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Why Malamud Faded

In the days when American Jewish fiction was at the high-water mark of literary prestige, Bernard Malamud was universally acknowledged as one of its three leading figures (the other two being Saul Bellow and Philip Roth). From the mid-1950’s through the late 60’s, he was considered a master of the American short story, and taken with the utmost seriousness as a novelist. He received every major literary award in the United States, and achieved significant commercial success with his 1966 Pulitzer-prize-winning bestseller, The Fixer.

Four decades later, however, Malamud’s name is “fading, his readership and literary standing in danger of decline.” These are the words of Philip Davis, whose Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life* is the first full-scale biography of, in Davis’s estimation, a “major writer of the 20th century.” Davis is a sensitive and intelligent researcher, and his book is a valiant effort at reclamation; but he does not answer the central issue he raises: why would the work of a major writer be at such risk of disappearing?

Malamud is regarded today, if he is regarded at all, as a chronicler of a time long past—as, in Philip Roth’s cruel summary, “some quaint remnant of the Old World ghetto, an out-of-step folklorist pathetically oblivious of the currents of literature and society.” Whereas both Roth and Bellow set out to direct those same “currents of literature and society,” the writing that made Malamud’s reputation is, in this reading, essentially fabulist in nature, populated by Jewish characters over whom the rhythms that drove life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe still exercise an unmistakable power.

It is probably too facile to claim that Malamud’s reputation has suffered because he achieved his stature at the same time as Roth and Bellow, who similarly rose to prominence by writing for the same small magazines (including COMMENTARY) but who displayed a greater engagement with the present moment and a more colloquially gripping prose style. The contrast did not hurt Malamud at the time, and there would be no reason for it to injure his standing in retrospect. To the contrary, the timeless quality of Malamud’s storytelling might have helped it to endure longer than the more perishable social commentary of Roth and Bellow.

Was it, then, Malamud’s later work, ranked disappointing by many critics, that did fatal injury to his reputation? Davis argues that his last three novels—The Tenants (1971), Dubin’s Lives (1979), and God’s Grace (1982)—are in fact more interesting than they were given credit for upon publication. Perhaps so. In any case, an adverse judgment on Malamud’s final decade should not affect the status of his most successful and most admired work—including short stories as powerful as “The Magic Barrel,” “Idiots First,” and “Take Pity,” and novels as memorable as The Assistant (1957) and The Fixer.

So what does explain the decline in his standing? Perhaps the best way to address this question is by trying to isolate the moment at which Malamud went into eclipse. That would have been 1974, when Philip Roth published an essay in the New York Review of Books entitled “Imagining Jews.” The essay was a body blow, delivered by a vigorous writer just turned forty, to a “spiritual father” two decades older whose life had been immeasurably more difficult.

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“We need some sort of poverty in our lives, some sort of burden,” Malamud would tell aspiring writers. Born in Brooklyn in 1914 to a poor immigrant family, he had had more than his share of both. “It was not very good anywhere until the Depression,” he once ruefully joked; “then it was bad.”

Bernard’s father, Max, tended a failing grocery store. His mother, Bertha, suffered from schizophrenia. When the boy was thirteen, he found his mother lying on the floor, foaming at the mouth—an attempted suicide. She was sent away to a mental hospital, never to return home. On Mother’s Day 1929, she died. Malamud’s younger brother, Eugene, inherited their mother’s illness and had to be repeatedly hospitalized until his death of a heart attack at age fifty-five.

In 1932, Malamud started out at the City College of New York with the intention of eventually becoming a teacher. To his great embarrassment, he would flunk the qualifying exam twice. Through a friend, he landed a job as a clerk in Washington, D.C. If he finished his work by lunchtime, he could spend the rest of the afternoon writing what he called “mood pieces,” mostly fictional, for the Washington Post. They sold for only five dollars, but they gave Malamud hope. Soon, with luck, “the true writing life” would begin.

Meanwhile, against his father’s wishes, Malamud married an Italian Catholic, Ann de Chiara. A “nervous marriage,” it nevertheless gave order to a previously restless life. With Ann’s help, he found a job teaching composition at a small agricultural college in Oregon. Early in his time there he began to mine his childhood days in Brooklyn, writing “simple stories about simple people.” These tales of peddlers, bakers, and grocers soon found their way into the pages of little magazines. At thirty-eight, he published his first novel, a peculiar baseball fable called The Natural (1952), followed by The Assistant five years later.

When his collection of stories, The Magic Barrel, won the National Book Award in 1959, Malamud was finally established as a writer: “Now I join the sacred company,” he told Ann. In 1961, the year he took up a teaching position at the more prestigious Bennington College in Vermont, he brought out A New Life, a novel based on his experience in Oregon. Five years later he hit it big with The Fixer, a fictionalized account of the unjust imprisonment and trial of the Jewish factory worker Mendel Beilis in late-czarist Russia for the murder of a Christian boy.

His daughter Jenna remembers Malamud muttering to himself as he shaved, “Someday, I’m going to win.” But he never did—at least, not the Nobel Prize he hoped would be the crown of a distinguished career. When Saul Bellow won in 1976, Malamud ruefully wrote in his notebook, “21 October: Bellow gets Nobel Prize. I win $24.25 in poker.” He died a decade later after watching his two final novels greeted with indifference or outright scorn. He had also endured Philip Roth’s assault, compounded by Roth’s revival of his own flagging reputation with a short novel, The Ghost Writer (1979), about a younger author’s relationship with an older, slower writer so obviously based on Malamud that there seemed no need to rename him E.I. Lonoff.

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Roth’s essay of 1974, “Imagining Jews,” purports to be a defense of its author’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)—if any defense was necessary for a book that, as Roth himself notes, had sold over 400,000 copies upon its publication and made him a “celebrity.” But the actual subject of the essay was the battle for primacy between fathers and sons, between artists and their disciples, and between the individual and his community.

As a young writer, Roth explains, he found himself coming up against the expectations of his elders—both his actual and his literary elders—and their imaginings of what “a Jew” is or ought to be. His own early work, both the short stories collected in Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and the novel Portnoy’s Complaint, had been attacked as vulgar, low-minded, even anti-Semitic. With the attacks continuing into the 1970’s, Roth now looked back at his forebears, the Jewish writers who had come before him and had helped define what it meant to be Jewish in America.

The investigation would turn into an arraignment of both Bellow and Malamud. In their works, Roth locates what he sees as a concept of “ethical Jewhood”—the idea that Jews are or should be characterized by “righteousness and restraint,” in contrast to Gentiles who are characterized by appetite and desire. Fortunately for Bellow, or so Roth declares, this schema—the “good Jew” and the “bad goy”—forms only the “bare bones” of his work; his novels are “too ambiguous, too self-challenging . . . to be the vehicles of ethnic propaganda or comfort.”

Not so Malamud, however. In his work, Roth writes,

these tendencies are so sharply and schematically present as to give [his] novels the lineaments of moral allegory. For Malamud, generally speaking, the Jew is innocent, passive, virtuous, and this to the degree that he defines himself or is defined by others as a Jew; the Gentile, on the other hand, is characteristically corrupt, violent, and lustful, particularly when he enters a room or a store or a cell with a Jew in it.

In Malamud’s portraits of “victimized Jewish men,” Roth sees the valorization of Jewish weakness, the fetishizing of Jewish pain. Are there no Jews, he asks, who desire vengeance, who ever act against their better natures? Are there no Jews whose “secret desire” is “really to give way and be bad—or at the least, if [they] could manage it, worse?”

Compare, Roth suggests, Malamud’s 1957 novel The Assistant with Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” an essay published in the same year. The two works involve strikingly similar situations: the robbery and beating of an elderly shopkeeper by two masked hoodlums. For Mailer, the assailants are the heroes, bold men who have broken with convention and who “dar[e] the unknown.” In Malamud’s telling, it is the shopkeeper, the powerless Jewish grocer Morris Bober, who is a model of courage and moral integrity, while his attackers are puny cowards.

One of those assailants is the Italian drifter Frank Alpine, who, like one of Mailer’s heroic thugs, “shiver[s] with pleasure” at the violent acts he will commit. But Alpine, a disordered man at the mercy of his desires and unable to control his warring impulses, finds himself tormented with remorse over his actions; in penance, he converts to Judaism and takes over the store to help pay for the college education of Bober’s daughter Helen, with whom he is in love.

In Bober’s and Frank’s high-minded acceptance of suffering, Roth sees only more Jewish masochism. The point of The Assistant, he asserts, is that “renunciation is Jewish and renunciation is All.” Bober renounces his desire for vengeance against Frank, and Frank renounces not only his murderous rage but his previously Portnoyesque lust for the beautiful Helen. Roth invites his readers to imagine Norman Mailer’s disgust at this portrait of the newly Jewish Frank Alpine, a would-be criminal who lacks the nerve to dare the unknown.

“Dare the unknown” is, indeed, Roth’s exhortation to American Jews and American Jewish writers alike. It is, he writes, “the Jew in one that says, ‘No, no, restrain yourself!’” Only when the Jew can feel as free as the Gentile to indulge his appetites, to give himself over to his lusts, will he be free.

There could hardly have been a more ironically appropriate fate for a writer like Malamud, so concerned with the fraught relations between fathers and sons, than to be done in by Roth’s act of literary parricide.

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As his standing dwindled, Malamud worried that he had shortchanged himself and those around him. Had he, like the luckless Morris Bober, given his “life up for nothing”? He had always been a pained and painstaking writer. Now he came to believe that in his pursuit of the “perfection of the work” (to use a phrase from Yeats that had special meaning for him), he had deprived his family and friends of the father and companion they should have had. All his life he would feel guilty about having abandoned his own father and his sick brother for Oregon, even though Oregon had opened the way to his life as a writer. His relationship with his wife and children was troubled; he had spent too much time in his study, cut off.

In a letter to a friend, the painter Rosemarie Beck, Malamud noted that James Joyce had called himself the “foolish writer of a wise book,” and said he feared the same for himself: “It’s true—one garners his strength for his books and remains a weakling.” But, Malamud wondered, what about one’s moral obligations? What of Joyce’s “insane daughter Lucia, who might with more love and care on his part had lived a useful life”? Roth’s “man of stern morality” felt he had not always lived up to his own ideals.

Roth had one answer to the problem of balancing the competing demands of freedom and obligation. The freedom of the artist must be given primacy, and Jewish writers had to break out of the shackles of history and identity in order to define for themselves who and what they were. Granting for the sake of argument the small kernel of accuracy in Roth’s characteristically crude portrayal of Jewish history and identity, or of the dichotomy between “the Jew” and “the Gentile,” Malamud’s answer—and his great theme—was precisely the opposite.

In The Assistant, Frank Alpine follows his desires wherever they lead, only to find himself racked with regret. Stealing and lying come easy to him, but they do not get him any of the things he really wants: the love of Helen, a business of his own, self-respect. If his fate is not to follow the example of Morris Bober, it will be to follow the example of his drunken partner, Ward Minogue, into moral and spiritual degradation—living only for himself, and dying alone.

The same dilemma confronts many Malamud characters, who continually try to resolve it and continually fail. In The Natural, the baseball player Roy Hobbs chases after the beautiful Memo, the mistress of a teammate, and is also briefly captivated by the charms of Iris Lemon. At the outset of Malamud’s academic novel A New Life, Seymour Levin imagines “a new utopia, everyone over eighteen sexually satisfied, aggression reduced, peace in the world.” Key to Levin’s private utopia is Pauline Gilley, with whom he has his first successful dalliance in Cascadia (a fictionalized Oregon) and whom he sees as merely an “object of experience . . . not necessarily of commitment.”

To their immense surprise, however, Malamud’s protagonists keep finding themselves entangled in complications against their will. Sex, they find, is inextricably tied to responsibility, and the sexual freedom that promises “peace in the world” offers nothing of the sort. Iris interrupts her lovemaking with Roy to inform him that she is a grandmother. After her first tryst with Levin, Pauline reminds him she has two children. When, finally, Levin succumbs to the advances of a beautiful young student, he discovers to his chagrin that he feels no real desire for her, while in the meantime his foolish moment of weakness has threatened everything he values, including Pauline and his job.

In The Assistant, Helen Bober wants “to be free,” and so, she tells Frank, she too has in the past “settled for sex”; but she soon learned that “if you’re not in love, sex isn’t being free.” The remark illustrates one of Malamud’s complicated paradoxes: without responsibility, without obligation, there can be no freedom. It is only after Levin pledges himself to Pauline and her two children in A New Life that he is at last free from the restless wandering of his past, at last able to do something right.

By living only for the self, Malamud suggests, one cuts oneself off from others and thus from the possibility of love. It is a theme splendidly realized in one of his greatest short stories, “The Magic Barrel.” An “unloved and loveless” rabbinical student named Leo Finkel goes to a matchmaker, Salzman, to help him find a wife and thus enhance his prospects of being hired by a congregation. But Finkel, as Salzman exasperatedly notes, is very “partikiler,” finding flaws in all the women presented to him. One is too old; another, lame; yet another, a widow.

Frustrated in his search, Finkel fires the matchmaker, thinking he can do better on his own. Then, among the pictures Salzman has left behind, he comes upon a photo of a woman with whom he falls desperately in love. It is the matchmaker’s daughter—a whore, as he later finds out. The father tries to dissuade him, but Finkel insists on a meeting. As the story ends, Finkel approaches the girl, and “violins and lit candles revolve in the sky.”

Finkel is “unloved” because he is “loveless.” When he first contacts the matchmaker, he thinks of women only as merchandise on offer. He learns that love must be given without reservation. Only when he stops searching and forgets the reason he went to the matchmaker in the first place does he find his bride.

“The Magic Barrel” has a further twist. After the matchmaker agrees to arrange a meeting, Finkel suddenly suspects that Salzman “had planned it all to happen this way.” It is the sort of reversal that occurs throughout Malamud’s work: in A New Life, Levin thinks he has chosen Pauline, only to find out that, working in the college administration, she had picked out his job application and brought him to Cascadia in the first place. The choice he thought he had freely made was actually pre-determined, made by someone else.

The choice that is chosen for you—by a human being, fate, or God. How to reconcile this with freedom is indeed one of the central existential questions of what in the end it means to be a Jew, to be part of a chosen people. As Malamud recognized, this gift, too, comes with a “demand of utter obligation.”  This is how he formulated the point in a 1965 essay entitled “Imaginative Writing and the Jewish Experience”:

The highest gift is given, and to affirm its endless value, it is taken. Or to put it another way, because the gift is pure and man is not, the gift, paradoxically is a punishment; yet the punishment renews the extraordinary value of the gift.

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Malamud pretended not to care about Philip Roth’s “foolish egoistic essay.” In a letter to the younger writer, he called it “your problem, not mine.” To his students at Bennington, he laughed at “the whole notion that to be a Jewish writer was to be somehow exploitative of your neuroses and your passions.” But the self-effacing Malamud was outmatched, and he knew it. It was not simply a matter of Roth’s writerly pizzazz, or a matter of Roth alone. Rather, the themes and ideas with which his writing was centrally concerned were being rejected wholesale by the culture around him.

Roth’s success was the prime instance of this truth. Portnoy’s Complaint, with its boldly confessional tone, its attack on “hang-ups” and its celebration of sexual liberation, its up-ending of bourgeois mores and niceties, was a book of and for the late 1960’s. Nothing was more at odds with Malamud than the spirit of the age that made the taboo-breaking Roth into a celebrity. How could a writer whose work was dedicated, in Roth’s words, to “the relentless winnowing-out of the babyish, preening, insatiable self,” and to themes which could only be described as “adult”—self-sacrifice, obligation, moral decency—have remained a vital figure?

And here is the clue to the cause of Malamud’s eclipse. He fell from literary grace because his entire sense of the world was powerfully antithetical to the cultural ethos of the times. What could have been more out of step with a belief in liberating the demands of appetite and desire than Malamud’s embrace of the need for renunciation, of forgoing the demands of appetite and liberating the demands of conscience?
What could be more unfashionable now?

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Footnotes

* Oxford, 388 pp., $34.95.

About the Author

Cheryl Miller, a new contributor, is a 2007 Phillips Foundation fellow in journalism and the editor of Doublethink magazine.




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