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, tailor, shoemaker in these stories are on their own—their wives either dead or unstoppable complainers. No comfort comes from the faithful in the synagogue for a shopkeeper who had to keep open on the Sabbath and even, if necessary, on the holidays most sacred to a Jew. Malamud’s grocer lived above the store, and could not get his rest when there was a hope of a customer coming in for a roll and a bottle of milk.
Poverty, the terror of being forced to the wall by another grocery or even a supermarket across the street, is the crucial life experience behind Malamud’s recurrent figure of “the Jew.” In some basic sense, he is always alone. But what Malamud could not explain in Talking Horse was that the Jewish experience is in some sense unbelievable to the Jew himself. What readers of Malamud’s stories of the seemingly improbable often take as “fantasy” was for him just the dislocation in this supposedly common-sense world familiar to Jews in extremis. Primo Levi in Auschwitz asked a guard, “Why all this?” The guard: “There is no ‘why’ here.”
Technically, Malamud made his art out of the foreign intonations he heard all through his childhood. The immigrants who still thought in Yiddish even as they spoke their self-taught English bring to Malamud’s pages bitter, turbulent echoes of life in the shtetls of the Russian Pale where Jews were segregated. The voices in Malamud’s slightest dialogue prepare one for The Fixer, Malamud’s marvelous recreation of a Russia so steeped in Jew-hatred that an itinerant Jewish “fixer” and handyman could be held for three years awaiting trial on the charge of ritual murder performed according to the precepts of the Jewish religion.
In “The Loan,” Mrs. Lieb, the baker’s wife (his second), “alert behind the counter,…discerned a stranger” in the crowd waiting to buy her husband’s popular white bread—“a frail, gnarled man with a hard hat who hung, disjoined, at the edge of the crowd.” When he gives his name as “Kobotsky,” and says he wants to see the baker she suspiciously asks, “Who Kobotsky?” adding, “What do you want to see him?” This is the language of Malamud’s world, and it fits their circumstances.
Kobotsky stared at his crippled hands. Once a cutter of furs, driven by arthritis out of the business.
Lieb gazed too. The bottom of a truss bit into his belly.
The wife is right to suspect that her husband’s old friend wants something—a loan. The baker is moved, and in the face of his wife’s vehement disapproval, says pleadingly, “His mother—God bless her—gave me many times a plate hot soup…. His wife is a very fine person—Dora—you will someday meet her—“ It turns out that Lieb himself has not seen “Dora” for fifteen years. In fact, she has been dead for five. Kobotsky has come to seek $200 from Lieb—he never repaid a first loan—“The money I need for a stone on her grave. She never had a stone. Next Sunday is five years that she is dead and every year I promise her, ‘Dora, this year I will give you your stone,’ and every year I gave her nothing.”
Bessie Lieb screamed when she heard Kobotsky asking her husband for money and, “though weeping, shook her head.” Her father was shot by the Bolsheviks. Her first husband died of typhus in Warsaw. An older brother sacrificed his own chances to send her to America before the war, “and himself ended, with wife and daughter, in one of Hitler’s incinerators.”
So I came to America and met here a poor baker, a poor man—who was always in his life poor—without a cent and without enjoyment, and I married him, God knows why, and with my both hands, working day and night, I fixed up for him his piece of business and we make now, after twelve years, a little living. But Lieb is not a healthy man, also with eyes that he needs an operation, and this is not yet everything.
She goes on so long that she soon needs to shriek again—the all-important bread has burned to a cinder. How Malamud loved to hear his characters sound off. No one parodied Yinglish with more zest than he did and to my knowledge no one ever used it to such satiric and poignant effect. One of his funniest tales is “The Jewbird,” in which a skinny bird with frazzled black wings wearily flaps through the open kitchen window of the Cohen family’s top-floor apartment on First Avenue near the East River—and turns out to be a Jew who speaks “Jewish.” The bird is not welcome but won’t leave or shut up. He opens up with “Gevalt, a pogrom!” and continues, “If you can’t spare a lamb chop I’ll settle for a piece of herring with a crust of bread. You can’t live on your nerve forever.” He is a Jew like any other Jew fleeing “Anti-Semeets.” “What kind of anti-Semites bother a bird?” the wife asks. “‘Any kind,’ said the bird, ‘also including eagles, vultures, and hawks. And once in a while some crows will take your eyes out.”‘
The underside of Malamud’s comic gift is that his frail, easily dismayed characters, seemingly driven only by fear for themselves, sometimes manage to incarnate a religious tradition they are too distracted to observe. In “The Mourners,” Gruber the landlord, maddened by Kessler, the obstinate tenant he can’t get out of his house, suddenly realizes that Kessler, squatting on the floor without shoes, is in mourning, doing shiva, in memory of him. Kessler regards him as spiritually dead. Whereupon the landlord drapes himself in a sheet that serves for a prayer shawl and joins the other in prayer.
“Take Pity” takes place in limbo, a purgatory that can be connected to Jewish experience if not to its religious tradition. The recording angel Davidov, “the census-taker,” and the newly arrived Rosen, a suicide who bequeathed everything to a widow, Eva, who had refused his love on Earth, brush off all sentimentality by turning up in another world as rough, workaday Jews who talk as such Jews in Malamud usually talk. “What’s the matter you don’t pull the shade up?” the angel asks the suicide. “Who needs light?” “What then you need?” “Light I don’t need,” replied Rosen.
“Davidov, sour-faced, flipped through the closely scrawled pages of his notebook until he found a clean one. He attempted to scratch in a word with his fountain pen but it had run dry, so he fished a pencil stub out of his vest pocket and sharpened it with a cracked razor blade.” Even angels have to make do in Malamud country.
No traditional afterlife ever comes to mind here, but a Jew knows what it is to be cooped up in limbo, a trying-out period between heaven and hell in which he tells his story. Rosen describes the end of Eva’s husband:
Broke in him something…. Broke what breaks. He was talking to me how bitter was his life, and he touched me on my sleeve to say something else, but the next minute his face got small and he fell down dead, the wife screaming, the little girls crying that it made in my heart pain. I am myself a sick man and when I saw him laying on the floor, I said to myself, “Rosen, say goodbye, this guy is finished.” So I said it.
Rosen gave up his life for a woman who didn’t love him. Morris Bober, the ailing, impoverished grocer in Malamud’s novel The Assistant, so beaten up by a thug who has robbed him that he can no longer tend the store, unwittingly takes on as “assistant” the young Italyener Frank Alpine, the man who attacked him. Alpine doesn’t know what to do with his life. Morris knows in despair all too well what to do with his. He suffers. Alpine, enviously studying Morris even as he doesn’t register every sale he makes, says, “But tell me why it is that the Jews suffer so damn much, Morris. It seems to me that they like to suffer, don’t they?” Morris: “If you live, you suffer. Some people suffer more, but not because they want.” Frank: “What do you suffer for, Morris?” “I suffer for you,” Morris said calmly.
Frank doesn’t understand that last remark, and I didn’t either when I first read it. Morris adds, “I mean you suffer for me,” and ends up saying, “If a Jew forgets the Law, he is not a good Jew and not a good man.” But Morris’s saying “calmly” “I suffer for you” turns Morris into something like a Christ figure, and this is out of tune with everything else he says and does. When Morris finally dies, a rabbi he has never met, now officiating at his funeral, says, “Morris Bober was to me a true Jew because he lived in the Jewish experience, which he remembered, and with the Jewish heart. Maybe not to our formal tradition—for this I don’t excuse him—but he was true to the spirit of our life—to want for others that which he wants also for himself…. Who told me this? I know…. For such reasons he was a Jew. What more does our sweet God ask His poor people?”
Malamud wanted Morris’s life—clearly drawn from his own father’s life—to be more than fortitude in suffering. The Golden Rule, though versions of it are familiar in Biblical lore, is not in the Law handed down from Mount Sinai. In the “Jewish experience,” which even to the most rebellious Jew has a sanctity apart from doctrine, the sense of Jewish virtue follows from all the wrong done to powerless Jews. Such virtue is what Malamud claimed for his characters. It is the most familiar theme in Yiddish fiction. But for a moment, when Morris claims to suffer for Frank, who once robbed him and assaulted him, and will rape his daughter, Malamud obviously yearns for a new moral universe based on unquestioning love for another. Malamud is perfectly aware that Christians don’t dependably live up to this either. But he wants something more than fortitude and survival for his own, the long-suffering Jew—he wants him, if only once, to rise above the “Jewish experience.”
Not easily done. The collected stories include an amusing fantasy, “Angel Levine,” about a black Jew who is an angel “disincarnated” to live on Earth, but gets so caught up in Harlem that he gives less help than expected of a co-religionist. Typically, the story opens with the words “Manischevitz, a tailor, in his fifty-first year suffered many reverses and indignities.” The tailor regards his suffering as “an affront to God,” flatters and positively flirts with Him to get some help. “My dear God, sweetheart, did I deserve that this should happen to me?” But if it happens, say the pious, God wanted it to happen. Job, with his questionings, has no place here. God has swallowed the pious up: they do not complain or protest.
Yakov Bok, the victim-hero in The Fixer, is arrested by the Jew-hating tsarist police on a charge of ritual murder. He is enveloped in the age-old blood libel—a Jew will murder a Christian child in order to drain the blood that Jews use for baking Passover matzos. This horror, so steeped in medieval superstition that Chaucer repeated it in his tribute to the child-martyr Saint Hugh of Lincoln, was acceptable as late as 1925 to that cleverest of converts to Rome, G.K. Chesterton. In The Everlasting Man Chesterton charged that “the Hebrew prophets were perpetually protesting against the Hebrew race relapsing into an idolatry that involved such a war upon children; and it is probably enough that this abominable apostasy from the God of Israel has occasionally appeared in Israel since, in the form of what is called ritual murder…by individual and irresponsible diabolists who did happen to be Jews.”
Bok “the fixer” has never been a happy or agreeable man. He has no reliable trade, his wife left him because they remained childless. She turned to other men. Despite misgivings from his father-in-law, Bok leaves the shtetl to try his luck in the great city of Kiev. He is now there illegally, for Jews require special permission to live outside the Pale. Although always on the run, he manages to rescue from the freezing cold the drunken proprietor of a brick kiln, who belongs to the violently anti-Semitic “Black Hundreds,” the organization most responsible for pogroms.
Not knowing that Bok is a Jew and so a fugitive from the police, the grateful proprietor hires him to oversee his employees, who are evidently cheating him. This of course makes them hate Bok, whom they already suspect to be a Jew, and when a young boy’s body is discovered in a cave, Bok is promptly arrested. As a Jew illegally living in Kiev, he is on everybody’s hate list. Even the kiln proprietor’s crippled daughter, who coaxed Bok up to her bedroom, testifies vindictively against him. Blood is indeed at the center of the case. She hates Bok because he begged off after seeing menstrual blood on her thigh.
For three years awaiting trial, Bok is strip-searched several times a day, starved, beaten, humiliated and isolated and constantly reminded that “you Yids killed Christ.” The Tsar takes a deep, vengeful interest in his case. The Russian Orthodox Church, the most anti-Semitic Christian church (it still is), vilifies him in concert with the Black Hundreds.
The Fixer is based on the historic case of Mendel Beilis in Kiev, 1913, who after suffering the many tortures Malamud unsparingly described in his novel was amazingly found innocent by a jury of Russian peasants. Leading lawyers—including Alexander Kerensky—came to his defense. Non-Jewish scholars testified that Jews have such a horror of blood that they do not tolerate a drop of it in their food. The Russian Orthodox Church built a church to commemorate Beilis’s “victim.” Beilis, who eventually settled in America, remained an extremely bitter man who could never forgive even the many Jews and non-Jews who backed him up against the hatred that had seeped into his prison cell.
As Dreyfus was personally not liked by many who fought for his release from Devil’s Island, so Beilis was not a favorite with many who knew him best. Malamud describes Bok’s gruffness, his hatred of the deserting wife, and especially his refusal to ask God for help. He is not a believer. When his father-in-law sneaks a prayer shawl into his cell, he wears it as underwear against the cold. Bok knows nothing of ritual murder. He knows that he is up against people determined to cause him pain, day after day and year after year, simply because he is a Jew. So his quarrel is with primitive, superstitious Russia, not with “God,” who is not in the picture at all. Bok in jail becomes a revolutionary and imagines himself joyfully shooting the Tsar “right through the heart.”
One thing I’ve learned, he thought, there’s no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew. You can’t be one without the other, that’s clear enough. You can’t sit still and see yourself destroyed.
Afterwards he thought, Where there’s no fight for it there’s no freedom. What is it Spinoza says? If the state acts in ways that are abhorrent to human nature it’s the lesser evil to destroy it. Death to the anti-Semites! Long live revolution! Long live liberty!
The novel cleverly ends with Bok being taken through the streets of Kiev on his way to trial.
The crowds lining both sides of the streets were dense again, packed tight between curb and housefront. There were faces at every window and people standing on rooftops along the way. Among those in the street were Jews of the Plossky District. Some, as the carriage clattered by and they glimpsed the fixer, were openly weeping, wringing their hands. One thinly bearded man clawed his face. One or two waved at Yakov. Some shouted his name.
Probably to Yakov’s surprise, Malamud wants to say, he is not alone.
October 9, 1997