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Bernard Malamud at 100: The Wrong Writer for Our Age

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | Permalink

by Boris Fishman

This essay appeared in somewhat different form on the website of The Center for Fiction.

Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) is the wrong writer for our age. Today’s young fiction writers live in an Age of Me: Memoirists in novelist clothing, we understand the world by understanding ourselves. Malamud was the son of a Brooklyn grocer who fled tsarist Russia. Having come of age during the Depression, the same era that shaped his contemporary Saul Bellow, Malamud wrote about Them: The unadjustable Old World elders who were his milk at home and his giveaway when Malamud was trying to make himself an American out of it; the Christians who seemed as general in America as they had been in the Pale (The Assistant); the inexplicable blacks, who seemed to suffer just as the Jews did but saw in it competition rather than kinship (The Tenants).

Malamud’s concerns were as broad as God’s world would allow: God’s Grace was about thermonuclear war. They were just as grave when he looked in a man’s heart: The Fixer, which, in 1967, won a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize both (one of only seven books in history to have done that), stands with William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner as the great American testament of a sufferer’s discovery of himself.

It is these qualities that give the lie to the usual grouping Malamud receives, alongside Bellow and Philip Roth. (Invariably, Malamud gets the bronze.) Malamud’s concerns sat poorly on Bellow; the latter broke through as a novelist only after he sang the hymn of the American Me in Augie March. Philip Roth, the son of entirely different times, has done his most conscientious work in nonfiction. Until the end, Malamud’s concern was morality; he wrote as if from a deathbed.

As the literary critic Philip Rahv put it: “[A] ‘Jewish’ trait in Malamud… is his feeling for human suffering on the one hand and for a life of value, order, and dignity on the other. Thus he is one of the very few contemporary writers who seems to have escaped the clutch of historical circumstance that has turned nihilism into so powerful a temptation; nihilistic attitudes, whether of the hedonistic or absurdist variety, can never be squared with Malamud’s essentially humanistic inspiration.” Rahv points out, in comparing Malamud with a fabled predecessor, “The feeling for human suffering is of course far from being an exclusively ‘Jewish’ quality. It figures even more prominently in Dostoevsky. The Russian novelist, however, understands suffering primarily as a means of purification and of eternal salvation, whereas in Malamud suffering is not idealized: suffering is not what you are looking for but what you are likely to get… Dostoevsky ’s correlative idea that ‘we’re all cruel, we’re all monsters’… is quite alien to Malamud.”

The writer Aleksandar Hemon, an admirer of Malamud, wondered, during a 2008 New Yorker podcast about the older author, whether it is this that accounts for Malamud’s downsized position in our times, which seem more devoted to dazzle and irony. I am far more devoted to Malamud than the times, then. For Rahv, Malamud is an heir to “Kafka’s moral earnestness in his approach to the making of literature, of which he conceived as a sacred expenditure of energy, an effort at communion with his fellow men, the reflected splendor of religious perception.” That is the kind of literature that I, as a starting novelist, wish to inherit.

Unlike Bellow and Roth, Malamud did not feel parochialized by the label of Jewish-American writer. “I’m an American, I’m a Jew, and I write for all men,” he told The Paris Review in 1974. “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 was born in America and respond, in American life, to more than Jewish experience. I wr[i]te for those who read.” In other words, if you write stories of universal predicaments, that the characters are Jewish rather than Zulu is, in some ways, a technicality.

No one has written of those universal predicaments as movingly as Malamud. His work epitomizes the writer’s first lesson: Only the specific can hope to speak universally. Malamud’s heroes – Dubin, Lesser, Levin, Fidelman – usually wear only last names, for they are Everymen grappling with existential quandaries (what is love? how to make sense of one’s obligations to family?) that would hardly surprise that hypothetical Zulu. Importantly, though, they are not Everymen, that is, types or symbols – they are Dubin, Lesser, Levin, and Fidelman, with all the stubborn particularities of those individual lives. And their preoccupations are submerged in richly detailed, realist narratives. But their quandaries are so basic and essential that one might as well be reading a myth. Malamud’s style contributes to the feeling: Through endless rewriting Malamud removed every extraneous word – and then another. Philip Roth poked fun at this in The Ghostwriter, where an alter ego of Malamud’s says: “I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again.” However, the result is stories that have been reduced to essentials, like liquid in a pan, with such force that the bedrock that remains feels like parable. Malamud wrote fairy tales for grown-ups.

And so, arguably no age has needed him more, for it is brains, technique, and self-interest that we young novelists, and our generation, own in excess; and heart, vision, conscience, and discipline where we lack. We must lift our heads from our navels and try to measure the world; we will find Bernard Malamud holding out a ruler to help us. I owe the publication of my first novel in no small measure to Malamud’s extended hand. In the late fall of 2012, I was at an artist colony in southeastern Wyoming working through the umpteenth draft of the novel, about a failed young journalist in Malamud’s Brooklyn (that is, the unfashionable part) who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for those very same elders with whom the author had tried to reconcile himself.

I had read most of the author’s oeuvre by then, leaving only The Tenants and Dubin’s Lives, two books, one about Brooklyn and the other about rural Connecticut, that couldn’t have had less to do with my setting at the time. But Malamud built the bridge. Every morning, I would trudge in the piney, astringent cold to my writing studio and take an hourlong hit of Malamud before sitting down to my own work. I had to ration: the books had to last the month. The draft that I, an Old World Jew in the New West (which also hosted Malamud when he taught at Oregon State from 1949-61, the basis for his novel A New Life), finished under Malamud’s tutelage was the one that got me a contract with HarperCollins.

I couldn’t have been happier to learn recently that I am wrong at least in some of my concerns about Malamud’s decline. This year, the Library of America is commemorating his centennial with the publication of a compendium of his work. (On May 1, I am hosting a kind of 100th birthday party for “Bernie” at The Center for Fiction in Midtown Manhattan, featuring a diverse set of admirers, such as the novelists Tea Obreht, Bharati Mukherjee, Kevin Baker, and Alan Cheuse, as well as members of Malamud’s family.) The two volumes offer a rare opportunity to re-acquaint oneself with the work of a true master.

If you are looking for a place to begin, open to The Assistant, for me Malamud’s finest novel. The story of Morris Bober, a poor Brooklyn grocer, and his wife Ida; their oppressed but obliging daughter Helen; and Frank Alpine, the local thug who upends their lives and is transformed by the Bobers in turn, it is as concentrated an evocation of the mysterious work of the heart as any you’ll come across. Then go on to The Fixer. More than anything, however, I envy you the discovery of Malamud’s short stories, part of both volumes. Just about each of the strange, gleaming jewels included in the Library of America tribute is like a knife past the heart down deep into the very skin of the soul.

Boris Fishman’s debut novel A Replacement Life, about a failed young journalist who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn, is out from HarperCollins June 3. Read more about Boris Fishman and A Replacement Life here.

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