…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 and Gans becomes Yiddish for “all.” The conflation of English and Yiddish is funny, but, if Malamud is making a joke, he is also exploiting a significant tension within his bivalent language. He is closer to Wordsworth than to Milton Berle. The conflation of languages and the joke-making seem to become a subject of the story called “Talking Horse,” where Yiddish wiggles in and out of English, making its peculiar subtle qualifications. In brief the story goes like this:
A Yiddish-English speaking horse named Abramowitz discovers himself in “a sideshow full of freaks…and then in center ring…with his deaf-mute master—Goldberg himself.” Abramowitz is forced to participate in a comedy routine. Goldberg asks questions and the amazing talking horse gives funny answers.
Abramowitz says: “All I know is I’ve been here for years and still don’t understand the nature of my fate; in short if I’m Abramowitz, a horse; or a horse including Abramowitz.” At last the horse-head is torn off; “Amid the stench of blood and bowel a man’s pale head popped out of the hole in the horse.” He pulls himself out up to the navel, and thus, in his new condition, Abramowitz has a physical form appropriate to his conflation of languages. “Departing the circus grounds he cantered across a grassy soft field into a dark wood, a free centaur.”
In the heart of this horse lives a Yiddish human, a sad, semitranscendent clown, whose fictional language is self-consciously freakish and yet irrepressible. Abramowitz therefore must no longer be seen, by his critics, as part of a comedy act with Goldberg. That stereotypical name belongs to a grotesque deaf-mute. The name Abramowitz has complexity.
The differences among characters in the stories in Rembrandt’s Hat are less important than their similarities. Their capacity to be foolish, and miserable, to get into sticky relationships with one another, remains consistent. What does change, more than the particular characters, is the ubiquitous character we might call Malamud’s language, modulating toward English or Yiddish, sometimes within a story, mostly from one story to another. In the passage where Gans lies dying, Yiddish is evident throughout if one listens for Malamud’s fiddle making phrases, the length and pressure of his strokes signifying as much as the notes.
Other Jewish writers make this music too. In its rhythms and intonations there is an appeal that is prior to, deeper than, one’s individualistic, “New World” discriminations. It is an appeal—to all who hear it, and all who hear themselves in it—for solidarity: a united Jewish appeal. However, Malamud represents rather than solicits feeling, turning his language according to the requirements of human temperature and natural force. In a story called “Notes From a Lady at a Dinner Party,” where the characters are New World types, Malamud uses swift, orderly English. The story is about depraved egocentricity and the giddy sexual betrayal of—I think—civilization.
The most general implications of the stories in this collection are as relevant to Malamud’s idea of his art as to his subjects. He seems to indicate, in various ways, that he is concerned to represent feeling, not extraordinary allegiances, however profound, however well justified. Perhaps for this reason Malamud offers two epigraphs for this book which express a kind of pain in his artistic heart. One epigraph is from T.S. Eliot, not remarkable for any allegiance to Jewish things (excepting banks, books, publishing, the Bible, and God). It reads: “And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.” I am not sure what this means in “The Journey of the Magi,” which is about the qvech of death in life, but, through Eliot, his cultural antithesis, Malamud apparently intimates himself as an artist; Eliot’s spiritual brother. At least three of the stories in this collection are about artists in relation to their art.
A second epigraph, from a letter by the genteel James T. Fields to Henry James, complicates the suggestion in the first: “What we want is short cheerful stories.” Given Malamud’s stories, the quotation seems chosen with ironic deliberation. In being inconsistent with these stories, it is not inconsistent with Malamud’s masochistic clown side, where feeling is in constant consultation with anxiety, its worst friend. Between them the epigraphs evoke the spirit of Malamud, the artist, as if he were himself attending this exhibition of his art.
A man half-pops out of a horse, or, in another story. “Man in the Drawer,” half-pops out of a drawer; a language is half-English, half-Yiddish; a cretinous energetic girl has differently colored eyes; the character who wears Rembrandt’s hat, in the title story, actually turns out to be wearing something like a chef’s hat, which is the hat of an artisan (not Rembrandt) who is more committed than any artist should be to real-life kinds of natural stimulation. One begins to perceive how Malamud’s astonishing centaur, half-man, half-beast, gallops in theme, plot, and language. “My Son the Murderer,” possibly the best story in the collection, most clearly exhibits this centaur quality. It begins:
He wakes feeling his father is in the hallway, listening. He listens to him sleep and dream. Listening to him get up and fumble for his pants. He won’t put on his shoes. To him not going to the kitchen to eat. Staring with shut eyes in the mirror. Sitting an hour on the toilet. Flipping the pages of a book he can’t read. To his anguish, loneliness. The father stands in the hall. The son hears him listen.
Yiddish slides into English: “Sitting an hour on the toilet.” This is not pretty. It is in fact lugubrious. Also accurate, appropriate. More interesting, who is thinking this sentence? It is like the others in grammatical form. but it is, apparently, the narrator’s own Yiddish-English idiom, offered in a rush of feeling which embraces both characters, and then recedes at the next word, “Flipping.” The passage is like a weird, dull, broken lullaby, heard on the verge of dream when it is impossible to tell rocking from singing. The echoing, a-transitional sentences stand as far apart as the father and the son are intimate, which is immensely. Their anguish and loneliness are simultaneous, magnetic, equivalent, and reciprocally intensifying. The father listens and the son listens to him listen. This relationship extends, finally, to its place in the natural inhumanity of things.
Relationship, which is what we have when we have nothing better, is a modern word meaning isolation, especially in those groups—the family, for example—which once generated illusions of unselfconscious, natural, human coherence. The family, in Malamud’s story and elsewhere, is perhaps now understood, in the manner of the father and the son, as being at once related and unrelated to such modern phenomena as the war in Southeast Asia. When news films of the war appear on TV the son, who is waiting to be drafted, presses his hand to the glass and waits for his hand to die. His father, trying to remind him of humane feelings and an earlier idea of life, says in plaintive, hopelessly inadequate Yiddish-English:
When you were a little boy, every night when I came home you used to run to me. I picked you up and lifted you up to the ceiling. You liked to touch it with your small hand.
The timing of this statement in the story, which cannot be reproduced here, makes the joke exquisite, and, if considered simply for its icy artistry, it has demoniacal power. In the world right now, with no traditional-natural sustaining illusions of human feeling, the son finds continuation of life problematic. He goes out of the apartment and seeks nature. Coney Island. His father, helplessly reduced by fear and loss, follows him.
Harry, what can I say to you? All I can say to you is who says life is easy? Since when? It wasn’t for me and it isn’t for you. It’s life, that’s the way it is—what more can I say? But if a person don’t want to live what can he do if he’s dead? Nothing. Nothing is nothing, it’s better to live.
Come home, Harry, he said. It’s cold here. You’ll catch a cold with your feet in the water.
Harry stood motionless in the water and after a while his father left. As he was leaving, the wind plucked his hat off his head and sent it rolling along the shore.
My father listens in the hallway. He follows me in the street. We meet at the edge of the water.
He runs after his hat.
My son stands with his feet in the ocean.
The scene reminds me of the moment when Bellow’s Herzog, peeking through a window, sees his little daughter being bathed by the hideous Gersbach. He decides not to shoot Gersbach. Turning from the bathtub Herzog considers the stars and then swells into reflection on the inhumanity of human multiplication. This scene, like Malamud’s, is in the mode of the bathetic sublime, so to speak. But Malamud simply fashions a metaphor: the father contemplates the son lost to him in the water. Ethnically, I can see no absolute distinction between a bathtub and the Atlantic Ocean. Water is water.
Here, says the witty Malamud, in this water, in this Coney Island pastoral, comes a wind that blows off your head. (I remember the hero of A New Life, struck by a vista of natural beauty, tipping his hat.) The feeling heart is obliged to run, in Malamud’s language, after the Yiddish head, along the English shore. “My Son the Murderer,” in the way of Malamud, is an ode on intimations of mortality. In the variety of their art, in the delicate and shocking juxtapositions of the personal and impersonal, the stories in this collection seem to me terrific.
In Nabokov’s story, “Bringing the News,” in his collection A Russian Beauty, the son of an old Russian lady falls down an elevator shaft. News of his death reaches the old lady’s friends before it reaches her. They gather in her flat. She fancies it is a social occasion and bustles about to make them comfortable. They oblige her to sit down, but none of them can find a way to explain why they have come. It is especially difficult because the old lady is almost totally deaf. Furthermore she likes to switch off her hearing aid. News doesn’t reach her easily. The story ends in a stunning demonstration that—not merely how—it does.
Early in the story the old lady receives a postcard sent by her son. By the time she receives it, he has sent himself to the bottom of the elevator shaft. The postcard reads:
My darling Moolik (her son’s pet name for her since childhood), I continue to be plunged up to the neck in work and when evening comes I literally fall off my feet, and I never go anywhere—
The joke seems to me repulsive, but the son is dead in the second sentence of the story and, after that, ordinary human interest is perhaps gratuitous. Here are the first three sentences:
Eugenia Isakovna Mints was an elderly émigré widow, who always wore black. Her only son had died the previous day. She had not been told.
In a sense the story is finished. It remains only to bring the old lady the news. As if to emphasize the irrelevance of the son’s death, Nabokov gives a vague, slightly ridiculous review:
…the poor young man had fallen into an elevator shaft from the top floor, and had remained in agony for forty minutes: although unconscious, he kept moaning horribly and uninterruptedly, till the very end.
In the meantime Eugenia Isakovna got up, dressed….
“Top floor” and “very end” are melodramatic extremes. “In the meantime,” with him at the bottom of the elevator shaft, she gets up, is another pair of extremes which make a sort of joke, presumably adequate to the experience at hand. A bit later, when the reader learns about the old lady’s habit of switching off her hearing aid—to end relations with irritating persons—it may seem like an ironic and pathetic gesture: switching off people when she herself has been switched off by the person most important to her. What commands appreciation, however, is Nabokov’s manipulation of the old lady’s hearing aid. It is an act of imaginative strength; the postcard is another. Regardless of how the reader ordinarily feels about the incidental miseries of real life, the old lady in this story belongs to Nabokov. He may do what he likes with her, even fling her son down an elevator shaft. More than once.
That is how life treats people, too, first giving them an unthinkable fact, then obliging them to think about it. Nabokov’s fiction gives to life a treatment in kind. If this seems artificial, it is, to Nabokov, the artifice of eternity. Which is to say, more or less, the hell with life. If one sympathizes with the old lady (though it is apparently forbidden)—who is beautifully and precisely realized in the story—and if one actually, as Nabokov says, makes “hoo and boohoo sounds” over a make-believe, poor, old, nearly deaf, Russian lady, then shouldn’t one finally care less for her than for the art to which she is ferociously assimilated? This black art, for purposes of exhilarating self-celebration and tremendous effects, deliberately violates our ideas of ordinary, limited, natural feeling. I’ve read passages in Nabokov which, though very moving, provoked an ungrateful resistance to the way I was being moved. His consistently remarkable verbal surface, in its rejection of depth, is deep.
Back to the story: a friend of the old lady, commenting on the son’s death to her husband, says, “It is comical.” Another character, distressed at the prospect of bringing the news, suggests, “Write on bits of paper, and give her to read, gradual communications: ‘Sick.’ ‘Very sick.’ ‘Very very sick.’ ” In his sublimity Nabokov is ruthless. This has been noticed before. Indeed in a recent essay by a novelist, Nabokov is accused of hatred and an egocentric, undemocratic incapacity to love everyone. The novelist also proposes that Nabokov is not like Walt Whitman. What could be more true? Here is the final moment of “Bringing the News”:
[The old lady’s friends] all talked among themselves, but were careful to keep their voices away from her, though actually they collected around her in grim, oppressive groups, and somebody had already walked away to the window and was shaking and heaving there, and Dr. Orshanski, who sat next to her at the table, attentively examined a gaufrette, matching it, like a domino, with another, and Eugenia Isakovna, her smile now gone and replaced by something akin to rancor, continued to push her hearing aid toward her visitors—and sobbing Chernobylski roared from a distant corner: “What is there to explain—dead, dead, dead!” but she was already afraid to look in his direction.
Near the end of the long sentence, the “and” following the dash, and the “but” following “dead,” stagger the already staggering temporal flow so that the old lady, in the uneasy beginning of her semi-deaf reception of the news, is propped up between “and” and “but,” in the instant prior to its deafening roaring forth. One feels the news pass across the old lady and overwhelm her limited powers of reception; a sort of horizontal path driven—as by a tank—across a delicate vertical. In geometry is all the news we can bear.
“Bringing the News” isn’t the best or the most interesting story in A Russian Beauty, but, in its disinclinations toward life and inclinations toward art, it is perhaps the most revealing or typifying. The other stories tend to seek lower or higher sympathies, or strange mixtures of both, tearing the heart, squeezing the brain, variously humorous, poignant, lyrically or scientifically descriptive, delightfully or densely complex, treating beautiful women, brutes, artsy émigrés, elegant gents, a slimy salesman, a king, a dwarf, a magician, a couple of cuckolds, memories, several deaths and, all in all, suggesting that, between 1924 and 1940, when these stories were written, Nabokov had achieved brilliant development, and, in subsequent years, miraculously, developed brilliance.
September 20, 1973