The War of Camp Omongo
Seven Days of Mourning
Ome older Jewish writers clung to the panoramic chronicle because, in a rapidly dissolving scene, they were dominated by the urge to get it all down on paper. This is never to be despised, and personally I would rather have written The Rise of David Levinsky than most recent fiction. But as extra-literary social pressures have slackened, the gain in artistic range and depth has been unquestionable. The American-Jewish novelist has been emancipated; Bernard Malamud’s generation finally struck off the fetters of uncompromising naturalism, and younger men like Mr. Blechman and Mr. Simckes take their freedom for granted.
Still, whatever our theoretical reservations about the naturalistic novel, most of us demand from fiction a degree of verisimilitude. Symbols lose half their power when they are suspended in mid-air, instead of growing out of plausible necessity; when myths buttonhole us and introduce themselves, we shrink back. It has been Bernard Malamud’s particular triumph in his short stories to have succeeded not in abandoning naturalism but in crossing it with fantasy. His gloomy streets are no less familiar, no less firm underfoot because they are sometimes lit up by miracles. Typically, his characters are middle-aged, plain, wheezy, too careworn to bother about fine manners: when it itches, they scratch. However cabbalistic some of his devices, his work is heavy with the fatigue of the relentless modern city, where a complaint suggests, not a lament, but a chronic minor ailment.
Yet feelings flow freely in this prosaic world, for despite its life-like surfaces it is really a world of fable, where everything is simplified and compact. Not that the moral of a Malamud fable isn’t often unexpected or elusive, since a sophisticated modern mind is at work behind his stories even at their most archaic. Indeed, the more Malamud draws on legend and folklore, the more openly comic his anachronisms tend to become, while the irruption of the supernatural into his work usually brings with it a touch of outright farce. The title-piece of his new collection of short stories is as eerie as anything he has ever written: a dying man rushes round New York on a winter’s night trying to raise enough money to put his idiot son on the train to California. At the last minute his path is blocked by the angel of death, an implacable ticket-collector: “You ain’t the only one, my friend, some got it worse than you. That’s how it goes in this country.” The least suggestion of whimsy would spoil the scene, but the angel is, all too literally, in deadly earnest: we are made to share the choking rage which finally compels the sick father to wrestle with him. If he isn’t a figure of fun, however, he is undoubtedly funny, after a macabre fashion. So, too, with the tale of Schwartz, the talking blackbird, who is initially rejected (“Gevalt, a pogrom!”) and eventually destroyed by the owner of the apartment where he roosts. The purpose behind Malamud’s parable certainly isn’t droll—but while we’re…
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