Bernard Malamud
Bernard Malamud; drawing by David Levine

This is a Jewish fable: the hero as sufferer and martyr is a characteristic Jewish theme, comic and tragic, and a continuing one in Malamud’s novels. They also draw on the traditions of the Russian novel, in which, because Russian society was anarchic, the human being, in his native, unprotected, passive mind and flesh, could appear as if he were Nature itself. In The Fixer, a Jew in abysmal circumstances, orphaned by pogrom, childless, deserted by his wife, tries to free himself, takes one false step, commits a small illegal act, and destiny, i.e., history, is on to him at once. From that moment he goes from disaster to disaster; if there are respites in which the hope of normal felicity throws a gleam, this is only a deceit. Soon the screw will be turned tighter. The moral of Candide is that we must cultivate our gardens: The moral of Malamud’s story is that you will be left with no garden to cultivate. From him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath. That, of course, could be what you want: the ultimate sense of your own drama. Better be meek—yet meekness is a corrupting culture; suffering, into which Judaism and Christianity have put so much moral capital, is a miasma. Going to his final trial and probable death, Malamud’s hero learns the lesson that the philosophy he has tried to work out with the aid of Spinoza—picked up from a second-hand shelf—was really self-regarding: The virtuous man grows to his proper human dimension and becomes large or noble not by what is done to him but what he does. If you make a break with resignation and go in for active virtue you must continue:

One thing I’ve learned, he thought, there’s no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew. You can be one without the other, that’s clear enough. You can sit still and see yourself destroyed. Afterwards he thought, where there’s no fight for it there’s no freedom.

And so, if he survives his trial, this passive though stoical victim of the anti-Semitic witch hunt that followed the Russian revolution of 1905 will be a revolutionary. The relevance of the fable to the Negro or other minority situations is obvious. But Malamud is getting something native off his chest.

YAKOV BOK is a half-starving odd job man whose wife has left him because they have failed to produce children. He has rejected the orthodox Jewish teaching and sets out for Kiev to earn more money, and to continue his self-education. If he can he will struggle somehow across Europe to Amsterdam and ship to America, the promised land. In Kiev he ventures out of the ghetto and one night, against his better judgment, he plays the good Samaritan: He saves a drunken Russian from death by pulling him out of the snow. The grateful Russian offers the good Samaritan a job and Fortune smiles; but only on one side of its face: Jews are forbidden to work in the Russian quarter. Worse, his grateful employer is a leading member of the anti-Semitic movement. Bok is desperate: employer and employee like each other, shall he confess? He decides to conceal his race and breaks the regulation. All goes well; but Bok’s job as a foreman of his master’s brick works is to prevent the wholesale stealing that is going on. For this he is hated and watched by the workers. One day some wild schoolboys pelt the brickyard offices with stones. Box drives them off. A week or so later one of the boys is found savagely stabbed to death. The body, left a long time, is bloodless. The hysteria in the town is useful to the anti-Semitic party: They need a sensational case to distract the people from the campaign for liberal reforms. Bok’s Jewishness is discovered and he is accused of ritual murder.

For the rest of the novel, Bok is in prison for prolonged investigation and eventual trial. The examining magistrate is a liberal man and is soon convinced of Bok’s innocence. But the anti-Semites organize their prosecution and eventually drive the magistrate to suicide and get the case to themselves. It is an embarrassment, however, to these fanatics. They are driven to wholesale faking of evidence; when this is questioned by liberal lawyers and the press, they go out for confession. Bok may or may not be innocent, but (they say) there is no such thing as an innocent Jew and he had better confess because if he doesn’t there will be terrible pogroms. An acquittal will lead to a holocaust. Years of brutal treatment in prison in which he is reduced to a physical wreck do not break Bok. He sticks to his innocence. In the end someone throws a bomb at the wagon on which he is to be taken through the streets to his trial. He is not hurt. But it is after the explosion that he, for the first time in his life, thinks of punishment and violence, and makes the remark that I have quoted.


THE MATERIAL out of which this novel is made is nauseously familiar. We have been instructed to the full about anti-Semitism and we have been made to understand that its horrors are paralleled in the attitude to other racial groups. We know all about witch hunts. Mr. Malamud’s danger, as a novelist, was that he would write one more scathing tract, and tracts get merely stock responses of good will. He is also open to the charge of being rather ardent in ill-health. If I were a Jew I would think it necessary to turn my hysteria into a passion for moral consciousness. The fable, as a form, is made for this and here Malamud tremendously succeeds. Yakov Bok has to suffer all the obscenities of Russian anti-Semitism, which was medieval in 1905. The modern anti-Semite might be shocked to see what images of medieval bestiality he has in his unconscious: it is a style. So, first of all, Malamud is not generalizing. He has a precise, historical scene in mind; and a precise theme: the ancient accusation of ritual murder. Left on this level, Bok’s story would have been no more than lacerating and Bok himself one of those casualties whom our despairing minds cannot help. Like the victims of massacre, they lose identity. But Malamud’s Bok is not that. The novel is original because it is focussed on another drama: the drama of the crisis of moral consciousness in a pariah who has been forced to think for himself. He is forced out of animal cunning, out of the whimper of the kennel to become, little by little, a man. He is blind to everything except his one drive—to get away. This blindness makes him even clownish. His intensity invites absurd calamity, and one of Malamud’s triumphs is that he does not forget that Bok has a saving core of the Jewish comic in him, if we understand he is playing black comedy. For example, he is manacled in his cell by day. The prosecutor visits him at night. The sadistic prosecutor tells him worse is to follow:

“I warn you, you will be publicly unmasked and seen for what you are.”

Bok replies:

“What do you want from me here, Mr. Grubeshov? Its late at night. I need a little rest for the chains in the morning.”

In another scene with his friendly lawyer:

“The thing about life is how fast it goes,” said Ostrovsky.

“Faster than that.”

Suffering has made Bok a wit. He can also get in a temper; or drop into sly naivety:

“I’m sick of prison.”

He is prudish and shockable; it takes years of prison to make him forgive his wife. He is continuously human, something of a folk-tale character; his mind wonders as it wanders. It is even comic—in the sense that Don Quixote is comic—that his growing moral consciousness is like a load on his back: being ignorant did he take on too much when he tried reading Spinoza? Was he a mug to make a break? What is he?—simply a peasant, a Jew, a man in a temper, a little man in a muddle who can be certain of only one thing which appears to have no relevance: that he is innocent.

Once you leave [the shtetl] 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. It starts of course before he gets there. We’re all in history, that’s sure, but some are more than others, Jews more than some. If it snows not everyone is out in it getting wet. He had to his painful surprise stepped into history more deeply than others—it had worked out so. Why he would never know. Because he had taken to reading Spinoza. An idea makes you adventurous. Maybe, who knows?

As for “the open”:

It was anywhere. In or out, it was history that counts—the world’s bad memory. It remembered the wrong things.

MALAMUD GETS IN Bok’s mind by a kind of passive cunning—very much a feature of this novelist’s writing. He is also a master of means: all the sound views and good feelings count for nothing in a novelist who is not skillful in suspense, the tightening of the drama chapter by chapter, surprise moving from sentence to sentence. The shock of the suicide of the magistrate is marvelously timed. The lesser characters are seen with an original eye. They fill out the design, but never distort it. And all the time, slyly, step by step, the fantasies and lies which the anti-Semites have built up are revealed. The murdered child’s mother is a whore, living among criminals. The whole story slips out vividly. Bok’s wife is forced to see him in prison—they hope to get her to persuade him to confess—and she, the sly peasant, agrees; but what she is after is to get Bok to sign a paper saying he is the father of her bastard. Everywhere Bok is betrayed. And what is to happen in the end—guilty or not guilty, dead or alive? It is brilliant not to let us know, for although we long for Bok to win, we also hope he will not, for his strength lies in his tragedy and in the doubt about his future. After all, doubt about general views about life have made him push on and on. Success at this stage would be an insult. It is possible to complain that the prison scenes are repetitive; and that—as usual with Malamud—there is something malsain about the women; and that Bok’s dreams are too convenient. The last one about the Tsar almost frivolously so; but the whole fable is unexpected, inventive, and compelling.


This Issue

September 22, 1966