive.
I have written about the film at this length partly because I dislike it, but also because I admire Frankenheimer and am concerned about his career. Even in The Fixer there are sequences that show unmistakable cinematic talent—the violently edited pogrom at the start of the film, a tense scene in which an old Hassid guiltily, embarrassedly eats a piece of matzo in Yakov's room, the startling cut from dark prison cell to the brightly lit palace of the minister of justice or, later, to the open air of Yakov's village as he escapes in a moment of fantasy. Frankenheimer does beautiful things with editing, and he can make just the sudden appearance of sunlight very moving. But like most American directors, Frankenheimer is at a tremendous disadvantage, in comparison with European directors, because he does not write his own scripts. He is at the mercy of other men's ideas. And he is all too susceptible to the Socially Significant theme, as he has already demonstrated in The Young Savages and Seven Days in May. The careers of our talented directors are likely to be crippled because they are rarely given complete freedom to explore themes that concern them; they rarely have an opportunity to experiment or to grow. They must buy best-sellers, and work from scripts by men whose concerns may be subtly different from their own. It is little wonder that so many American films are so messy. Of course some of the mess in The Fixer can be attributed to Frankenheimer's own uncertainties. It may be a personal desire to imagine the victim's triumph over tyranny that leads him to put so much false emphasis on Yakov Bok's internal transformation. The Fixer is not the first of his films to have an uplifting ending. (It may not be irrelevant that his two best films, The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds, are tragedies.) But the commercial system in which American films are made—the stress on properties from other media, the hostility between the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild, the pressure to make large statements that can make millions quiver—places an unnatural burden on the creative artist. Any artist may fail because of his own confusions; but the artist-in-Hollywood has to reckon with the confusions of too many other people. The Fixer represents a particularly sad example of what the outcome is likely to be.
Source: Stephen Farber, in a review in Hudson Review, Vol. XXII, 1969, pp. 134-38.
In the following essay, Hicks presents Malamud's The Fixer as a work containing literary greatness, dealing with a man who suffered injustice and who learned both to endure and to resist.
If I say, as I am prepared to do, that Bernard Malamud's The Fixer is one of the finest novels of the postwar period, I don't see how there can be much argument. If, however, I go on to agree with the publishers that it is a "great" novel, I may be in semantic difficulties. Recently I asserted that there is greatness in John Barth's Giles Goat-boy, which I believe to be true. Robert Scholes, on the other hand, writing in the New York Times Book Review, admitted of no qualification; he said flatly that it is "a great novel." He made a good case, too, but at the end he brought in an argument that I found disturbing. Barth's audience, he said, "must be that same audience whose capacities have been extended and prepared by [James] Joyce, [Marcel] Proust, [Thomas] Mann, and [William] Faulkner." He continued: "For some time we have been wondering what to do with the training given us by those giants of modern fiction, wondering whether we were really meant to expend our hard-earned responsiveness on such estimable but unexciting writers as C. P. Snow and Saul Bellow. The answer now seems clear. The difference between competence and genius can hardly be made clearer. And Barth is a comic genius of the highest order".
Who are the "we" who have been wondering? Mr. Scholes, I gather, and probably other academic critics. This calls to mind what Bellow said in his address to the recent International Congress of the P.E.N. Club. He complained that various critics in university posts had laid hold of the avant-garde heroes of an earlier generation, using their work to set a standard by which contemporary writers could be judged and condemned. In the version I read, in the Times Book Review, Bellow's argument wasn't completely clear, but I think I understand at least part of what he was saying. When Scholes calls Snow "estimable but unexciting," I can follow him, for Snow has deliberately adopted old-fashioned techniques, and the wonder is that he has managed to do as much with them as he has. But Bellow has constantly experimented with the form of the novel and has developed a powerful style that is peculiarly his. Bracketing Snow and Bellow tell us nothing about Barth—though something about Scholes.
What I am saying, of course, is what I have said before that there are more kinds than one of literary merit and even greatness. I think Giles Goat-Boy and The Fixer are both unusually good and unusually important novels, though they have little in common except their excellence. Malamud has told a straightforward story in language of the greatest austerity. Although he began his literary career with a novel based on myth, The Natural, and has often introduced elements of fantasy in his short stories, The Fixer is realistic in the most precise sense of that term. But the story is told so purely and with such power that it has the large meanings—what some people call the "universal" meanings—of legend.
Malamud tells about a Jewish handyman who was arrested in Kiev in 1911, was charged with having committed a ritual murder, and suffered greatly for more than two years before being tried. To begin with, before I had read the book, I wondered why Malamud should expect his readers to be concerned about what happened to this one Jew half a century ago, in view of what had happened to six million Jews during the Second World War. It did not take me long to realize that Malamud had deliberately set himself this problem. Six million was a figure, but a man was a man. If he could tell this story well enough, he must have decided, this one unprepossessing man, this Yakov Bok, could represent not only the martyrs of Belsen and Auschwitz but all victims of man's inhumanity. We the readers could be made to feel for this one man what we could not possibly feel for the six million.
Malamud has written: "After my last novel I was sniffing for an idea in the direction of injustice on the American scene, partly for obvious reasons—this was a time of revolutionary advances in Negro rights—and partly because I became involved with this theme in a way that sets off my imagination in terms of art." He thought of civil rights workers in the South, of Sacco and Vanzetti, of Dreyfus, of Caryl Chessman, and then he remembered Mendel Beiliss, about whom his father had told him, and something happened. "In The Fixer," he explains, "I use some of his [Mendel Beiliss's] experiences, though not, basically, the man, partly because his life came to less than he paid for by his suffering and endurance, and because I had to have room to invent. To his trials in prison I added something of Dreyfus's and Vanzetti's, shaping the whole to suggest the quality of the afflictions of the Jews under Hitler. These I dumped on the head of poor Yakov Bok…. So a novel that began as an idea concerned with injustice in America today has become one set in Russia fifty years ago, dealing with anti-Semitism there. Injustice is injustice."
Yakov Bok is nobody but Yakov Bok, and he is one of the most fully rendered characters in mod-ern literature. An odd-job man, a Jack-of-all-trades, a fixer, he lives in a small Jewish community near Kiev. His wife, by whom he has had no children, has deserted him, and he finally makes a deal with her father and sets out for the city with the latter's horse and wagon. He is poor, proud, and bitter, with a fine sardonic wit. When his father-in-law tells him that, in going to the city, he is looking for trouble, he replies, "I've never had to look." When his wagon collapses, he asks, "Who invented my life?" Although he has had almost no formal education, he has read Spinoza and tried to understand him, and he calls himself a freethinker.
Even before he has reached Kiev, Yakov has encountered a violently anti-Semitic ferryman, and from the first he feels the hostility of the city. Bitter as he is, however, he has compassion for mankind, and when he sees a drunken Russian dying in the snow, he rescues him even though the man wears the badge of the Jew-hating Black Hundreds. Nikola Maximovitch, though he would exterminate the Jews, is capable of crying over the death of a dog, and he wants to reward his benefactor, whom he does not know to be Jewish. Thus Yakov is given a job, which he badly needs, in a brickyard. Because he is living in a district forbidden to most Jews, he is ill at ease, but he has to have money to live on.
When he is arrested, Yakov assumes that he is to be punished for some minor offense, and it takes him a while to grasp the horrible nature of the charge against him. Only when he is confronted with the witnesses for the prosecution, mostly men and women who are using anti-Semitic prejudice to conceal their own crimes, does he realize that he is the victim of a monstrous conspiracy. And he asks, as who wouldn't, why me?
Because the prosecution's case is so weak, Yakov's trial is postponed for two years, during which time his miseries multiply. Lodged in filth, never adequately fed, bowed down with disease, given little or nothing with which to occupy his mind, systematically tortured by the guards, finally chained to the wall of his cell, he endures such suffering as the reader is loath to contemplate. But Malamud, without sensationalism, without high-pitched emotionalism, makes us feel what we would prefer not to feel. Having himself fully entered into Yakov's ordeals in an extraordinary feat of empathy, he forces us to go at least some distance with him.
One of the ways in which Malamud compels realization of Yakov's suffering is to let him compare present with past. The life in the shtetl, which had once seemed to him poisonously narrow and dull, now takes on an idyllic aspect: "You can smell the grass and the flowers and look at the girls, if one or two happen to be passing by along the road. You can also do a day's work if there's work to do. Today there's a little carpentering job. You work up a sweat sawing wood apart and hammering it together. When it's time to eat you open up your food parcel—not bad. The thing about food is to have it when you want it. A hard-boiled egg with a pinch of salt is delicious. Also some sour cream with a cut-up potato. If you dip bread into fresh milk and suck before swallowing, it tastes like a feast…. After all, you're alive and free. Even if you're not so free, you think you are".
But later the miseries that made Yakov's pre-Kiev life appear a paradise come to seem a kind of happiness: "Yakov thought how it used to be before he was chained to the wall. He remembered sweeping the floor with the birch broom. He remembered reading Zhitnyak's gospels, and the Old Testament pages…. He thought of being able to urinate without having to call the guards; and of only two searches a day instead of a terrifying six. He thought of lying down on the straw mattress any time he wanted to; but now he could not even lie down on the wooden bed except when they released him to…. Yakov thought he would be glad if things went back to how they had once been. He wished he had enjoyed the bit of comfort, in a way of freedom, he had then".
Throughout the days and months and years of pain and despair, Yakov faces two temptations. What the anti-Semites in the government, from Czar Nicholas down, want to prove is that ritual murder is an essential part of the Jewish religion and that therefore all persecutions of the Jews are justified. More than once they promise Yakov that if he will testify that the boy was murdered by Jews for reasons of ritual, he himself will be treated leniently. Although he has never felt close to the Jewish community and has rejected the Jewish faith, he refuses to lend himself to so evil a conspiracy, even when his wife is sent to his cell with a confession for him to sign.
The other temptation is suicide. The idea inevitably occurs to him as soon as he understands the power of the forces drawn up against him. When the one Russian official who has shown a rudimentary sense of decency in his dealings with Yakov is framed because of that fact and sent to Yakov's prison, where he hangs himself, the poor persecuted Jew thinks of following his example. But he realizes that suicide would also be a betrayal of millions of people. "He's half a Jew himself, yet enough of one to protect them. After all, he knows the people; and he believes in their right to be Jews and to live in the world like men. He is against those who are against them. He will protect them to the extent that he can". "I'll live", he cries out in his cell, "I'll wait, I'll come to my trial".
All that he has endured has strengthened Yakov. Always a thinker in his uneducated way, he has recognized his historic role and, though he laments its being forced on him, he accepts it. "We're all in history", he thinks, "that's sure, but some are more than others, Jews more than some". As skeptical as ever about the existence of God, he believes that it is incumbent on men to stand for what they believe. Although in some ways more tolerant, for instance of his wife, he has not become saintly: "I'm not the same man I was. I fear less and hate more".
The climax of the novel comes in an imaginary dialogue between Yakov and the Czar. After describing his own misfortune, the latter says, "Surely it [suffering] has taught you the meaning of mercy"? Yakov replies, "Excuse me, Your Majesty, but what suffering has taught me is the uselessness of suffering, if you don't mind me saying so." He reminds the Czar of his failures as a ruler: "You had your chances and pissed them away. There's no argument against that. It's not easy to twist events by the tail but you might have done something for a better life for us all—for the future of Russia, one might say, but you didn't". While a carriage brings him closer to his trial, Yakov thinks: "As for history, there are ways to reverse it. What the Czar deserves is a bullet in the gut. Better him than us". "One thing I've learned, he thought, there's no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew. You can't be one without the other, that's clear enough. You can't sit still and see yourself destroyed". There the book ends, and, when one remembers what was in Malamud's mind when it was conceived, rightly ends. Yakov has learned not merely to endure, If I may use William Faulkner's favorite word, but also to resist.
Source: Granville Hicks, "One Man to Stand for Six Million," in Saturday Review, September 10, 1966, pp. 37-39.
Dorothy Seidman Bilek, "Malamud's Secular Saints and Comic Jobs," Immigrant-Survivors: Post-Holocaust Consciousness in Recent Jewish American Fiction, Wesleyian University Press, 1981, pp. 53-80.
Alan Warren Friedman, "The Hero as Schnook," Bernard Malamud and the Critics, edited with an introduction by Leslie A. Field and Joyce W. Field, New York University Press, 1970.
Sheldon J. Hershinow, Bernard Malamud, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980.
Gerald Hoag, "Malamud's Trial: The Fixer and the Critics," Western Humanities Review, Winter, 1970, pp. 1-12.
Sidney Richman, Bernard Malamud, Twayne Publishers, 1966.
Salo Wittemayer Baron, The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets, MacMillan, 1976.
This highly regarded book is out of print but still on the shelves of many school libraries.
Joel Carmichael, The Satanizing of the Jews: Origin and Development of Mystical Anti-Semitism, Fromm International, 1993.
This book examines the history behind the attitude that allowed the population of Kiev to be stirred up against Yakov and made them believe that, because of his religion, he would have perpetuated a ritualistic bloodletting.
Simon Dubnow, History of the Jews, 4th definitive revised edition, T. Yoseloff, 1973.
Dubnow is a greatly respected Jewish historian, and this work, originally published in Russian, contains the bulk of his life's work.
Robert Ducharme, Art and Idea in the Novels of Bernard Malamud: Toward The Fixer, Mouton Publisher, 1974.
One of the most thorough scholarly books written about The Fixer, examining it from all possible angles.
Charles Y. Glock and Rodney Stark, Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism, Harper and Row, 1966.
This book, published the same year as The Fixer, is part of a study that was being conducted by the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'rith, a Jewish service organization.
A.S. Tager, The Decay of Czarism: The Beilis Trial, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1935.
This early history of the Mendel Beilis affair was written when the Soviet Union was still young and old bitterness still seethed.