The Shaman and the Schlemiel

The Stories of Bernard Malamud

by Bernard Malamud
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 350 pp., $17.95

Bernard Malamud doesn’t explain why, out of so many stories, he has chosen these twenty-five. They are not arranged in chronological order, but plucked like raisins from the cake of the career. Several old favorites are missing. (Where, for instance, is “Still Life,” or “A Pimp’s Revenge”? Why include “The Cost of Living” and not “The Lady of the Lake”?) Only two, “The Model” and “God’s Wrath,” have not already been published in a collection, and neither is first-rate. “Vus noks du mir a chinik?” his father used to ask him when young Malamud had been to long-winded in telling his tale: What tune are you banging on your pot?

A sad one, I think, a kind of coronach, as if some vital principle had died—liberal optimism, maybe, or God’s grace—and Malamud wants us to stand outside in the rain and snow. According to Yakov Bok in The Fixer, “Once you leave you’re out in the open; it rains and snows. It snows history, which means what happens to somebody starts in a web of events outside the personal.” And the Malamudim, his victims, imaginary Jews in an imaginary ghetto, leave home for history surprisingly often, on quests, to Rome or Kiev or Chicago or Vermont or Oregon State, even unto an island of sophistical apes, there to find another tenement and another prison, more bad weather and bad luck, “space corrupted by time, the past-contaminated self” (A New Life).

For Malamud, inside such a self is just as wet as out. If the past is “a wound in the head,” the future will be full of holes, “and there were days when he was sick to death of everything.” If history is a series of determinisms, sticky webs, the stalled self is a stupid fly, willing itself to make the same mistake incessantly. If politics is a garbage heap—of czar fantasies, sadistic goyim, toadstools, death camps, Willie Spear, glass, gas, boots, and blood—personality is a cartoon, a toy soldier-peasant with a key in its pineal gland. Why me? Why now? Against the Holocaust, Armageddon, gridlock, and powerful abstractions, what’s a schlemiel supposed to do?

Malamud has always, anyway, been uncomfortable with the bigger abstractions. He is more interested in magic tricks than in revolting masses. His art particularizes and domesticates. Shoulders come from God, and burdens, too. See people small: Marx does not provide one of the lenses he looks through, and neither does Herzl. When Bok tells us in The Fixer that “one thing I’ve learned…there’s no such thing as an unpolitical man,” he isn’t talking about the class struggle or the Jewish State or any other subject on which Irving Howe and Norman Podhoretz might reach an adjournment of minds. He is talking about covering his own ass.

Susskind goes to Israel in “The Last Mohican,” and Harvitz goes to Moscow in “Man in the Drawer.” According to Susskind, who quit Israel in …

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Letters

Stories of Malamud May 31, 1984