Commentary Magazine

Malamud in Decline

When do we give up on a novelist? Sometimes, if it be foul enough, a single sentence will do the job. I was able, for example, to fling across the room in good conscience the novel in which the following sentence appeared on page 12: “And anyway, what can be more romantic than self-denial—your basic Dante and Beatrice trip?” This was fairly easy to do, for the writer, though long a professional, was a first novelist. He has never written a second novel, so I assume that other people, perhaps later than page 12, also sent his book sailing.

But what if the writer has acquired a reputation as a serious and highly accomplished artist, thought in some quarters to be a major novelist, a modern master even? What if, more complicated still, he has given you pleasure, insight into the working of the human heart, and. other novelistic rewards in the past? What if he writes one poor book, then a second, then yet a third? At what point do you concede, however regretfully, that this writer no longer speaks to you, and walk away?

Bernard Malamud is now in his late sixties. His has been a career not without its compensations. He has won a Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards, and at a time when the latter meant something. Not that Malamud’s rise was anything like meteoric. He did not publish his first novel, The Natural, until he was thirty-eight. The Natural plays off all the old baseball legends against Arthurian and other myths, and does so in a way that is both charming and serious. Although it was a first novel, the book sets out most of the themes, motifs, and character types its author would work with over the next few decades. The hero of The Natural, Roy Hobbs, is a loner, the first in what will be a fairly heavy traffic in Malamudian hard-luckers who can usually be counted upon to fade and fall within sight of the finish line. Suffering is at the heart of this novel, its point and its purpose. As one of his lady friends tells Roy Hobbs: “We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live with after that.” Good advice, for those who can take it, which not all Malamud heroes can.

While there was more than a dash of Ring Lardner in The Natural, and a touch or two of Nathanael West, the dominant style was Malamud’s own, and this was most impressive. Anchored in realistic detail, it yet was able to fly off into the regions of the fantastic at the drop of a comma. By means of this style Malamud could see the comedy of his characters while retaining his—and engaging our—sympathy for them. Here, for example, is the early Malamud style, that supple instrument, describing the change in a character from The Natural named Pop Fisher, a baseball manager who has been a perennial loser, as his team finally begins to look like a winner:

His hands healed and so did his heart, for even during the tensest struggle he looked a picture of contentment. And he was patient now, extraordinarily so, giving people the impression he had never been otherwise. Let a man bobble a hot one, opening the gate for a worrisome run, and he no longer jumped down his throat but wagged his head in silent sympathy. And sometimes he patted the offender on the surprised back. Formerly his strident yell was everywhere, on the field, in the dugout, clubhouse, players’ duffel bags, also in their dreams, but now you never heard it because he no longer raised his voice, not even to Dizzy’s cat when it wet on his shoes.

There are no Jews in The Natural; or at least no Jews to whom being a Jew has any importance. The point is worth making because being a Jew, its responsibilities and the consequences of not living up to those responsibilities, became central to Malamud’s work over the next decade or so.

During this same time—roughly 1953 through 1965—writing by American Jews took on a special interest. Extraordinary works about Jews, with Jewish scenes and settings, had appeared before: Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934), Meyer Levin’s The Old Bunch (1936). Books by and about Jews had also been thumping bestsellers: Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar (1955), Myron S. Kaufmann’s Remember Me to God (1957), Jerome Weidman’s I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1937). But suddenly, toward the middle 1950’s, writing by Jews living in America came to seem serious and absolutely central. Looking back upon it, the watershed moment may have been the publication in 1953 of Saul Bellow’s translation from the Yiddish of LB. Singer’s story “Gimpel the Fool” in Partisan Review. Or it may have been connected with the rise of Bellow’s own career, marked by the supercharged prose of The Adventures of Augie March (1953). Around this time, too, Philip Roth, in his middle-twenties, began producing the remarkable stories later collected in Goodbye, Columbus. After “Gimpel,” LB. Singer’s work, once largely restricted to Yiddish editions, began increasingly to appear in English translation, with Singer eventually becoming a regular contributor of fiction to the New Yorker. If one did not live in the United States, but knew it only through the fiction published and critically discussed in the country’s serious journals, one might have concluded that America was predominantly a nation of Jews.


To this effulgence of American Jewish writing Bernard Malamud contributed heavily. (Saul Bellow used to tell interviewers that he was tired of always being linked with Malamud and Philip Roth, as if the three of them, Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, were the Hart, Schaffner, and Maix of contemporary American writing.) “In Bernard Malamud,” the critic Ihab Hassan wrote, “we find further testimony that the urban Jewish writer, like the Southern novelist, has emerged from the tragic underground of culture as a true spokesman of mid-century America.” This is a bit overheated—“tragic underground of culture”?—but it was the standard kind of criticism that American Jewish writing received, much of it from American Jewish critics. The Jew was suddenly everywhere written about as “moral exemplar,” “the representative figure of the 20th century,” and other happy clichés; and often these clichés were jumped up a step higher when it was announced that the Jew was also Everyman.

Yet it must also be said that if the work of any contemporary American Jewish writer encouraged such ethnic theorizing, it was Bernard Malamud’s. Although writing about recognizably Jewish types, Bellow seemed more interested in general intellectual and philosophical than in Jewish questions, and Roth seemed more interested in sociological and psychological matters than in Jewish ones. But the ethical import of being a Jew was Malamud’s subject.

The Assistant, Malamud’s novel of 1957, is about little other than the question of what it means to be a Jew. I won’t recapitulate the details of this carefully made yet exceedingly cheerless novel, except to say that it is saturated with pain and filled with the dignity of suffering. To be a true Jew, for Morris Bober, the book’s exemplary character, is “to do what is right, to be honest, to be good.” It is also, according to the rabbi who delivers the eulogy over the dead Bober, to suffer and endure, “but with hope.” Hope is decisive for Malamud. The more interesting among his characters are those who have suffered. But their suffering, to have meaning, must not only be understood but cherished (“My past is meaningful to me,” says a character in Malamud’s story, “The Lady of the Lake,” “I treasure what I suffered for”) and qualified by hope for better things ahead. Such is the whole meaning of the close of The Assistant, whose chief non-Jewish character, Frank Alpine, converts to Judaism and submits himself to a circumcision.

The importance of suffering, the need for hope no matter how heavy the burden of suffering, the necessity of not shutting one’s heart to the suffering and hopes of others—out of these cards Bernard Malamud built the splendid literary house that is The Magic Barrel, the book of stories that won the National Book Award for 1958. The Magic Barrel marked a rise in Malamud’s reputation. Most people who read the book did not merely like it—they loved it. And much there is in it to love. Each story in the book shimmers with implications. Malamud seems to have found the perfect plots to give unforgettable flesh to his themes. Comedy and grief rub shoulders, as when an immigrant Jew addresses the Lord: “My dear God, sweetheart, did I deserve that this should happen to me?” Malamud’s stories come out of the Yiddish tradition of storytelling, from the way they open (“Feld, a shoemaker,” or “Kessler, formerly an egg candler,” two of the stories begin) to the way they can ignite suddenly into fantasy (in “The Loan,” the baker Lieb relates that “one day out of misery, he had wept into the dough. Thereafter his bread was such it brought customers in from everywhere”), to the way their particulars rise off the page into universal significance. And, finally, the book reveals Malamud to be a moralist, an intricate and subtle and unpredictable one—which is to say, a moralist of the most interesting kind.


A New Life, Malamud’s novel of 1961, exhibited both a continuation of and a number of departures from his previous work. Among the notable departures is the fact that this novel is more firmly anchored in time and place than Malamud’s earlier books. Apart from the few stories in The Magic Barrel set in Italy, Malamud’s novels and stories had been located in some unnamed lonely America of the mind; the time at which they took place was unclear and of less than paramount interest. In A New Life, however, both time and place are significant: the novel is set in a third-rate university in the Northwest, in an Oregon-like state that the author calls Cascadia; and its time is the early 1950’s, the period of the most heightened activities of such organizations as the House Un-American Activities Committee. A New Life is, in one of its aspects, a political book, though political well after the fact, the novel after all having been written in 1961.

Into this atmosphere of provinciality and political conformity, Malamud inserts one S. Levin, bearded, passionate, a trifle meshugah. Levin is part traditional Jewish shlimmazel (in the classic formulation, the shlemiel is the man who spills his soup, the shlimmazel the man on whom he spills it), part characteristically Malamudian. The Malamudian part has to do with his past. The emotion of Levin’s life, he tells us, has been humiliation. Loneliness is his lot. His father was a thief; his mother insane; he himself, although now only thirty, is already an ex-drunk. “All my life I’ve been engaged in wanting,” Levin says. The person he says it to is someone he wants, the wife of the man who will be the new chairman of the English department in which he works as an instructor, a newcomer, an outsider. This woman is also his lover; and therein hangs a tale.

But not, alas, much of a tale—or not as impressive a tale as one might have hoped for from the author of The Magic Barrel. Two things seem to be at stake in A New Life: first, the control of the English department, over which there is a struggle between the forces of conformism and reaction (represented by an interest in teaching freshman composition) and those of humanism and the higher seriousness, in which Levin, an ardent believer in the gospel of the Humanities, is enlisted; and, second, the outcome of Levin’s love affair on which ride his hopes for a new life. While working these matters out, Malamud provides a good deal of landscape writing; expresses many corny political sentiments (students “must either be the best—masters of ideas and of themselves—or choose the best to lead them; in either case democracy wins”); and puts S. Levin through a number of failed erotic adventures. Bright patches there are in A New Life; laughs, too. Yet the novel seems, for the first time in a work by Bernard Malamud, thin. It sags in its middle. Lengthy though A New Life is, its substance feels light, while the stories in The Magic Barrel, though brief, have ballast. More, in fiction, is frequently less.


If there is something a bit trivial and finally clownish about A New Life, no such thing can be said of The Fixer (1966). This novel, it will be recalled, is based on the 1913 Mendel Beiliss case. Beiliss, an obscure Russian Jew employed in a Kiev brick factory, was framed by the anti-Semitic group called the Black Hundred for allegedly killing a twelve-year-old Russian boy and using his blood in the preparation of Passover matzoh. If Beiliss were found guilty, it would mean that Christian blood was indeed used in the preparation of matzoh, and hence all consumers of matzoh would by association be guilty. Thus, in the pathetic person of Mendel Beiliss, the Russian Jewish community, indeed all Jews everywhere, stood on trial.

There is a natural gravity to this subject, and Malamud proves in every way up to it. The difficult materials of The Fixer are handled with great artistic tact. So serious is the subject that there isn’t room for the least literary exhibitionism, and none is allowed. The phrase tour de force for once applies. For more than a hundred pages Malamud has his hapless hero, who is given the name Yakov Bok, alone in his cell attempting to make sense of the outrageous events of his life (and of life in general) with a mind stocked only with a few shreds of Spinoza, a fragment or two he remembers from the Torah, and years of dreary shtetl experience—and Malamud is able to bring this off without the least trace of lòngueur. “It is not easy to be a free-thinker in this terrible cell,” says Yakov Bok, who at the novel’s end—and it ends, rightly, just as the trial is about to begin—thinks, “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.”

The Fixer was not only an artistic but a critical and a commercial success. With this book, one reviewer wrote, “Malamud moves on to the stage of world literature.” “A literary miracle,” said Newsweek, with the kind of breathless idiocy that passes for praise in some literary quarters. The novel won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award; a movie was made out of it. Malamud meanwhile was given an academic imprimatur, and soon essays about his work with such titles as “Four Versions of Pastoral,” and “Comic Vision and the Theme of Identity” began to appear in the journals. If Malamud was not yet hanging around the house awaiting a call from Stockholm, he nevertheless had every reason to think himself among the major writers of our day.


Malamud continued to produce books of stories—Idiots First (1963), Pictures of Fidelman (1969)—but the reputation of a writer of his current stature would henceforth depend on his production of novels. (Why this should be is by no means clear, except as it can be explained through the requirements of publishing and publicity.) And the first novel that Malamud produced after The Fixer was The Tenants. The year of its publication was 1971, and its subject was, in part, race relations. In this novel two writers, Harry Lesser, a neurotically slow worker, and Willie Spearmint, an undeveloped black with only raw power, are living in a New York building awaiting the wrecker’s ball. Each is trying to complete his novel.

Already, you might say, a mistake. Unless you happen to be Henry James, writing about being a writer is almost always a mistake, like poems about poems or paintings in which someone is painting. Such as it is, the drama of The Tenants mainly has to do with whether the two writers will complete their manuscripts. Racial feelings mix with rivalry and these are further complicated by Harry Lesser’s interest in Willie Spearmint’s white lady friend. Whatever the novel’s symbolic intent, it is spoiled because the details seem so wrong. A woman character says of Willie Spearmint, “He belted me in the eye and left.” John O’Hara used to maintain that no educated woman ever says “half-a-buck,” and I believe no educated woman ever says “belted” either. More, though, than small details are off. Tonally, the novel sounds wrong. Malamud does not quite seem up to the violence of his black writer. No character in the novel is worthy of one’s sympathy, so among them all one divides one’s antipathies. Saddest of all, for the first time in a book by Bernard Malamud, you don’t want to turn the page.

How can a really good writer write a really bad book? He can choose the wrong subject. He can—which is much the same thing—misgauge his own talent, and allow his literary ambition to exceed his literary equipment. He may become unfocused morally, the world suddenly seeming more complicated to him than once it did and hence less susceptible of being dealt with by his art. However serious he is as an artist, he may nonetheless come to take himself too seriously. In the case of Bernard Malamud, with The Tenants a new heaviness set in, and it was not the weight of authority.


Dubin’s Lives (1977), Malamud’s next novel and also his longest, is about a professional biographer, a husband and father who in his late fifties has a bout of eleventh-hour adolescence and sets out to prove the adage about there being no fool like an old fool. Which is to say, at fifty-six William Dubin falls in love with a girl of twenty-three. There is every reason to think that Bernard Malamud would not agree with this brief summary of his nearly four-hundred-page novel. My guess is that he views this novel as a profound investigation of middle age, and that he sees his biographer, William Dubin, as a quester, a man ardent not to let life slip away from him. “My God,” Dubin thinks, “how long does this romantic hunger—residue of old forms, habits, daydreams—haunt the blood?” As a biographer Dubin is the author of other people’s lives, and now he wants to live his own or, more precisely, make up for what he has missed in life: “Middle age, he thought, is when you pay for what you didn’t have or couldn’t do when you were young.”

The earlier Malamud would have made fine ironic hay of this, and spun it into interesting moral material. The late Malamud takes it straight. “With this girl I know the flowering pleasure, heathen innocence, of the natural life,” biographer Dubin thinks. And: “One recovers of youth only what he can borrow from the young.” Yet again: “. . . the fountain of youth is the presence of youth.” Cliché of clichés, we are talking, in Dubin’s Lives, about a bloody mid-life crisis. But the crisis is not only William Dubin’s; it is also Bernard Malamud’s as a novelist. Signs of this novelistic crisis are that Malamud’s language has begun to fall apart—“presently” is misused, “into” (as “into an affair”) crops up again and again, “experience” is used as a verb—his self-indulgent and boring descriptions of landscape go well beyond the permissible, and winters in the novel seem longer than they do in life; Malamud’s writing about sex, earlier always witty, here becomes chiefly embarrassing. Worst of all, William Dubin is a selfish, charmless man, and it is far from clear that Malamud is aware of this. This is what makes reading Dubin’s Lives such a chore. As Jane Austen puts it in Mansfield Park: “‘The indignities of stupidity, and the disappointments of selfish passion, can excite little pity.” And, one might add, less interest.


Why do novelists seem to feel the need always to be changing—to be, in the cant word, “growing”? Did Tolstoy feel this? Did Dickens? Is this a contemporary phenomenon? Is it chiefly an American one? No one, surely, can accuse Bernard Malamud of disobeying the dictum to change, of ignoring the urge to innovate. Now, after the straight realism of Dubin’s Lives, he has turned, in his latest novel,’ God’s Grace, to fantasy. God’s Grace is a book whose setting is “after the thermonuclear war between the Djanks and Druzhkies.” Only one human being has survived, Calvin Colin, a paleologist who was at the bottom of the sea when the weapons were fired. A World Flood follows the Day of Devastation—the capital letters are Malamud’s—and Calvin Cohn, along with a chimpanzee named Buz, is left to reconstitute civilization and to discover why God would permit such destruction. Ah me, as a mother in Sybille Bedford’s novel A Legacy says to her young daughter, “There is nothing so fatal as a good vast subject.”

In God’s Grace Calvin Cohn shores up on an island where vegetation exists but no animal life (though he will later discover more chimpanzees, an ape, and some baboons). The novel’s early pages have some of the pleasing excitement of Robinson Crusoe, with Cohn setting up house on the island. Then Cohn discovers that the chimpanzee Buz has been trained to talk. Soon the other chimpanzees show up, attesting to God’s “cosmic absent-mindedness” and, more important, the novelist’s need to keep his story going. Cohn sets out to renew life by establishing a community among the chimpanzees and the ape and himself—one that is more civilized, founded on sounder principles, than the one that has just destroyed itself, apparently with God’s willingness, in a nuclear devastation.

Naturally, this plan will come to grief. Despite Calvin Cohn’s lecturing the chimps on the best thought of the Bible, Freud, Kierkegaard, Ortega y Gasset, despite his holding a seder for them to honor God and his impregnating of the one female chimpanzee on the island, the animals revert to type—human type, that is. They become, in other words, competitive, aggressive, divisive, finally vicious. But the novel goes bad before the chimpanzees do. Once the chimpanzees are allowed to speak, God’s Grace takes on something of the quality of a television situation comedy, with symbolism added. Much of the humor in the novel is of the kind known as faintly amusing, but then chimp humor, on the scale of wit, is roughly three full rungs down from transvestite jokes. Someone once defined charm, negatively, by saying that if you think you have it, you don’t. In God’s Grace one feels Malamud thinks he has it.


Poor Malamud, the larger he strains to become, the smaller his talent begins to appear. In God’s Grace he sets out to understand the ways of God, which is quite a project. In his earlier fiction, when a shoemaker, a grocer, a “fixer” spoke, one felt one could hear God in the background; in this novel, where God does speak, all one can hear is the reedy voice of a novelist. God’s Grace is meant to be Malamud’s A Guide to the Perplexed. Maimonides, though, is better, the Maimonides who, in what might serve as a gloss on Bernard Malamud’s earlier work, wrote: “But just as the human intellect is incapable of grasping God’s thoughts, so too our thoughts are unable to understand the wisdom and righteousness of His dispensations and operations. But when the time comes that the Lord wishes to chastise someone, He offers him the possibility of acting contrary to the Torah in order to inflict a just punishment on him. If a man is not ready for punishment, the Lord lets him sin so that he will be ready.” Of the perplexing mystery of what causes a novelist to be transformed from a central to a now almost negligible figure, Maimonides, so far as I know, does not speak.


Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 223 pp., $13.50.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.

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