Malamud’s Magic


Finally: with the publication of two handsome volumes (and a third in the works) of the novels and short stories of Bernard Malamud (1914-1986), the Library of America has at long last welcomed into its pantheon of American literary greats the Brooklyn-born author of such well-known works of fiction as “The Natural” (yup, the source for the blockbuster baseball movie starring Robert Redford), “The Fixer” (which won the Pulitzer Prize and also spawned a movie, this one starring Alan Bates), “The Assistant,” and others.

Literary reputations are more unpredictable than the weather, so one can only guess why it took longer for Malamud to receive such eminently deserved recognition than it did for Saul Bellow and Philip Roth; they are the two literary luminaries with whom Malamud’s work is most often linked, by virtue of the fact that all three frequently (though by no means exclusively) drew upon their experience as Jews to write about Jews. Each of these three writers is distinctive in his greatness. But Malamud’s relative neglect in recent years has been a mystery. His carefully crafted sentences can dazzle with their deft precision and unexpected humor. His plots easily mix the absolute realism of daily life with the zany illogic of myth and magic. Many of his characters can be described as heroic schlemiels — downtrodden, vulnerable, and mournful of their past failures, yet nonetheless persistent in their eager and often clueless efforts to redeem their losses and start anew. Whether they succeed or not, it is in their pursuit of such quests that their souls are revealed, both to the reader and to themselves.

And now the Library of America publication of Malamud’s works from the 1940s through the 1960s — the decades in which the author was at his most productive — has made the time ripe for a re-evaluation through re-reading for those familiar with his work, as well as an introduction upon first reading for those new to the fiction of this great literary humanist. Humanist, because what it means to be human — and what it takes to remain not just human but humane despite great suffering — are among the subjects Malamud explores in greatest depth.

My personal favorite among his novels is his second, “The Assistant,” published in 1957. The setting — a mom-and-pop neighborhood grocery store always on the verge of failing — comes from Malamud’s life. Malamud’s father was — like Malamud’s fictional character Morris Bober — a Russian-Jewish immigrant with limited education who, as a grocer, struggled to make a decent living for his family. Decency is the key word here, the defining quality that Morris will not let go of, even after he is robbed and beaten in his deserted store, threatened out of business by a newly opened price-cutting supermarket around the corner, saddened by his inability to brighten the limited prospects for his beloved daughter Helen. It is she who becomes the romantic focus of the sad-sack “assistant” of the title, Frank Alpine, a non-Jew who ultimately apprentices himself to the goal of learning what it means to be a mensch.

For these characters, and throughout Malamud’s work, menschlichkeit is akin to a spiritual value that transcends observance or religious belief. The rabbi’s plainspoken eulogy for Morris Bober sums up this creed this way: “There are many ways to be a Jew,” the rabbi declares. “Morris Bober was to me a true Jew because he lived in the Jewish experience, which he remembered, and with the Jewish heart. Maybe not to our formal tradition — for this I don’t excuse him — but he was true to the spirit of our life — to want for others that which he wants also for himself. … He suffered, he endured, but with hope. … What more does our sweet God ask his poor people?”

In terms of asking, in Malamud’s short stories it’s usually the poor immigrant Jews struggling to make ends meet who pray for a miracle. But whether the events that transpire in the aftermath of those requests are the work of God, fate, or the trickster powers of coincidence is left for the beseeching protagonists, and the reader, to decide. Particularly in his short stories (a genre at which he excelled), these themes play out with the upended logic of fable and folklore, infused with what I think of as Malamud’s own brand of magical realism. Malamud’s first short story collection, published in 1958, was in fact titled “The Magic Barrel,” after one such magical story: a serious-minded rabbinical student becomes a fool to Cupid after engaging the services of a cagey matchmaker who consults Tarot-like cards filled with descriptions of any number of possible matches.

In a similar vein, in “Angel Levine,” a tailor prays for his wife’s recovery from fatal illness and unwittingly conjures an angel who happens to be both black and Jewish. In “Idiots First,” a dying father desperate to seat his disabled son Isaac on a train bound for relatives who will care for him must wrestle first with the conductor (or is he the angel of death?). And in “The Jewbird,” a crow that calls himself Schwartz flies through the window of a Jewish family in New York, aks, in fluent Yiddish, for “a piece of herring with a crust of bread,” and then explains he’s on the fly (literally) from “Anti-Semeets,” including “eagles, vultures and hawks.”

Malamud grappled with anti-Semitism most directly and at greatest length in “The Fixer” (1966), which he based on the infamous “blood libel” case of the Russian Jew Mendel Beilis, falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned in 1913 for the purported ritual murder of a Christian boy. Malamud’s fictional stand-in for Beilis is Yakov Bok, a “fixer” or handyman singled out for punishment by the Tsarist government for no other reason than his happening to be a Jew. This book, more than any other by Malamud, can be said to be “about” something — a clear indictment of prejudice and injustice. But as fiction, it did not stand up to my memory of it, with Malamud’s writing sounding uncharacteristically flat, as if constrained by the importance of his historical subject, his voice trapped within the confines of Yakov Bok’s prison cell.

All these works demonstrate Malamud’s deep commitment to what the rabbi in “The Assistant” aptly calls “the Jewish experience.” Yet readers who think of Malamud as only concerned with Jewish subjects can make the mistake of assuming that those novels and tales without Jewish characters at their center (including most notably his first novel, “The Natural,” published in 1952) are marginal to his opus. The “collected works” nature of the Library of America volumes loudly refutes that view. It makes the case instead not just for the breadth of Malamud’s vision and for the agile versatility of his craft, but also for the continuity of his themes throughout his career.

“The Natural,” for instance, is ostensibly about the “natural” baseball pitcher and slugger Roy Hobbs, a player for the New York Knights so supernaturally gifted that he can rip the cover off a baseball with a mighty whack of the hand-made bat he has dubbed, in child-like innocence, “Wonder Boy.” The subject is certainly not discernibly “Jewish,” but there is as much to ponder about the unexpected workings of fate and magic as there is in Angel Levine and numerous other of Malamud’s tales. To be sure, Roy plays in a baseball field imbued with mythic hope and tragedy — a strikingly different setting from the Depression-era grocery store of “The Assistant” — but like Morris Bober and Frank Alpine, Roy is also struggling to beat the long odds with which his past has burdened him.

So is S. Levin, the no more than nominally Jewish anti-hero of “A New Life,” Malamud’s novel of academia (1961), who leaves behind him the sorrows of life in New York to re-vivify his very being in the wondrous natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest. That bucolic, light-flecked panorama could not differ more from the rancid grimness of Yakov Bok’s cell. But Malamud’s imagination encompassed both Bok and Levin, as well as Morris Bober and Roy Hobbs and Angel Levine and so many others. May his writings, and his magic, endure.