“Please, Stories Are Stories”: Bernard Malamud - Figures

Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays - Cynthia Ozick 2016

“Please, Stories Are Stories”: Bernard Malamud

Hart and Schaffner are dead; Marx, ringed round with laurels, has notoriously retired. But the firm itself was dissolved long ago, and it was Saul Bellow who, with a sartorial quip, snipped the stitches that had sewn three acclaimed and determinedly distinct American writers into the same suit of clothes, with its single label: “Jewish writer.” In Bellow’s parody, Bellow, Malamud, and Roth were the literary equivalent of the much-advertised men’s wear company—but lighthearted as it was, the joke cut two ways: it was a declaration of imagination’s independence of collective tailoring, and it laughingly struck out at the disgruntlement of those who, having themselves applied the label in pique, felt displaced by it.

Who were these upstarts, these “pushy intruders” (as Gore Vidal had it), who were ravishing readers and seizing public space? Surveying American publishing, Truman Capote railed that “the Jewish mafia has systematically frozen [Gentiles] out of the literary scene.” In a 1968 essay, “On Not Being a Jew,” Edward Hoagland complained that he was “being told in print and sometimes in person that I and my heritage lacked vitality … because I could find no ancestor who had hawked copper pots in a Polish shtetl.” Katherine Anne Porter, describing herself as “in the direct, legitimate line” of the English language, accused Jewish writers of “trying to destroy it and all other living things they touch.” More benignly, John Updike invented Bech, his own Jewish novelist, and joined what he appeared to regard as the dominant competition.

Yet it was not so much in response to these dubious preconceptions as it was to a rooted sense of their capacious American literary inheritance that all three unwillingly linked novelists were reluctant to be defined by the term “Jewish writer.” “I am not a Jewish writer, I am a writer who is a Jew,” Philip Roth announced in Jerusalem in 1963. And Bellow, pugnaciously in a 1988 lecture: “If the WASP aristocrats wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates then let them.”

Bernard Malamud sorted out these contentious impulses far more circumspectly. “I am a writer,” he said in an interview on his sixtieth birthday, “and a Jew, and I write for all men. A novelist has to, or he’s built himself a cage. I write about Jews, when I write about Jews, because they set my imagination going. I know something about their history, the quality of their experience and belief… . The point I am making is that I was born in America and respond, in American life, to more than Jewish experience.”

Though unexpressed, there lurks in all these concurring animadversions a fear of the stigma of the “parochial”—a charge never directed (and why not?) against Cather’s prairie Bohemians, or the denizens of Updike’s Brewer or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Still, it is not through sober public rhetoric but in the wilder precincts of fiction that Malamud discloses his animating credo. It emerges in the clear voice of Levitansky, the antihero of “Man in the Drawer,” a harried Soviet-Jewish writer whose work is barred from publication because it speaks human truths inimical to Stalinist policy. The American journalist who has worriedly befriended Levitansky asks whether he has submitted any Jewish stories, to which the writer retorts: “Please, stories are stories, they have not nationality… . When I write about Jews comes out stories, so I write about Jews.” It is this unanchored drive to create tales, Malamud implies, that generates subject matter—the very opposite of Henry James’s reliance on the story’s “germ,” the purloinings and devisings of the observed world. “Stories are stories” is Malamud’s ticket to untrammeled writerly freedom. Except to Scheherazade, he owes no social debts.

Despite this purist manifesto, Malamud is in fact steeped everywhere in social debt; his aesthetic is instinct with the muted pulse of what used to be called moral seriousness, a notion gone out of fashion in American writing, where too often flippancy is mistaken for irony. Malamud, a virtuoso of darkest irony, refuses the easy conventions of cynicism and its dry detachment. His stories know suffering, loneliness, lust, confinement, defeat; and even when they are lighter, they tremble with subterranean fragility. Older readers who were familiar with the novels and stories in the years of their earliest publication will recall the wonderment they aroused, beginning with the fables of The Magic Barrel, as each new tale disrupted every prevailing literary expectation. The voice was unlike any other, haunted by whispers of Hawthorne, Babel, Isak Dinesen, even Poe, and at the same time uniquely possessed: a fingerprint of fire and ash. It was as if Malamud were at work in a secret laboratory of language, smelting a new poetics that infused the inflections of one tongue into the music of another. His landscapes, nature’s and the mind’s, are inimitable; the Malamudian sensibility, its wounded openness to large feeling, has had no successors.

When the ambient culture changes, having moved toward the brittleness of wisecrack and indifference, and the living writer is no longer present, it can happen that a veil of forgetfulness falls over the work. And then comes a literary crisis: the recognition that a matchless civilizational note has been muffled. A new generation, mostly unacquainted with the risks of uncompromising and hard-edged compassion, deserves Malamud even more than the one that made up his contemporary readership. The idea of a writer who is intent on judging the world—hotly but quietly, and aslant, and through the subversions of tragic paradox—is nowadays generally absent: who is daring enough not to be cold-eyed? For Malamud, trivia has no standing as trivial, everything counts, everything is at stake—as in “The Jewbird,” where a bossy crow-like intruder named Schwartz invades a family, refuses birdseed in favor of herring, and to ingratiate himself tutors the dull son. But the father, sensing a rival for domination, is enraged, and this fanciful comedy ends in primal terror and murder. Pity leaves its signature even in farce.

“The Jewbird” is one of thirty-six stories in the Library of America’s definitive three-volume publication (the third is forthcoming) honoring Malamud’s work on the hundredth anniversary of his birth; six of these Malamud himself never saw in print. Also included in the pair of volumes are five novels: The Natural, The Assistant, A New Life, The Fixer, and Pictures of Fidelman.

A New Life may be the most overlooked of Malamud’s long fictions, perhaps because it has been mistaken for yet another academic novel. But the sheath is not the sword, and A New Life is as exquisite in its evocation of American transformation as Gatsby himself. Reversing the classic theme of the young-man-from-the-provinces, S. Levin, incipient wife stealer, “formerly a drunkard,” is a refugee from the New York tenements who leaves behind the grit of urban roil to be absorbed by village ways. Cascadia, the unprepossessing northwestern college he joins as a low-ranking teacher, turns out to be precisely that: a provincial village of the kind we might read of in an English novel of rural life, with its petty hierarchies and spites and rivalries. Yet the local terrain—trees, flowers, green hills, pristine vistas—is intoxicating to the city dweller, and here Malamud, whose impoverished outer-borough warrens are uniformly grim, writes peerlessly, as nowhere else, of proliferating natural beauty. And in the vein of Huck Finn, who chooses damnation over the lies of conventional morality, he casts a redemptive radiance on the fraught flight of an adulterous woman and her fornicating lover. In its tormented, satiric, and startling underminings, A New Life—which, like The Natural, stands tonally apart from Malamud’s other work—is one of those rare transfiguring American novels that turn wishing into destiny.

The Assistant and The Fixer are closer to the stories in their melancholy texture and feverish desperation. And as in the stories, a man’s labor becomes his identity. Morris Bober tends a precarious grocery store, where his assistant hungers after love. The fixer, Yakov Bok, a worker in a brickyard, is unjustly imprisoned, walled in by an anti-Semitic blood-libel charge. Each person’s fate pursues him: Fidelman in Rome, “a self-confessed failure as a painter,” is stalked by the elusive Susskind, who covets Fidelman’s suit. Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student, is hounded by Salzman the marriage broker. Alexander Levine, “a black Jew and an angel to boot,” appears to Manischevitz, a tailor mired in suffering. Rosa, a maid in thrall to her lover, wheedles a pair of shoes out of the dignified professor whose rooms she cleans. Apparitions, stalkings, houndings, claims and demands: unbidden, duties and obligations fall on Malamud’s characters with the power of commandments. The pursuer and the quarry are each other’s double; through self-recognition, repugnance is conjured into acquiescence. In the shifting kaleidoscope of all these whirling tales, Malamud’s quest is for renewal—freedom from the shackled self. Some have argued, not unpersuasively, that his humble Jews are stand-ins for universal suffering: in fiction as in life, living human beings ought not to be thrust into the annihilating perils of metaphor. Malamud easily escapes these transgressive erasures—the allegorical Jew, the Jew-as-symbol—through the blunt and earthy specificity of his ordinary Jews: census taker, shoemaker, bookseller, night school student, baker, egg candler, peddler, janitor, tailor (several), grocer (several, failing), taxi driver, actor, painter (failed), writer (several, failed). Wrenched into life by a master fabulist, they breathe, feel, yearn, struggle.

Then with all these believable Jews on hand, is Malamud a “parochial” writer, after all? Yes, blessedly so, as every sovereign imaginative artist is obliged to be, from Dickens to Nabokov to Flannery O’Connor to Malamud himself: each one the sole heir to a singular kingdom.