Sliding Into English

Rembrandt's Hat

by Bernard Malamud
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 204 pp., $6.95

Bernard Malamud
Bernard Malamud; drawing by David Levine

Meet Rifkele:

…she looks thirty and probably has the mentality of age ten. Her skin glowed, face wet, fleshy, the small mouth open and would be forever; eyes set wide apart on the broad unfocused face, either washed-out green or brown, or one of each—he wasn’t sure. She seemed not to mind his appraisal, gurgled faintly.

Rifkele is the rabbi’s daughter. She runs down a corridor in a dingy apartment; her body bumps the walls. She eats bananas. She exudes a prurience unbearable to consider. Nothing is more natural, or unnatural, than this holy beast. Rifkele would be an ideal bride for Faulkner’s Benjele, but, as it happens, she is running, noshing, moaning in Malamud’s “The Silver Crown,” a story of sentimental—magical, brutal, stoical—irony.

Rifkele is like the very language in which she is realized. Both are full of energy and—in so far as language is a way of seeing the world—both have differently colored eyes. Malamud forbids us to look precisely at Rifkele’s eyes—“green or brown, or one of each”—but his sentences are available. In the opening passage English and Yiddish focus on the failing condition of this world:

Gans, the father, lay dying in a hospital bed. Different doctors said different things, held different theories. There was talk of an exploratory operation but they thought it might kill him. One doctor said cancer.

“Of the heart,” the old man said bitterly.

“It wouldn’t be impossible.”

“Held different theories” shrugs, against the burden, toward vacancy. Theories at a time like this. “One doctor said cancer” shrugs similarly for the paragraph. The mysterious scene—operate where?—concludes in a threat which seems to come not from the doctor who said cancer, but from the big doctor in the sky.

I am mixing my metaphors, going from eyes to ears to kinesthetic signals, but, in Malamud’s language, there is a way to see in listening, and both kinds of apprehension seem connected to a sort of muscular activity in his syntax. Perhaps this variety of expressive powers is what allows for his remarkable compression of meaning; in the six lines above, for example, he reviews a convention of inaccessible, disapproving, dying fathers that is familiar to us in the novels of Saul Bellow and the stories of Kafka. At the end of “The Silver Crown,” Malamud kills both the convention and the fathers. When old Gans’s son loses his temper and says, “He hates me, the son of a bitch, I hope he croaks,” old Gans drops dead. Thus, in more than one sense, a story is finished—as if to say, in a stroke of exasperation, “Enough already!” Or as if, by his art, Malamud abolishes one of its major subjects—fathers—and the oppressive feelings associated with this subject.

In the language we hear—before it actually happens—that Gans is essentially dead. God is dead. Read “a” as in mamma…

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