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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 a hurry: “Too much heavy labor for a man of my modest health. Also I couldn’t stand the suspense.” Harvitz, upon whom as much guilt is laid in Moscow by the taxi-driving Levitansky as was laid on Fidelman in Rome by the beggar Susskind, tries to explain:

My own problem is not that I can’t express myself but that I don’t. In my own mind Vietnam is a demoralizing mistake, yet I’ve never really opposed it except to sign petitions and vote for congressmen who say they’re against the war. My first wife used to criticize me. She said I wrote the wrong things and was involved in everything but useful action. My second wife knew it but made me think she didn’t. Maybe I’m just waking up to the fact that the U.S. government has for years been mucking up my self-respect.

The American presumes to advise the Russian:

So if you’re up against a wall you can’t climb, or dig under, or outflank, at least stop banging your head against it, not to mention mine. Do what you can. It’s amazing,for instance, what can be said in a fairy tale.

If we think of writers like Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka and Günter Grass, not to mention Solzhenitsyn and Milan Kundera, this seems more like a head cold than serious politics. In Gates of Eden, Morris Dickstein suggested that The Magic Barrel, The Assistant, and other quiet Jewish-American fictions of the late 1950s were, in a way, “an atonement for Jewish radicalism [Dickstein’s italics] that is also perfectly in tune with the wider currents of the age: ruminative, private, morally austere and self-conscious, apolitical.” Going so far, in my opinion, is going too far. What Jewish radicalism? I find no hint in Malamud that he is making up for the political sins of the Rosenbergs or anyone else.

He and other dangling men of the 1940s and 1950s were burdened by stylized anxiety and the assimilationist blues. Of course they would grow up later on to write such different books as The Fixer and The Tenants, Mr. Sammler’s Planet and The Dean’s December. A non-Jewish Updike also grew up to Rabbit Redux and Cheever to Falconer; the 1960s and 1970s for them were mean years, messy if not politicized. At least Saul Bellow, anthroposophically speaking, got fighting mad. Yet Malamud, before, during, after, now, still, is, well, ruminative, private, apolitical, austere, ambivalent, perplexed, even as Willie Spear hacks off Harry Lesser’s balls with a razor-sharp saber (in The Tenants) and Somebody Up There drops the Big One on a hapless Calvin Cohn (in God’s Grace).

And Malamud’s people manage to make themselves as solitary as ever. His particular Jewish territories, the outback and the inward, neither teem nor throng. There is seldom the thick intimacy of a Lower East Side or an old-country shtetl, not much socializing—much less socialism—or communal life, weddings, grandchildren, people-sandwiches at the kitchen table, even book clubs. Three is more than enough company for most of his stories, and even most of his novels, and it’s usually one-on-one with a rabbi or an albatross. The wives are dead and the sons are idiots and the daughters are whores and old friends leave town and landlords fore-close and there is so “little of life to be alive in”—our freedom is so short—that you might as well stay in the toilet. (About the Jews, Frank Alpine in The Assistant thinks: “That’s what they live for…to suffer. And the one who has the biggest pain in the gut and can hold onto it longest without running to the toilet is the best Jew. No wonder they got on his nerves.” To his cleaning woman, Nat Lime in “Black Is My Favorite Color” yells: “Charity Quietness—you hear me?—come out of that goddamn toilet!”)

No wonder so many critics call these fictions “claustral.” Each has its own loner, or loser; you come upon a male severed head in the rushing water and longhaired thoughts; but they all sound the same. Sometimes, just to spice up their interior monologues, they practice law, doctor wounds, write magazine articles, hit curves, paint or profess. Much more often, a generation or two removed from Eastern Europe or Mother Russia, they cut cloth or knead bread. They sell coffee or pastrami or linoleum. They are shoemakers, pawnbrokers, egg candlers, or students of accounting. But they all speak with the same bafflement. Their books don’t balance. Time, money, and freedom are running out. Like Frank Alpine, they are suffocating in their own lives. How to be dazzled into sentience?

There’s always sex: I want. And, to be sure, Malamud has looked through Freud’s lens, as well as Darwin’s. Forget the Oedipal compulsions—those surrogate fathers and murderous sons—and concentrate on the overt hanky-panky. Everywhere in Malamud is appetite. A schlemiel may not drink, or take dope, or have a political tantrum, but he can always go to bed with another man’s wife, or a Venetian glassblower, or a chimpanzee who reads Shakespeare. Will he, however, be happy? No, sir. Sex, for Malamud, is as calamitous as politics. Following Freud, he thinks that wish fulfillment is a bad idea; he specializes in deferred gratification and a tragic sense of life. Unlike Freud, he spends a great deal of time wanting, and then denying, and then moralizing those denials. If by chance—after the locked doors, the loose bowels, and the mistaken identities—anybody gets away with anything, the transgression will be punished. Dubin, in A New Life, beds Fanny Brick, only to lose his memory and his erection. Calvin Cohn, having “monkeyed with evolution,” must lay down his head on a bloody platter. “Uncircumcised dog,” explains Helen Bober to Frank Alpine. (I don’t believe in Fidelman’s Venetian glassblower for a minute, any more than I believe in Farragut’s heroin addiction or brother-killing in Cheever’s Falconer.) Happiness doesn’t seem to be one of Malamud’s categories. Like Levin in A New Life, he would leave “to Casanova or Clark Gable the gourmandise, the blasts and quakes of passion.” No wonder he gets on Philip Roth’s nerves. Roth spends a whole career trying to “desublimate” himself and the rest of the Jews, and there’s Malamud, a sad grizzly bear in a cave, saying: Never mind; it hurts me in the reality principle.

We are to see, then, the schlemiel. Where is he? Neither at home nor away but at an impasse. How does he feel? Out of context, either social or economic; remote from fathers and children and motherland and mother tongue; lost from neighborhood and history; bothered by events; a kind of dented pot on which everybody else is always banging a strange tune. Why was I chosen, and what should I choose? Who wrote this Law? Whose fault am I? Bad luck? Bad faith? False consciousness? The questions are loaded and the deck is stacked and the bear makes metaphors and jokes. They’re good jokes, but is Woody Allen a solution?

The bear, we imagine, talks to God and we listen in. They are discussing ethics and tend to agree on basics. Their ends include: freedom and order and justice and love. Their means include: pity, mercy, fairness, affection, resilience, responsibility, humility, usefulness, hard work, stubborn decency, stoic humor, sacrifice, renunciation, affirmation, and rebirth. This is very Judeo-Christian of them. I’m not the first nor will I be the last to point a finger at both the testaments to be found in Malamud’s witness. He likes St. Francis of Assisi just as much as he likes Spinoza. There is a cross on every other of his pages. That suffering should purify is definitely an AD idea. Almost anybody who reviews Malamud also mentions Hawthorne.

Besides, if we add Malamud’s intimations of Buddhist reciprocity to the Judeo-Christian chicken soup, it smells warm and safe and good and liberal and secular and optimistic. Leninism and satyriasis are bad for the character. If there isn’t a Golden Rule, there ought at least to be a categorical imperative—what Lionel Trilling called “the idea of modulation” and W.S. Gilbert meant by “modified rapture.”

But what, alas, if we’ve bought the means and ends and measured our merriment and downed our medicine and endured our discrepancies and behaved like a mensch, and, nevertheless, we are still lonely and cold and baffled and ambivalent and broke and stepped-on? Melville was talking about Hawthorne when he said, “For in certain moods, no man can weigh this world without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance…. This black conceit pervades him through and through.”

What if where and how we live is inside Original Sin: snow and conceit? Against it, there is only God’s grace—and Malamud’s magic. By sleight of hand or wink of graft, the booby trap sometimes turns into an escape hatch. It is as if his famous “broken speech”—“Who comes on Friday night to a man that he has guests to spoil him his supper?” or “Have a little mercy on me, Lesser, move so I can break up this rotten house that weighs like a hunch on my back”—had been snapped on purpose so that the fabulous could leak through the fingers and the cracks. Decency redeems, dignity prevails, and suffering “teaches us to want the right things,” on these sometimes. According to “The Loan”:

For thirty years, the baker explained, he was never with a penny to his name. One day, out of misery, he had wept into the dough. Thereafter his bread was such it brought customers in from everywhere.

On such occasions, every moral decision has a different specific gravity. Leid macht auch lachen. By Fidelman, “All is forgiven.” Like Morris Bober, “When a Jew dies, who asks if he is a Jew, we don’t ask.” Like Bober’s daughter, we fight “a sense of mourning to a practiced draw.” Like Irving Howe, we are vouchsafed “the beauty of defeat as a kind of love.” Like a butterfly, soaring and dipping, afflatus lands on our noses: a magic barrel, a silver crown, violins, candles, and moonlit stones, a black angel who decides he’s Jewish. When this happens, when we witness these conversions and ascensions, practically anybody who has ever reviewed Malamud is immediately reminded of Chagall.

These are lovely aerobatic moments, when the bear turns into a dolphin and the schlemiel turns into a clown and Chagall meets Chaplin above our dizzied heads, as if a pratfall had turned into a dervish dance. When, however, we are asked to experience such moments a second time or a third, in anthologies or in reshufflings like this new book, I begin to wonder: Why does the moment occur to Manischevitz and not to Dr. Morris? Why to Fidelman and not to Orlando Krantz? The magic seems suddenly as arbitrary as the impasse it is supposed to redeem. Both are unearned, God’s secret that Malamud isn’t telling. And if this makes me uneasy, it seems lately to be bothering Malamud, too. In his last novel, God’s Grace, he was irritable and depressed. He has rearranged the stories as though to make us feel as bad as he does. They flip and flop, but are somehow heavier here, standing in the holes of themselves, dragged down by so much death and mourning. On a scale of depressiveness, they would register down, up, down, up, up, down, down, down, down, up-and-down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down-and-up, up, down, down, down, and iffy. The iffy is “Talking Horse,” about a centaur named Abramowitz. At least the centaur isn’t a jewbird, although the jewbird eats herring and potato pancakes while Abramowitz the centaur eats straw and pep pills.

Here are some endings and middles:

Whore, bastard, bitch. (“Take Pity”)

I was frightened by the blood and wanted to pour it back in the man who was bleeding from the chisel. (“Black Is My Favorite Color”)

I give my heart and they kick me in my teeth. (“Black Is My Favorite Color”)

I fought in the Marne and the Argonne Forest. I had both my lungs gassed with mustard gas. The wind changed and the Huns were gassed. That’s not all that were. (“The Letter”)

He woke feeling desire and repulsion and lay mourning himself. He felt powerless to be other than he was. (“In Retirement”)

One morning Sura got up and slowly ripped her cheeks with her fingernails. (“The Cost of Living”)

No, no, please, please,” flailing his withered arms, nauseated, enervated (all he could hear in the uproar was the thundering clock), and his heart, like a fragile pitcher, toppled from the shelf and bump-bumped down the stairs, cracking at the bottom, the shards flying everywhere. (“The Death of Me”)

He felt he had done something wrong with his life and didn’t know what. (“God’s Wrath”)

They died and we suffer. My wife ate flowers and I belch. (“Life Is Better Than Death”)

I’ve mentioned Darwin as one of Malamud’s lenses. In God’s Grace, we nuke ourselves, annoying God and wiping out the insects. Calvin Cohn, a paleontologist who happens to be the son of a rabbi, washes up on a tropical island where, with the help of a group of chimps wired for sound and converted to Christianity, a gorilla named George with “a talented ear for devotional music,” an albino ape, and some luckless baboons, he builds a “school tree,” teaches Freud and Kierkegaard, throws pots, makes masks, reinvents religion, education, the work ethic, leisure time, bloody history, fine art, and human sacrifice. The gorilla says kaddish for Cohn.

We are talking about devolution, after which, when we start over, perhaps there will be centaurs. Melville comes to mind again:

Though nominally included in the census of Christendom, he was still an alien to it. He lived in the world as the last of the Grisly bears lived in settled Missouri. And as when Spring and Summer had departed, the wild Logan of the woods, burying himself in the hollow of a tree, lived out the winter there, sucking his own paws, so, in his inclement, howling old age, Ahab’s soul, shut up in the caved trunk of his body, there fed upon the sullen paws of its gloom.

Maybe the century, certainly a lousy one for any sort of optimism, sickens its jokes and art. God stopped talking to Calvin Cohn. Maybe, too, God has stopped talking to Bernard Malamud, or vice versa.

Letters

Stories of Malamud May 31, 1984

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