I would say that Bernard Malamud has been a writer almost unique in our time. He has found the objects and idiom and viewpoint that allow him to see the will directly and portray its commitment to moral struggle. While the work of the other contemporary novelists has been seriously affected by the forces of fragmentation and cynicism that demoralize our lives and efforts, the best of Malamud’s has stood against these forces by resolutely ignoring them. Most often, and in his most characteristic fiction, he has created a type of half-legendary world in the middle of New York City—the Malamud province of moral comedy and affirmation. In this spectral province, with its familiar streets and strange interiors, live a few lost souls with Jewish names, their figures deeply etched by their creator’s fantasy. But their needs are so simple and so complete that fundamental human feelings and values can be insistently expressed and defined. This original folk poetry has been obviously inspired by the Jewish immigrant experience and the ghetto sensibility. Yet its main significance has not been in its Jewishness. Malamud’s creation has signified, as Norman Podhoretz so well said when he reviewed The Magic Barrel, “an act of spiritual autonomy perfect enough to persuade us that the possibility of freedom from the determinings of history and sociology still exists.”
The province in which Malamud’s characters live is not a simple place. Morris Bober, the moral exemplar in The Assistant, goes to his death with the realization that “I gave my life away for nothing. It was the thunderous truth.” Nor is there anything very reassuring about the fate of the two characters in “Take Pity” who both are eventually driven to suicide by the difficulties of extending and accepting charity. And in “The Magic Barrel,” love finally comes to the careful Rabbi Finkel in the person of a whore. Malamud’s figures have, or gain, an expert knowledge of suffering, whether in the flesh from poverty and illness, or in the mind from frustration and remorse. Character is almost invariably formed by hunger, and at twenty-three a pretty girl already fights “a sense of mourning to a practiced draw.” Malamud’s Jews (and his Gentiles) are connected to each other not by religious and social ties but by a common fate of error and ill luck and sorrow, of having lost much by their mistakes and recovered little by their virtues. The back streets of life become a kind of timeless depressed area, where dying men go begging for money to send idiot sons to California and bakers weep in their bread; when their children manage to escape to the modern world, they carry the ghetto’s aches with them.
It is an implacably comic world of absurd reversals and last straws and of uncertain stairs that lead seemingly nowhere. But this antic world is shaped by a tough and subtle intelligence in the service of an embattled ethic. Its people are not charming or vigorous; they are usually too impoverished to represent any real range of contemporary human possibilities. But their lives are suffused with a directing earnestness that we miss in ours and are formed from assurances that ours are increasingly without—the assurance that principles matter, that the “soft” facts of life are more important than the “hard,” that there are ways men can change themselves and become free, if not rich.
From where do these assurances come? Most of the figures who contain them are unassimilated Jews, which is less to the point than one sometimes likes to think. The truth is that Malamud’s Jews are creatures of a particular moral vision which is as accessible to Christians as to Jews. To be sure, one can make (as Malamud himself sometimes explicitly does) a correlation between the nature of their lives and of Jewish experience and values, particularly of the East European Pale where history preserved the extremities of deprivation, irony, and idealism in a virtually pure and congruous form. Yet Jewishness is a source of Malamud’s sensibility rather than the object: just as his characters are almost entirely detached from any real Jewish community—of the past or of the present—so are the causes and purposes of their suffering. There are times when Malamud’s feelings for the immigrant Jewish melancholy and ethos, and for its idiom and wit, produce an objectification such as the story of “The Magic Barrel.” But, in general, the sense of the ghetto experience is abstracted from the communal life in which its social and religious meanings were embedded. Malamud’s Jewishness is a type of metaphor—for anyone’s life—both for the tragic dimension of anyone’s life and for a code of personal morality and salvation that is more psychological than religious. To the extent that the Jew and his problems become a way of envisaging the human condition, he becomes more symbol than fact, fashioned to the service of an abstraction. Hence, when, at the end of The Assistant, Frank Alpine gets circumcised and becomes a Jew, the whole point is not that he will now daven or move into a neighborhood that has a synagogue but that he has confirmed his investiture of a set of moral attitudes. In effect, the Malamud Jew is partly Jew and partly construct—a way of viewing the relation of the conscience to deprivation and love, of exploring the resources and process by which, as Ihab Hassan phrases it, “a man can become a mensch.”
Which is to say that for all the homely trappings and Yiddishisms of his fiction, Malamud is nevertheless a modern American writer—detached, introspective, preoccupied with the problems of contactlessness and self-integration, for which each man’s experience is his own gospel. “Each in his prison/Turning the key”: the lines from Eliot suggest the burden of Malamud’s vision, the consistency with which his chief figures are confronted less by the world than by themselves. I want to explore some of Malamud’s work in this connection, before taking up his most recent novel, A New Life,1 which though it seems like an obvious departure, is very close in theme to his earlier work. By doing so, it seems to me that some of the problems raised for the reviewers by Malamud’s latest book can be clarified.
His first novel, The Natural, opens with this bit of imagery:
Roy Hobbs pawed at the glass before thinking to prick a match with his thumbnail and hold the spurting flame in his cupped palm close to the lower berth window, but by then he had figured it was a tunnel they were passing through and was no longer surprised at the bright sight of himself holding a yellow light over his head, peering back in.
The image is central. It foreshadows the fate of Roy Hobbs—whose fabulous and brief baseball career is to be but another stage in an endless train ride through life, marked by obscure awakenings and illuminations which reveal only himself. But more, this single sentence introduces the centering point of Malamud’s vision. As in the romances of another moralist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, there are a good many mirror and light images in Malamud’s tales, and they signify much the same preoccupation with those moments when the distinction between the objective and the imaginary is suspended and the spirit sees either itself or, in Hawthorne’s term, its “emblems.” Around this core of revelation the other elements are laid, the action moving toward and away from self-confrontation, the tone either controlled by or within easy reach of the introspective and hallucinatory. However, the psychology is in the service of a moral construct: the Malamud hero who sees himself sees his chief adversary, and what he learns from the experience determines his life.
Spelled out in the terms of his most characteristic fiction, this preoccupation creates the story of the man who emerges from the past of deprivation, isolation, or failure and who struggles for fuller and better connections with life against the drag of the old hungers and habitual errors. Thus Malamud’s fiction is often set in the crucial period when the disabilities of the past contend with the future’s possibilities, the old defeats with the new aspirations. In The Natural—which is usually read as a wacky mock-heroic satire on baseball but bears deep parallels with Malamud’s other work—the heroine, Iris, tells Hobbs, “We have two lives . . . the life we learn with and the life we live with after that. Suffering is what brings us to happiness. It teaches us to want the right things.” Roy Hobbs suffers for fifteen years for one mistake before he gets his chance to play in the major leagues and become a great star. Frank Alpine, an orphan and another drifter, has his chance to learn through his relations with the honest, impoverished Bober and Helen. These are Malamud’s loose men (usually Gentiles) who, lacking self-control, go on making the same mistakes. There are also the tight men (usually Jews) such as Rabbi Finkel and Fidelman (the art scholar in “The Last Mohican”) whose lives are overly regulated and narrow, who are armored heavily against the dangers of sympathy and desire. Each of these two is anxious to change his life—Finkel to marry, Fidelman to redeem his failures as a painter by producing a work on Giotto. They have “principles” but the wrong ones, and they are torn apart, no less than Alpine, by the fantastic figure who in each case enters to teach them about misery and passion. Alpine finds his own way to the pit: with the stricken Bober lying unconscious on the floor, the air filled with the wails and screams of his wife and daughter, the young Italian puts on the Jewish grocer’s apron: “I need the experience,” he says.
Suffering can kill feeling—as with Hobbs—or educate it—as with Alpine, who emerges from his ordeal capable of relationships, of respecting the human bonds of sorrow, sympathy, and consideration. “Our life is hard enough,” Alpine learns from Morris Bober and his situation. “Why should we hurt somebody else? . . . We ain’t animals.” With tenderness for others comes Alpine’s insight and aspiration and, finally, his wisdom and self-control—the freedom to see and do the right thing. Without this freedom conferred by connection and self-integration, life dribbles away; the will struggles but remains attached to habits of lust or defensiveness and each man lives out his mistakes and awaits the end. However, morality, in Malamud’s view, is a slow and bloody business and has little noticeable effect on fortune. He has been too intelligent a moralist to freeze his vision of failure into a formula and too saturnine to exaggerate the benefits of regeneration.
Roy Hobbs suffers but doesn’t learn; cut down in his youth by a sexy psychopath, he makes the same hungry mistake fifteen years later with the corrupt Memo and destroys himself by throwing the last game of the World Series for her sake. However, there is also the better Iris, who pays for her adolescent error with a stranger in the park, sacrifices her life to raising her daughter and hence to learning about the right things, only to be left at the end almost exactly where she started—seduced by another stranger in the park, made pregnant, and probably abandoned. What makes Malamud so cogent in his treatment of these matters is the complication he can give to character, and to morality, by focusing on the chain of habits which tie a man to his mistakes and frustrations and make his face stare back at him even as he awakens to new possibilities. He convinces us of the gravity of a single act of moral decision (or, as Alpine puts it, “how easy it was for a man to wreck his whole life in a single wrong act”), for he makes us aware of the determinisms of guilt and self-deprecation, of the ease with which circumstances overcome the weakened will, to lead a man away from resolutions back into chains.
Even one who, like Alpine, does make the break is left with little else beside his new wholeness and freedom. Along with Bober’s humaneness, Alpine has received the grocer’s way of life and the grocery store on a dead street, the Jew’s justice and charity but accompanied by the rut of his days. The store is still a “fate.” Such a conclusion seems both pat and in excess of the facts, weighting the scales in a way that becomes a defect in Malamud’s otherwise clear moral intelligence. Yet it is, indeed, the defect of Malamud’s very particular virtue. Whatever Malamud’s beliefs may be, the source of power in his works is in the struggle toward affirmation—his faith in the resources of the human spirit contending against a deep-seated sense of complication, so that in the end change may only be measured in inches of progress, shades of gray. It is Malamud’s pessimism that has allowed him to make convincing the main idea that a man is not necessarily bound within his limits.
Most modern literature has conditioned us to accept the idea that a man’s limitations are the main truth about him. The technique of modern fiction, stemming from Flaubert and Joyce, has been designed to discover these limitations. If The Assistant came as a revelation, as it did for me, partly the reason was that it restored a sense of the dynamics of character and of the older intention of fiction to show the ways men change. Despite its small compass and thinness of social reference, The Assistant could thus take on some of the power and clarity of the great 19th-century novels by the graphic depiction of Alpine’s development from a bum to a man of principle.
That Malamud’s fiction has been able to support its heavy moral interests is due to other resources as well. He has a particular gift for portraying the obsessive kinds of relationship that lead his characters into themselves or otherwise dramatize the ambiguities of their hearts. The resonance of such brief tales as “The Loan,” “The Bill,” and “Take Pity” result mainly from Malamud’s uncanny sense of what types of people belong in the same story, of the subtle and unexpected ways in which relations bind and influence. His sense of character, like his sense of episode and place, is rooted in a strong feeling for the bizarre—the kind of spiritual inventiveness and wit that creates a Negro shul and a debauched Negro angel named Levine. His imagination, in fact, seems most highly charged before the extremes of personal confrontation and crisis, which he succeeds in authenticating by macabre comedy. Out of these situations come his semi-hallucinatory demons such as the macher in The Assistant or Susskind in “The Last Mohican” or Salzman in “The Magic Barrel,” who provide the electrifying quality of the Malamudian vision and allow the tone to fill out to the dimensions of the theme. Similarly the moments to which one assents in The Natural are usually those in which Malamud gives up the horseplay about baseball and produces the tortured and truly wacky images of Hobb’s inner life.
In general, the special achievement of Malamud’s technique has been the movement back and forth between the grimly plain and the fantastic, the joining of the natural to the supernatural, the endowing of his abstracted version of the commonplace with the entanglements of a dream. His most impressive prose has been a similar mixture of a hard common speech, twisted by Yiddishisms or by his own syntax so that it vibrates, and lit here and there by a sudden lyrical image. The solidity of his best work has come from an obsessive mood and vision which from moment to moment seems to take the place of the realist’s eye for physical detail. The slow, grueling development of Frank Alpine unfolds against the mood of the vacuous, mean neighborhood and of the mixed atmosphere of suffering and aspiration, discipline and defeat within the Bobers’ milieu. Similarly, in his religious stories Malamud manages—as much by abstraction as by detail—to create a vividly spiritualized reality. A dying man in search of money for his idiot son, the malach-ha-moves who pursues and frustrates him, the bitter city streets, and the iron gates of Pennsylvania Station all come to belong, through the sustained unity of the writing, to the same order of things.
By-Passing Contemporary reality, then, and the techniques of realism, Malamud has relied instead mainly upon his memories of ghetto life and his idiosyncratic imagination to create situations of sufficient density—and intensity—for his moral concerns. His excursions beyond the old ghetto life have been noticeably less sure and distinguished, except in some of the later Italian stories such as “The Last Mohican” and “The Maid’s Shoes,” which are both really extensions rather than departures. Thus when the word got out that he was doing a novel about a college teacher in the Northwest, there was a great deal of interest in what he would make of the subject.
As the title of the novel suggests, A New Life is again mainly a study in the difficulties of undoing the hold of a deprived and wasted past, of breaking “through the hardened cement of self-frustration” to freedom and control. The hero is S. Levin, an ex-drunkard and depressive from Malamud’s New York, who has managed to pull himself out of the gutter by means of certain mystical revelations about life and an M.A. from New York University. Part Hobbs and Alpine in his melancholy impulsiveness and grossness of desire, part Finkel and Fidelman in being constantly on guard against his old habits, Levin has come to teach in the new world of Cascadia, whose mountains and forests and seasons are as stunning to him as its social and academic life is flat, frivolous, and intellectually inert. As a liberal and humanist as well as the Malamud shlimazel “who creates his own peril,” Levin soon sees that he has more to worry about than the secret of his past. The time is 1950 and Levin’s predecessor—another exotic from the “East”—has been fired for his radical views and for disturbing the peace of a school which is quite content—without any liberal arts curriculum—to train engineering and forestry students and good football players. The leading question indicated in the early chapters is whether Levin will follow in the steps of the disgraced Leo Duffy. “I can’t fail again,” Levin grimly warns himself, but the question of what failure will and will not mean in Cascadia is portentous from the start.
However, the events that follow take a course not very different from Malamud’s first two novels. There is the period of mixed achievements and satisfactions as the new possibilities of teaching, using his hands, taking hold in a new and promising environment fail to lay the old ghosts of dissatisfaction and guilt. “The past hides but is present,” as Levin keeps finding out. “The new life hangs on an old soul.” Behind the formidable beard he has grown and inside the solemn English composition teacher lurks the mournful, clumsy clown, out of step with the opportunities but thirsty with desire. After two near-misses, Levin finally comes to grief in much the same way that Hobbs and Alpine lunged past their resolutions, in order to take an easy sexual advantage. After a week-end by the sea with a willing enough coed, Levin caves in, and in a scene strongly reminiscent of the self-confrontations in The Natural and The Assistant, S. Levin lics alone in his room and writhes:
His escape to the West had thus far come to nothing, space corrupted by time, the past-contaminated self. Mold memories, bad habit, worse luck. He recalled in dirty detail each disgusting defeat from boyhood, his weaknesses, impoverishment, undiscipline—the limp self entangled in the fabric of a will-less life. A white-eyed hound bayed at him from the window—his classic fear, failure after grimy years to master himself. . . . More than once he experienced crawling self-hatred. It left him frightened because he thought he had outdistanced it by three thousand miles. . . .
As is also the case with several other Malamud heroes who pass through these crises, Levin’s emotional life then begins to soften and run more clearly; charmed by the tender winter landscape and its connections to his own feelings, he gradually grows more in touch with himself. Still buttoned up in his raincoat but looking for a “triumph over nature,” he is drawn into a love affair that begins in the woods with the wife of the man who hired him. A daughter of the modern American hinterlands—much as Memo embodies the neurotic and corrupting success offered by the baseball world of The Natural and Helen Bober the hungry but earnest world of The Assistant—Pauline Gilley is at first an “object of experience” for Levin, “not necessarily of commitment.” But eventually love and its problems come to overwhelm Levin, and he goes through the Malamudian fire of passion and frustration, sacrifice and insight. In the end he emerges deeply disciplined enough to choose the encumbrances of marriage to Pauline and the destruction of his former conception of a new life of personal satisfactions and freedom, in return for the possibility of love—“the short freedom you had in the world, the little of life to be alive in.” Unlike the failure of Hobbs who spurns Iris, the honest woman, to chase after the meretricious Memo, Levin succeeds in saving himself through Pauline; but it is a success, like Alpine’s, that is qualified to the bone. Just as we leave the newly circumcised grocer limping about in Bober’s “tomb,” so we last see Levin going down the highway with a pregnant woman he has already fallen out of love with, and her two children, and bearing the promise he has had to make to get them that he will never again teach in a college.
The point of this summary is that the dramatic and moral core of A New Life is less related to the specific social and ethical issues of teaching and living in Cascadia, America, than it is to the themes of Malamud’s other work. To be sure, Levin comes a cropper in Cascadia because he not only takes Pauline away from her husband, the departmental whip, but also eventually takes a stand against the department’s illiberalism and inanity. However, the novel is only slightly more convincingly in touch with this subject by the end than The Natural was with major league baseball. The book’s failure to make good on its early promise of contemporary actuality could be attributed to the possibility that Malamud is out of his proper element, as he was in major league baseball in The Natural, where he used various literary and sub-literary sources (from Homer to Dime Sports) to do much of the work of detail and definition. However, the descriptions both of the Northwest and, up to a point, of the community, are among the finest features of A New Life. Levin is perhaps most comic and moving, certainly most of a piece, in those passages that register with unmistakable authority his reactions to the huge, fertile beauty of the country and the modifications it produces on the spirit of a city man whose life had all but dwindled away in city parks and seasons. Similarly, the early scenes in which Levin is introduced to Cascadia College are very nearly perfect in their evocation of that special mixture of blandness, intimacy, and pomposity common to third-rate colleges and of the eager-beaver compulsiveness of a highly organized English composition program. Some of the narrative interludes are equally brilliant, such as Levin’s frantic trip over the mountains to get to his coed. All of which is to say, though, that the writing is most solid when it is least concerned with the major problem that Malamud set for himself—to transpose his themes and treatment of deprivation, suffering, and regeneration to the green and pleasant doldrums of Cascadia College.
Beneath the highly inventive but unsteady language of most of the book, one senses Malamud’s struggle to bring the two elements together and at the same time preserve their given qualities. But the attempt to align Levin—the taciturn desperate man who enters the novel—with Cascadia—dull, contented, moderately corrupt—soon creates another Levin and another Cascadia. The ex-drunk with a miserable past to overcome begins to fade into and out of another image—that of the academic innocent from N.Y.U. with stars in his eyes about the liberal arts and the humanistic tradition—eager to know the score, to get involved, to take a position. The college, on the other hand, begins to double as a chamber of intrigue and polite horrors in order to function in the unwieldy and elaborate plot and remain commensurate with the old moral and the new social preoccupations. So that after a time each new disclosure of English Department policies and politics becomes either another turn of the screw on which Levin is being wracked or another betrayal of the goals of higher education. The technique of self-confrontation soon starts to be worked to death—often not because anything very critical is happening but because S. Levin is constantly being confronted with the question of whether he is “Sy”—the solemn faculty screwball and radical naif—or “Sam”—the hard case with his “last chance,” who emerges hamstrung but healed at the end. Meanwhile, Malamud wrestles for an attitude and tone that will hold the two types in the same characterization, but finally relies upon a gifted literary clowning which simply doesn’t fill the gap between satire and seriousness that the split in Levin opens in the novel. “The sorrows of Levin: his mouth thickened with thirst.” Similarly, compare the passage quoted earlier on Levin’s crisis with these reflections from the other Levin:
. . . But Levin had long ago warned himself when he arrived at this intensity of feeling—better stop, whoa. Beware of the forms of fantasy. He had been, as a youth, a luftmensch, sop of feeling, too easy to hurt because after treading on air he hit the pavement head first. Afterwards, pain-blinded, he groped for pieces of reality. “I’ve got to keep control of myself. I must always know who I am.” He had times without number warned himself, to harden, toughen, put on armor against love.
And so it goes through most of the key passages in the novel. Without a steady, coherent grasp of Levin and Cascadia, reality and feeling keep running out almost as soon as they are re-created, and in the end Malamud can only again pile burdens on his hero which he has implausibly arranged and send him on his way. In the process the powerful themes of The Assistant are reduced to a series of stated platitudes about the responsibilities of love and the holiness of life and the moving aesthetic of morality, along with some pronouncements about liberalism and the humanities. And there is also a kind of malice toward Levin as there is eventually toward everyone and everything else in Cascadia, except the landscape and the character who loves Sterne, that makes the novel finally inscrutable.
However, I am less interested in making out a case against A New Life than of pointing to the problem that Malamud like most writers today is now up against. In a number of ways, the novel illustrates the points Philip Roth recently made in these pages2 about the difficulties of the present-day American scene for the novelist, and the tactics he has been put to in order to get around them. Clearly in A New Life Malamud has had difficulty in presenting Cascadia College to stand from beginning to end as a contemporary institution rather than a vague collection of academic types and stock grotesqueries. But further, A New Life also suggests that to write about Cascadia today one must be prepared to receive its life directly rather than try and plug it in to another set of preoccupations and values. This last is what Malamud has done. “The past hides but is present”—in the end the statement defines Malamud’s difficulties in writing of a new life more than it does Levin’s rather arbitrary difficulties in trying to live one. Venturing into a new setting and new problems, Malamud spends much of his novel unpacking and examining the luggage he has brought from his other world, as well as using it to arrange and order the moral scene. As a result, the book struggles from beginning to end to discover what it is really about and what its proper tone and treatment should be. Now strikingly comical and touching, now turgid and arbitrary, now opening out resourcefully to grasp new areas of life, now withdrawing into pat attitudes and narrative habits, A New Life finally seems to me to fail because its writer is unable to give himself up to a much more indeterminate and ambiguous experience than he has dealt with before.
Which is only to say that Malamud is in the same soup with the rest of us. The surfaces of life still look stable enough, but underneath, massive and fearful changes are obviously at work that undermine our bearings. What attitude to take, what orientation to adapt to? Between the cautious concern for factuality and the felt need for apocalyptic judgments, the sense of reality runs out and the will struggling for purchase grasps at its own platitudes. Meanwhile the ties that hold a man to a place and confer a steadiness of purpose and perception—even in places like Cascadia—are lost in the telling. The sense of contactlessness makes us exaggerate.
In A New Life constructs take over. I don’t believe after the first chapter that S. Levin was once a drunk—not only because he doesn’t behave like one but because he doesn’t need to. His hunger and frustration are cogent enough simply in terms of the ambiguities of his making his way out of the ghetto by means of an education and then finding in the world only a mixed and possibly corrupting vocation as a teacher of English. The real point of the novel—all but buried under the moral theme—is the collision, not infrequent today, of the post-ghetto sensibility and the culture of the hinterlands. The word “Jew” is never mentioned in the novel, but Levin is the only Jewish name in the book and when Gilley tells him to go back to New York, he has something else in mind than its “stinking subways.” Conceived more freely, A New Life might very well have been a deeply moving or a really comic novel about the situation of a determined Jewish instructor in Cascadia. As is, it is neither. Bernard Malamud in search of a new life never quite gets beyond the old. But a writer like Malamud grows through each venture, and it will be particularly interesting to see where he goes next.
1 Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 367 pp., $4.95.
2 “Writing American Fiction,” March 1961.