Mala­mud: Nov­els and Sto­ries of the 1970s & 80s

  • Review
By – July 26, 2023

In the third and final vol­ume of the Library of America’s col­lec­tion of Bernard Malamud’s lat­er sto­ries and nov­els, edi­tor Philip Davis invites us to con­sid­er Malamud’s cur­rent sta­tus as a fig­ure in Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and to address the ques­tion of why we should con­tin­ue to read him today.

Many believe that Malamud’s achieve­ment as a mas­ter of the short sto­ry dates from the late for­ties and ear­ly fifties, cul­mi­nat­ing with The Mag­ic Bar­rel (1958), the first short sto­ry col­lec­tion to win the Nation­al Book Award. His orig­i­nal­i­ty stems from his abil­i­ty to com­press lan­guage, a com­pres­sion that mir­rors the small­ness of his immi­grant father’s world. As crit­ics at the time rec­og­nized, Mala­mud trans­formed the tra­di­tions of Jew­ish folk­lore into a terse yet deeply evoca­tive Yid­dish-cadenced prose that trans­lat­ed the heartache of Jew­ish his­to­ry into feel­ing. Mala­mud is cel­e­brat­ed for his com­pas­sion, his evo­ca­tion of a dis­tinc­tive Jew­ish mood tinged with the tears of Jew­ish mem­o­ry. As he explains in the Intro­duc­tion to his Sto­ries of Bernard Mala­mud (1983), which is includ­ed in this vol­ume, I would often be writ­ing about Jews, in cel­e­bra­tion and expiation.”

In addi­tion to repub­lish­ing thir­teen of Malamud’s lat­er sto­ries, drawn main­ly from the col­lec­tion Rembrandt’s Hat (1973), the Library of Amer­i­ca vol­ume includes Malamud’s most provoca­tive nov­el, The Ten­ants (1971), about Black-Jew­ish rela­tions and the racial/​ethnic sources of cre­ativ­i­ty itself. This vol­ume also reprints Dubin’s Lives (1979), a book about a mid­dle-aged biog­ra­ph­er seek­ing a more erot­i­cal­ly infused per­son­al life, and God’s Grace (1982), a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic nov­el in the vein of Robin­son Cru­soe, fea­tur­ing a Jew who seeks to instruct a tribe of chim­panzees in an eth­i­cal Jew­ish life. 

The Ten­ants, embed­ded in the racial tur­bu­lence of late 1960s New York City, remains a sig­nif­i­cant work about the vexed sto­ry of Black-Jew­ish cul­tur­al his­to­ry. Focus­ing on the charged rela­tion­ship between two writ­ers, one a non-Jew­ish Black man and the oth­er a white Jew­ish man, Mala­mud med­i­tates on empa­thy and the impos­si­bil­i­ty of racial broth­er­hood. His effort to con­jure Black dialect is, a half-cen­tu­ry lat­er, embar­rass­ing to read. While the nov­el ends with the famil­iar Mala­mud dec­la­ra­tion that each feels the anguish of the oth­er,” fol­lowed by a chant­i­ng of rach­mones (Yid­dish for mer­cy”), The Ten­ants ulti­mate­ly expos­es the lim­its of its author’s empathy. 

Malamud’s last­ing achieve­ment remains the short sto­ry. In his best lat­er sto­ries, char­ac­ters often reach a moment of illu­mi­na­tion, of moral clar­i­ty, of rach­mones, which con­fers a deep­er human­i­ty. We wit­ness this mod­est but telling epiphany in Rembrandt’s Hat.” Arkin, a minor art his­to­ri­an, and Rubin, a deep-feel­ing, self-doubt­ing, strug­gling sculp­tor, have a falling-out over a com­ment by Arkin regard­ing a white hat Rubin is wear­ing; it reminds the art his­to­ri­an of a famous self-por­trait by Rem­brandt. Rubin feels wound­ed” by this seem­ing­ly casu­al remark; it expos­es his fail­ure as an artist — a fat bur­den,” he reflects, on my soul.” In the end, Arkin apol­o­gizes, real­iz­ing that he has mis­re­mem­bered the par­tic­u­lar Rem­brandt paint­ing he ascribed to Rubin. Rubin breaks down in tears, and each expe­ri­ences a moment of catharsis.

One won­ders if these late works, despite their famil­iar Mala­mu­di­an themes, will gar­ner a read­er­ship beyond Mala­mud schol­ars and stu­dents. Nev­er­the­less, they invite read­ers to (re)discover this writer’s implic­it moral chal­lenge: that we rec­og­nize our con­nec­tion to oth­ers. In Mala­mud, acts of empa­thy sig­nal our humane­ness. The great­est achieve­ment is to be a mensch. 

This last vol­ume in the Library of Amer­i­ca series may not show­case Malamud’s most revered, canon­i­cal ear­ly sto­ries. But Mala­mud: Nov­els and Sto­ries of the 1970s and 80s con­firms his sta­tus as a pro­found­ly impor­tant writer who was able to trans­late both his pri­vate grief and the fraught emo­tion­al world of Jew­ish expe­ri­ence into mem­o­rable lit­er­ary art.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions