Commentary Magazine


The Master's Ring

When the New York Times reported the death last year of Malcolm Gaynor, the literary biographer, at ninety-one, it made mention of the ring. A large green stone in a gold setting, it had lain on Malcolm’s wedding-ring finger the day he came to Chicago to speak to the members of the Institute for Psychoanalysis. I thought it a touch gaudy for his otherwise understated manner, but I did not then know to whom it had originally belonged: the Master, the great American novelist who was the subject of the splendid three-volume work that had made Malcolm’s reputation and given him his small but quite real claim to a place in literary history.

I did not really know Malcolm all that well, having met him for the first time on that day in Chicago. Afterward we corresponded a fair amount, and I reviewed the second and third volumes of his biography, praising it and holding back my reservations, which chiefly centered on his rather heavy psychoanalyzing of his subject. I assumed he found me an agreeable enough younger man—there were more than 30 years between us—if not a brother under the skin, the two of us upholding the torch of literature in a mildly depraved and sadly deprecatory age.

I sensed but wasn’t altogether certain that Malcolm was Jewish. He carried himself—how should I say?—rather tweedily, like an academic of the bad old days, the days when, frankly, types like Malcolm and me were not wanted in English departments. Only subsequently did I learn that, at some point in the 1930′s, he had changed his name from Max Goldstein. As a young journalist, he had had a Communist phase, and I suspected—wrongly, as it would turn out—that it had been in order to improve his chances in the party that he chose an Anglicized name. But the change would have served him well even after he left the party, especially during his years in Paris when his interests had turned literary and he met such figures as James Joyce and Edith Wharton, and later still when he encountered—and briefly became the amanuensis of—Bernard Berenson. Berenson too was a Jew, which didn’t prevent him from being a bit of an anti-Semite, anti-Semitism being never so subtle as when wielded by one who has suffered at its hands.

Certainly Malcolm Gaynor stood a better chance of insinuating himself with the Master’s descendants, now among the most distingué of American families, than Max Goldstein. And insinuate himself Malcolm did. The family gave him permission to inspect all the Master’s papers and, eventually, the right to edit his letters and notebooks. Malcolm, as they used to say about the guy with sole rights to a concession at the fairgrounds, had the X on the Master. Just as, for Lawrence of Arabia, the only way to Aqaba lay through the desert, so the only way to the Master lay through Malcolm; and, for his own good reasons, Malcolm did not trouble to smooth that way for other scholars.

A great theme of the Master’s fiction is the dominance of one human being over another. Malcolm dominated the dead Master. But he also needed him. Writing about him made Malcolm a better biographer and a keener and more penetrating critic than he would otherwise have been. Seven or eight years before he died, Malcolm produced a small book on the pre-Raphaelite writers and painters: thin, snobbish, superfluous stuff. Somehow, the Master lent him authority and gravity—without him, Malcolm was merely one more, rather dim, academic biographer.

Still another of the Master’s great themes, playing through nearly all his works, is betrayal. Malcolm’s sympathy for the Master was complete, yet he interpreted him through a Freudian filter that, my guess is, the Master himself would have found not just inadequate but utterly, really quite hideously, coarse. All artists despise Freud, or at least they should, for behind all great art is an unannounced protest against the overdetermination of character in which Freud, genius though he was, may be said to have specialized. Malcolm was not an artist; he was a critic and a scholar, and he had to use the tools at hand. But the Master, a consummate artist, would have found these tools woefully crude, if not, indeed, traitorous.

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But I began by invoking the Master’s ring, which the New York Times duly touched upon in its obituary. I don’t know how Malcolm came into possession of it. Perhaps he found it in a drawer in the old house in Sussex where the Master, having left London, spent the last years of his life before and during World War I; or possibly it was among the papers and final effects kept by his family after his death. But as soon as I read about the ring, I knew I wanted to own it. And the more I thought about it, the more deeply, urgently, passionately I wanted it.

My life is not really about material possessions. I’ve craved a few things, but none of them has been all that difficult to obtain. One was a gold Dunhill lighter that, selling for $40 or so, seemed to me, in my early twenties, a very great extravagance. For the better part of a month I was hardly able to think of anything else, and I finally bought the thing if only to get my mind back on my work. Much later I underwent a similar craving for a German fountain pen, a $300 Pelikan, and once again the only way to calm myself was to walk in and buy it, silly self-indulgence that it was. These little tales may make me seem trivial, but I hope they also reveal my honesty about a possibly pathetic but not completely disqualifying weakness.

As for the ring, the ring with its large green stone and gold setting, the ring worn by the Master, I found myself thinking about it at odd but insistent moments: standing in the shower, at meals, in the midst of teaching one of my classes at the University of Michigan or while working on wholly unrelated matters, after and sometimes even during lovemaking. How elegant that ring would look on the fourth finger of my right hand! The gold, as I remembered, was dull and only lightly burnished. (“I can stand a great deal of gold,” wrote the Master, who had vainly hoped to acquire enough of it to remove the financial pressure from writing.) The Master’s ring—-why shouldn’t I have it? It oughtn’t be allowed to sit in a vault, or even in a glass case in a museum. Besides, I knew the Master’s mind and loved his work as much as anyone, and especially now that Malcolm Gaynor, the only man who knew the Master better, was dead, I felt I deserved it.

I decided to write to Malcolm’s widow in San Francisco, where Malcolm had retired to write memoirs that he never completed. This was a second, late-life marriage; in his mid-seventies, he had left a wife of many years to marry a younger woman. Was she a former student? A younger faculty member? A connection of Malcolm’s through the psychiatric and therapeutic world—the shrinkoisie, as I thought of them? I had no idea. I wrote to her cold, noting that I would be in San Francisco in a few weeks to attend a meeting of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. As an old admirer and correspondent of her late husband’s, I wondered if I might perhaps take her to lunch or meet her for an afternoon drink.

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We met in the ornate lobby of the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill, where, off in the corner, they did an English tea. I had assumed that, like Malcolm, Angela Gaynor would be an Anglophile. I was wrong. As it emerged, nothing I had assumed about her was true. She was younger than I, perhaps in her early fifties; tallish (Malcolm had been 5′4” at best and, with his carefully groomed white mustache and bald pate, looked rather like the Esquire man); elegant, without a trace of the dreary style of academic women; blonde with eyes of almost periwinkle blue; and still quite striking—“stunning,” the women of my mother’s generation would have called her.

“You must be Professor Shapiro,” she said as she approached, holding out a long-fingered hand. She was wearing dark blue trousers, an azure-colored silk shirt, no jewelry other than small gold earrings and a plain gold bracelet. Her hair was cut short. She had the high cheekbones and clean smile of a well-born, well-cared-for woman of means.

“It’s very good to meet you,” I said, directing her to where I had reserved a table. “You must know San Francisco well.”

“I love it,” she said as we were seated. “Malcolm agreed to move here, to finish out his career at Berkeley, because of me.”

“Was he spending most of his time on his memoirs?”

“Yes, but for the past two or three years his energy was so depleted that he couldn’t give them much time. The sadness of his last years came from knowing he wasn’t likely to finish his final project.”

“How large is the manuscript?”

“That’s the problem. It’s more than 400 pages, and it only takes him up to his twenties, the years he lived in France.”

“Maybe parts of it,” I said, “could be cut out and published as discrete pieces. I wonder if you’d mind my looking at it.”

“Not at all,” she said. “You’d know better than I. I’m not very literary. Malcolm used to be amused at the things I hadn’t read. But then I didn’t grow up in a bookish home.”

“The Master writes somewhere that ‘women aren’t literary in any substantial sense of the term,’ implying, I think, that they’re rather more attractive when not.”

“I’ll try to remember that. My parents lived in Libertyville, outside Chicago. My father was a vice president of Prudential, and I suppose we were pretty outdoorsy. They died in a plane accident in India, on an around-the-world tour, when I was twenty.”

I remembered Libertyville as the home of Adlai Stevenson. Very horsy. Very rich. No Jews in those days. What must her parents, if they had been alive, have thought of their daughter’s marriage to the former Max Goldstein? What did she see in him, I wondered?

“How did you and Malcolm meet, if I may ask?”

“At a lecture series where he was speaking on Jung and D. H. Lawrence. I didn’t really care about either. I was with a friend who was a graduate student and was very big on Lawrence. Malcolm was dazzling. I’d never met anyone who seemed on such easy terms with culture—all of culture. The therapists in the room were in awe of him. We met at the reception afterward. What he saw in me, I’ll never know.”

I thought it unnecessary to reply. The remainder of our meeting went smoothly enough, and we made a date for the following morning at her house where she would show me Malcolm’s manuscript and other papers.

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It was one of those mornings—sunny, in the low 70′s, a light breeze blowing off the bay—when not to live in San Francisco seemed an act of genuine stupidity. I was a bit early, so I got out of my cab three blocks away and walked to Angela Gaynor’s house on Larkin Street near the top of Russian Hill. No one I passed appeared to be over thirty, and everyone was beautiful.

From the outside the house seemed modest enough, but indoors it was impressively Italianate, Venetian without the surrounding water or tourists: high ceilings, lots of good dark wood, arched entranceways. Turkey rugs, as the Master’s generation called Oriental rugs, were nicely positioned in the rooms I passed through. Tapestries rather than paintings hung on the walls. I counted four small Degas bronzes, all of dancers, whether real or copies I did not know enough to say, but I would have been willing to bet they were real.

One could see the Master himself living comfortably here, as Malcolm could hardly have failed to note. It was here that he completed the final volume of his edition of the Master’s letters, wearing, no doubt, the ring with the green stone as he put the last period to this monumental work. Gazing about, I pondered again the extent of Malcolm’s own identification with the “great indefatigable alchemist,” as a poet once described this most subtle of modern novelists. And was Malcolm’s, I also began to wonder, a story that the Master himself ought to have written?

Angela Gaynor was in every way up to the beauty of the day and the grandeur of her house. She was in sandals and wore a loose skirt of a creamy taupe that swished and swirled wonderfully as she moved about. Her otherwise mannish shirt, collar-less and of a soft blue, played nicely against the color of her eyes, and her hair was brushed back, emphasizing her good bones and high color. I could easily imagine her a hundred years earlier in a large hat and a light dress on the lawn of an English estate, at one of those aristocratic parties of which the Master never seemed to tire. The two most beautiful words in the English language, he once said, were “summer afternoon.” Angela Gaynor looked like a summer afternoon.

“Professor Shapiro, I’ve thought further about your offer to read my husband’s unfinished memoir. I think Malcolm would have been pleased.” She ushered me into a large room from which one could see the bay. “This was my husband’s study.”

The room looked strangely familiar: the colors of the upholstery and rugs, the wall hangings, the furniture, the impressive arched window. And then it dawned on me—it was a very careful reconstruction of the Master’s garden room at his house in Sussex. The placement of the large glass bookcase, the desk against the wall, the small table and vases under the window, all were just as the Master had arranged them. The same du Maurier print hung on the wall. Even the escritoire with its fold-out writing surface where the Master composed his letters was perfectly duplicated here. It was a trifle eerie; perhaps more than a trifle.

From a lower drawer in the escritoire Angela Gaynor now removed an ample brown folder tied by a thick black ribbon. “Malcolm’s memoirs,” she said. “He had another copy made before he died, but I’d be grateful if you would return this one to me before you leave San Francisco.”

“With pleasure,” I said. And then I added, with, I hoped, the suggestion of an afterthought: “Whatever became of the Master’s ring, which I remember your husband wearing?”

“Malcolm loved that ring. He would have wanted to be buried with it if he hadn’t decided to be cremated. I took it to Sotheby’s after his death. It wasn’t worth even a thousand dollars. A great writer apparently doesn’t command the prices of a Liberace or a Marilyn Monroe. Would you like to see it?”

“Yes,” I said, trying to show no emotion. “Yes, I would, actually.”

From another drawer she extracted a leather box. Along with the ring, it held a small silver container.

“It’s a stamp box, a gift from the Master—forgive me, I seem to have picked up Malcolm’s habit of addressing him that way—to that American woman novelist, the descendant of James Fenimore Cooper, I forget her name. I gather people now think she killed herself because of his coldness to her.”

“Constance Fenimore Woolson. What did Malcolm think?”

“I don’t know, but my guess is that he wouldn’t have believed it. For Malcolm the Master could do no wrong, especially in the line of thoughtfulness.”

She handed me the ring. The gold was dull, just as I remembered, but it was heavier than I would have guessed, with the flat green stone running across the top. I balanced it in the palm of my hand. It had a splendid heft.

“Do you mind if I slip it on?”

“Of course not,” she said.

The fit, on the fourth finger of my right hand, was perfect. Odd: the Master was a man of a certain bulk—he looked, several people noted, more like a sea captain than a novelist—yet his fingers must have been fairly thin if this ring could sit so snuggly on my own rather slender hand. Perhaps spinning out those fine discriminations over five decades had kept his hands thin. I felt no talismanic magic from having the ring on my finger, but I also didn’t want to return it.

It would be a mistake, I sensed, to offer to buy it. But neither could I ask Angela Gaynor if she had plans for its disposition. Instead, I decided right there that I would have to devise a way to inveigle it from her. To be truthful, I suppose I had intended to do so from the start. My first thought was to ingratiate myself so thoroughly that it would naturally occur to her to offer it to me. Then again I might have to come up with something more devious. Whatever it took, I felt I was up to the task.

“I envy you possession of this ring,” I said, slipping it off my finger and returning it to her hand. “I hope some day you’ll find a proper repository for it.”

“Perhaps you can help me think where,” she said.

“That would be nice. But now let me take Malcolm’s memoir, which I’m very eager to read. I’ll report back to you in a few days.”

At the door, as we shook hands, she thanked me yet again for spending time on her husband’s work.

“Please,” I said. “After all, Malcolm and I belonged to the same club.” And then I quoted to her a characteristic sentence from one of the Master’s stories that I had by heart: “ ‘We’re a numerous band, partakers of the same repose, who sit together in the shade of the tree, by the plash of the fountain, with the glare of the desert round us and no great vice that I know but the habit perhaps of estimating people a little too much by what they think of a certain style.’ ”

“I’m afraid I don’t know that sentence, but I’m sure Malcolm would have.”

“Beyond doubt,” I said. “But then Malcolm and I, as I say, belonged to the same club. The madness of art, or at least the madness of the worship of art, and all that. You may be better off without it.”

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Back at the Huntington Hotel, with clean San Francisco light coming in the windows of my corner room, I slipped Malcolm Gaynor’s large manuscript out of its manila envelope, ordered lunch from room service—a hamburger and a half-bottle of white wine and a carafe of coffee, $62 with tip—and began to read. I finished at eleven that evening, amazed at how far Malcolm had gone not only in reinventing himself (in the current cant phrase) but in convincing himself of the reality of his invention.

The memoir was written in a style all too reminiscent of the Master’s last, major phase, with long looping circumambient sentences laden with a heavy cargo of subordinate clauses and qualifying phrases. This elaborate style allowed Malcolm nicely to bury Max Goldstein and all his Jewish ancestors. In the memoir, he became a man of the world, a European if of no known country, a flâneur coming out of nowhere, a disembodied sensibility wandering among the cultural monuments and literature of the West. Nothing was said of Malcolm’s difficult years as the son of Jewish parents—his father, I was later to learn, had been a tailor—growing up on Notre Dame Street in Montreal; next to nothing about his days as a left-wing journalist, working for PM, the New York daily, covering strikes in New England; about his first wife, Marsha (née Mutchnik), not a word. A more complete job of erasure could scarcely be imagined.

What, I asked myself, was going on? Was it from the Master that Malcolm derived the need to eliminate Max? Implicit in reading every great author is the question of what he, the writer, would think of me, his reader. Did Malcolm sense that Max would never pass muster with the Master? (Muster with the Master. “I’m coming over from Dover,” the Master once wrote in a letter to a friend, adding, “Over from Dover—what a language!”) A case could be made that the Master was an anti-Semite—not a major-league one, perhaps, but a player nonetheless. In one of his famous stories, a family of social climbers are described thus: “as good-natured as Jews before clothing-shops.” Although he took the right line on the Dreyfus Affair, when he returned to the United States in 1904 after a long separation the Master did not hesitate to express his fear that the hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants now crowding New York would defile the purity of his beloved English language. Malcolm’s—my—ancestors could have been among those immigrants.

Almost all my cultural heroes, it now occurred to me, bore the stain of Jew-hating, if not Jew-baiting. Working backward, there was T S. Eliot, with his wretched lower-case jew squatting on the window sill, his Bleistein with the cigar; Virginia Woolf, who kept a cold spot in her heart for just about every Jew she ever met, despite having married one; Oscar Wilde, who, being cared for on his deathbed by his devoted friend Reggie Turner, at one point expostulated, “There, there, that will do, my little Jew”; Dickens, with his altogether too vivid figure of Fagin; then Edward Gibbon, who reports the murder of the 14th-century Roman leader Cola di Rienzi, his dead body abandoned outside the gates of Rome “to the dogs, to the Jews, and to the flames.” And loop back to Shakespeare, the main man—the Franchise, as a black student of mine once referred to him in class—who gave us Shy-lock, the deadliest portrayal of a Jew yet.

What did we Jewish academics know of such men? For that matter, what could the various Howes, Kazins, Levins, Ellmanns, Blooms, Kaplans, Gaynor-Goldsteins, and others really know about Melville, Adams, Twain, Hardy, Joyce, Emerson, Lawrence, and the rest? We could make them seem more familiar, put them through our own dramas of alienation, anticapitalism, Freudianism, and other intellectual dipsy-doos, but was this to understand them, or was it to turn them into a species of Jews themselves?

As for Malcolm’s memoir, which toward the middle I began to skim, it was, as his wife suggested, too far from complete to be published as a book. But maybe I could get a portion or two of it run in, say, the Virginia Quarterly or the Georgia Review, where I had connections. I would report this to Angela Gaynor, hoping to soften her up a bit as part of my campaign to part her from the Master’s ring.

That night, having fallen asleep with the television on, I had one of my infrequent dreams about losing teeth. But this time, instead of my own teeth coming loose, the Master’s green ring fell from my mouth, in multiple copies. What were they doing there, I wondered, and why hadn’t I choked on them? I awoke in a sweat, turned off the television set—it was 2:38 on the bedside digital clock—and managed to get back to sleep.

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“I have to be candid,” I said to Angela the next morning on the patio. “I don’t think there’s a market for Malcolm’s memoirs as a book. I do think, though, that I can arrange to cut out a section or two that might interest a few literary magazines. There won’t be much money, but it will keep your husband’s name before the public.”

“That’s fine with me,” she said. “Malcolm named me as his literary executor, and I’m not sure, really, what my responsibilities are.”

“I’d say they include doing all you can to protect his reputation, promote his work, and see that no one rips you off by using his writing without an acknowledgment or a fee.”

“You make it sound so easy. To someone as deep in the woods as I am, it’s very confusing. Do you suppose I could call on you for help from time to time?” She was wearing a salmon-colored blouse that did fine things for her skin, and she seemed even more fetching when asking for help. Her posture, sitting on a metal ice-cream chair, was perfect, her hands exquisite, the fingers long and perfectly formed, her nails bearing a coat of clear polish. She wore a small round watch with a leather strap, and was utterly at ease in the world. Old Malcolm must have taken the keenest pleasure just in gazing upon her.

“Of course,” I said. “I’ll be happy to help in any way you wish. Whenever you feel troubled about anything to do with any of this, pick up the phone and call.”

“I’m very grateful,” she said, looking genuinely appreciative. If we were in a story by Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, or Philip Roth, I thought, this was when I would make my move on the widow. I remember once discussing these writers in correspondence with Malcolm, who remarked, his Freudianism combining nicely with his Jewish self-hatred, that he assumed they’d all grown up in small, crowded apartments that provided a fertile ground for the development of Oedipal complexes, leaving them all a little sex-crazed.

“Oh, one other thing, Professor Shapiro.”

“Arnold, please.”

“Arnold. I’ve discovered some notebooks of Malcolm’s that go back a long way, to the early. 1930′s, actually. They have handwritten entries that I’ve tried to read but without much success. There are six of them. Do you have time?”

“I can make time, Mrs. Gaynor.”

“Angela,” she corrected me, with a smile.

When I left that morning I had under my arm Malcolm’s diary—six black-and-white student notebooks with thick, falsely marbleized covers.

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I began reading on the plane back to Detroit and finished the next morning in my office at Ann Arbor. Written in a small, not easily legible hand, they began in 1928, when Malcolm was twenty, and like the diaries and journals of many young men and women were much given to expressing anguish over the failure of the world to recognize their author’s genius. But in this case there was a difference: Malcolm intended to do something about it.

From these diaries I learned that Malcolm, or rather Max, had been the first person in his family to attend a university, and over his father’s objections (his mother goes unmentioned). Unlike the standard Jewish immigrant, eager to see his son advance in the new world through education, Oscar Goldstein preferred that Max not, in the words of the youthful diarist, “overstep himself.” Although he did not expect him to become a tailor, he foresaw something solid in retailing. What did a Jew need from literature?, the old man asked. The diary records harsh conversations between these two small unbending men (as I imagine them), neither giving an inch.

Max, determined to study what he wished, went to McGill, though he continued to live in the family’s two-bedroom apartment with his two sisters and an older brother. Since his father wouldn’t contribute a penny to his education, he worked long hours at odd jobs—as a milkman’s assistant, a bellboy at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, a woman’s shoe salesman. During his four years at McGill, he never once talked about his life at the university in his father’s presence.

It was the university that put paid to whatever ties Max retained to Judaism. They had never been very strong to begin with. The religion was a mystery to him, a dark and dampening one. Although the Goldsteins adhered to a Jewish diet, and lit candles on Friday night, there was no spiritual side to any of it, at least none that Max, reporting in his diary, could see. When he was a boy, his father had taken the family for a week’s holiday to a place called Kutenberg’s in the Laurentian mountains. Max, eight years old at the time, was fishing with baited hook and string at a small creek when he heard a frightful double-cackling sound, half beast, half human. Turning, he looked up the hill and saw an unshaven man in a yarmulke muttering a prayer before slitting the necks of chickens—one after another—and tossing them into the high grass where they would do a death cackle, some forcing themselves into a last apoplectic leap before expiring.

That, Max decided, was Judaism: scary and squalid, noisy and nauseating. The point of it all was lost on him—the more so since, as his diary also records, he had seen older Jews taunted and even kicked by French-Canadian boys. What he remembered from such scenes was a feeling of terror, terror at the thought that someday something similar could happen to him.

There was a small clutch of Jews at McGill in Max’s time, admitted on a strict quota. They felt pleased to be there even as they remained outside the main life of the university. Except for those intent on a career in law or medicine, they tended to be bohemian, left-wing, iconoclastic. They mocked Canada, their philistine, business-minded parents, religion, everything that passed for bourgeois. Max took up with this crowd, entered into its general outlook. He did very well at school, so well that he determined to do graduate study, possibly to teach afterward. Yet when he proposed the idea to Ian MacGregor, the professor with whom he had done a tutorial on Tennyson, the old gentleman crushed his hopes under the guise of candor. I quote from Max’s diary:

“Mr. Goldstein,” he said, “there is no question of your aptitude and affinity for the literature of England. But, I must be honest with you, I don’t think your services as a teacher of the subject are likely to be wanted. Leastways not in North America. Not for a man of your religious persuasion [Max had underlined the last word]. I don’t say it is fair, but it is the way it is, at any rate for the present, and not likely soon to change. I’d look for another way of going about things, if I were you, my boy.”

Not long after, Max committed this thought to his diary:

Anton Chekhov wrote that it is extremely difficult “to squeeze the slave out of oneself.” I must find a way to squeeze the Jew out of myself. Why be hobbled by the detractions implicit in a religion in which I neither believe nor to which I feel the least affinity? I must find a way out, and as soon as possible. I shall not breathe freely until I do.

Max was twenty-one when he wrote that. I don’t know his biography in sufficient detail to say when, precisely, he changed his name, but by the time I met him, his speech had become correct, careful, clipped, and his accent, which he had somehow made mid-Atlantic, betrayed nothing of his origins. I suspect that many people took him for an Englishman, which is to say, a Gentile to the highest power. By the time I knew him, he had thoroughly Malcolmized himself.

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Reading these distraught diaries, I suppose I came to despise the life of Malcolm. Whatever one thought of the worship-of-art club, the club of Jewishness, especially in the 20th century, was one from which it seemed to me truly dishonorable to resign. Not that I was in a superior moral position here: although I wasn’t hiding my own Jewishness, I was greatly ignorant of my religion, and my own wife, the mother of my two daughters, wasn’t Jewish. So who was I to knock a twice-dead Max Goldstein for turning himself into Malcolm Gaynor?

And yet I did knock him, to myself at least, on that scoreboard we all keep to judge the way others we know have met life and its challenges. In discarding Max, Malcolm was posted on my scoreboard as a sellout. But then—I remonstrated with myself, going back and forth—into Jewishness Max/Malcolm had never really bought. Besides, so far as I knew, he had never denied he was Jewish; he just didn’t, so to speak, lead with it. He refashioned himself, did an ethnic makeover. What was it my business?, as my mother would have said.

My mother, it now occurred to me, was Malcolm’s exact contemporary, both having been born in 1908. Unlike him, however, she, without the least scintilla of literary or any other overlay of culture, was utterly untroubled in her Jewishness. The thought of trying to “pass” was beyond her imagining. She was, of course, vividly aware of the world’s anti-Semitism; we never went by a neighborhood, country club, or restaurant during my youth in Chicago without her noting whether it was or was not “restricted.” She had no real Jewish education, she was not synagogue-going, she did not keep kosher. But in every way she was perfectly, contentedly, really quite happily Jewish.

But then my mother also accepted the world as she found it, whereas the young Max Goldstein did not. For him, that world, so long as his place in it was that of a Jew, was a blight. Or, more precisely, his own Jewishness blighted Max’s world. And since, he figured, it was a blight easily enough removed, why not remove it? His ambitions, after all, were wider, higher, than my mother’s. They were ambitions upon which his Jewish birth was a drag—and a drag with no discernible purpose or meaning. Better to cut it loose.

Was that right, though? Where did it all begin, and where end? I thought of the ancestors of Spinoza, who had risked their lives to perform the rituals of prayer, diet, and circumcision about which Max/Malcolm Goldstein/Gaynor wished he’d never heard. And then I thought about that much greater number who had their lives taken away from them not for practicing these rituals themselves but because their ancestors had done so. I had never felt comfortable talking about the massacre of the Jews of Europe. It was too large, too gruesome; and besides, talking about it seemed to me to be drawing on a moral credit that wasn’t really mine to draw on. Yet, somehow, it, too, made resigning from this club into all the greater a betrayal. In a small but personally significant way, it let the bastards win, and that could not be permitted.

Had none of these things occurred to the young Max Goldstein? To be fair, he probably changed his name before the European massacre became an event in history. At some point in the late 1930′s, I would guess, he had turned Max into Malcolm, Goldstein into Gaynor. Was he relieved to feel the burden of his Jewishness fell from him? Did he sense that he could now soar into the universal empyrean? Did he feel joy? No one would ever know The diaries were blank on the subject. The mature Malcolm never wrote about Jewish writers, and apart from his interest in psychoanalysis he seemed successfully to have rinsed the Jew out of his prose style. Did he ever look back? Have any regrets? Was he a happier man without the heavy historical cargo of his ancestry? This, too, could not be known.

_____________

 

What I did know was that I owed a letter to Angela Gaynor. In it I said that I thought there might be some interest in her husband’s papers at the University of Tulsa, where they were buying up the papers of lots of American and English writers, sometimes paying extravagant sums. To judge from other purchases, they might offer $150,000 or so for Malcolm’s manuscripts and letters. I volunteered to contact the appropriate person.

As for the notebooks that I still had in my possession, these, I told Angela, could do her husband’s reputation no good. If I were she, I would burn them. I reminded her that the Master himself, in 1910, six years before his death, had a jolly little conflagration in the backyard of his house in which he put to flame what had been estimated as several thousand letters he wanted no one ever to see. If she had any questions about any of this, she was to call me back.

Four days later, as I came home from teaching an afternoon class, my wife told me that Mrs. Gaynor was on the phone. Without removing my jacket I picked up the telephone in the kitchen.

“Hello, Arnold,” she said. “Your letter arrived this morning. Very helpful.”

I imagined her in her Larkin Street palazzo, Malcolm’s grand lady of the summer afternoon.

“I’m glad, Angela,” I said. “Do you want me to contact Tulsa for you?”

“Please,” she said. “And about Malcolm’s notebooks? Do you still have them?”

“I do.”

“May I ask you to burn them for me?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Arnold, I can’t tell you how helpful all this has been to me. I’d like it very much if you would accept, as a token of your help and your friendship to Malcolm, the green ring you seemed to like so much.”

I hesitated. I swallowed. I heard myself say: “That is very kind of you, Angela, but I think I have to say no. That ring was Malcolm’s. He somehow earned it, and might even be said to have paid staggeringly high for it. I couldn’t wear it, or even have it around the house, thinking how much his devotion to the Master cost Malcolm. But I thank you, I thank you with all my heart.”

“I won’t press you,” she said. “But please know that I’m very grateful.”

“I’m even more grateful to you,” I said, realizing afterward that this remark could not possibly make sense to her.

That same afternoon, in the cool Michigan autumn, a mug of coffee in my hand, I went out to the backyard and placed Malcolm’s six notebooks in the wire trash basket near the grill. The pages burned easily, but the thick covers took a while and made a great deal of smoke. Standing there waiting, I had second thoughts about the ring. I still wanted it, though I also knew it was very important that I not have it. Watching the smoke curl into the air, poking at the fire, sipping my coffee, I thought of the Master. Had he been here just now, reading my mind with his characteristically astonishing percipience, he would no doubt smile, perhaps less than distinctly but, to adopt his own penchant for the adverbial, subtly, amusedly, ever so Cheshirely.

_____________

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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