A Single Jew

Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work

edited by Alan Cheuse and Nicholas Delbanco
Columbia University Press, 220 pp., $15.50 (paper)

The Complete Stories

by Bernard Malamud, edited and introduced by Robert Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 629 pp., $35.00

Bernard Malamud’s The Magic Barrel was awarded the National Book Award for 1958 against the outraged opposition of one judge. Malamud, amazed that he had won, exclaimed, “A miracle has passed.” He was delayed by a reporter in getting to the dinner in his honor. The waiter, looking him up and down, briskly informed him that the table was full and that there was no place for him. Not for the first time I was seeing a Malamud story unfold.

There was the afternoon at a Yaddo board meeting when Malcolm Cow-ley peremptorily addressed him as “Bernie.” This was a familiarity he instantly resented (friends had to call him “Bern”) and he flinched with an anger that I understood all too well. He felt he was being treated prima facie as just another commonplace Jew, like the Jews in immigrant Brooklyn he had raised up to a high level of American art. He identified with them, they were his blood relations and spiritual family, but he was something more—an artist, and people had better not forget it.

The readings, lectures, personal documents, and sundry analyses of his own work published in Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work all insist on one point: I am an American artist in fiction, like so many other famous American writers of fiction, and I live for my art—only death will pull us apart! As a noticeably careful, sober, but rather academic commentary on his own work, the collection says nothing to the informed reader that Malamud’s wonderfully unexpected stories and his two best novels, The Assistant and The Fixer, have not made clear. His central, his essential and most remarkable subject, over and over, is a single character who is not simply “Jewish,” like millions of other people, but the Jew, an individual Jew alone in an alien, ungiving environment without the company of other Jews to protect, cheer, and console him.

What could hardly be mentioned in friendly chats with students seeking lessons in “creative writing” were the long-instilled wounds in Malamud’s life that did not have to bleed into his art (and they don’t) although they are central to it: memories of his father’s keeping a failing grocery in a hostile gentile neighborhood, his mother’s death when he was fifteen, a younger brother’s descent into schizophrenia, everlasting worry about poor sales.

Terror as the body palpably weakens is a principal subject. In “The Mourners,” a landlord who can’t get a difficult tenant to leave screams, “Don’t monkey with my blood pressure. If you’re not out by the fifteenth, I will personally throw you on your bony ass.” The poor grocer (based on Malamud’s father) whose goodness dominates his novel The Assistant always groans in fear of a heart attack when in the freezing dawn he has to lug in heavy cases of bottled milk.

Malamud’s shopkeepers have no connection with the Jewish working class of the period, with its unions, its collective strikes, its dreams of socialism. The butcher, baker,…

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