Of the Jewish writers who dominated American fiction in the mid-1950s, Bernard Malamud, born on this day in Brooklyn in 1914, was perhaps the greatest voice. His writing is not riddled with cynicism or laced with overt sexuality, as can be the case in the work of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Instead, Malamud focused on the very vivid and universal lines between suffering and hope, guilt and redemption, limitation and desire while, as Joseph Epstein wrote for us in 1982, making his subject “the ethical import of being a Jew.”
Today Malamud is known mostly for a story that is without Jewish characters, however—his first novel, The Natural, which he wrote at age 38 and is not his best (or worst) work. (For reading on his decline as a writer, see the aforementioned Epstein article and this 2008 essay by Cheryl Miller.) Take an evening or two this week, though, to read some of his outstanding early short stories, many of them published first in COMMENTARY and later collected in what Epstein calls “the splendid literary house that is The Magic Barrel,” which won the National Book Award in 1958. Below, an excerpt from “Angel Levine” to whet your appetite:
Manischewitz, a tailor, in his fifty-first year suffered many reverses and indignities. Previously a man of comfortable means, he overnight lost all he had when his establishment caught fire, and, because a metal container of cleaning fluid exploded, burned to the ground. Although Manischewitz was insured, damage suits against him by two customers who had been seriously hurt in the flames deprived him of every penny he had collected. At almost the same time, his son, of much promise, was killed in the war, and his daughter, without a word of warning, married a worthless lout and disappeared with him, as if off the face of the earth. Thereafter Manischewitz became the victim of incessant excruciating backaches that knifed him over in pain, and he found himself unable to work even as a presser—the only job available to him—for more than an hour or two daily, because after that the pain from standing became maddening. His Leah, a good wife and mother, who had taken in washing, began before his eyes to waste away. Suffering marked shortness of breath, she at last became seriously ill and took to her bed. The doctor, a former customer of Manischewitz, who out of pity treated them, at first had difficulty diagnosing her ailment but later put it down as hardening of the arteries, at an advanced stage. He took Manischewitz aside, prescribed complete rest for her, and in whispers gave him to know there was little hope.
Here are more stories from The Magic Barrel that ran first in our pages, but make sure to get the book itself so you can relish the truly exceptional title story at the end: “Behold the Key,” “The Prison,” “The Loan,” and “The Bill.”