Bernard Malamud gave many answers to the question asked by an Italian thief of a Jewish grocer in The Assistant (1957): “What I like to know is what is a Jew anyway?” In lectures titled “Imaginative Writing and the Jewish Experience” or “Hunting for Jewishness,” or in his acceptance speech for B’nai B’rith’s Jewish Heritage Award, his answers were straightforward and uplifting: Jews, through their sufferings, “know that…the rewards of life…are centered about the development of a spirituality that raises man to his highest being.” A Jew was inherently a mensch. “How can a man be a Jew if he isn’t a man?” asks one of his characters. To be a Jew is to be fully human: “Every man is a Jew though he may not know it.”
Malamud’s critics take for granted that Jewishness was his subject matter. They either admire his vivid tales of immigrant shopkeepers and their wayward native-born children or they lament his portraits of Jews who insist on suffering. Philip Roth may have been the only reader who deduced that Malamud’s Jewishness was not what it seemed, that it was driven by motives he never talked about.
In Roth’s The Ghost Writer (1979) the young Nathan Zuckerman, like the young Roth who visited Malamud in Vermont, makes a pilgrimage to the Berkshires to meet the great novelist E.I. Lonoff. Zuckerman explains that he hopes to learn Lonoff’s “secret,” “the clues to his puzzle.” Lonoff is an artist-genius who has cultivated the remote, dignified manner of Henry James—in every way like the Malamud who wrote of himself, “One has his gift—the donnée,” and who answered only to the WASPish “Bern,” not the Jewish “Bernie.” Lonoff, Zuckerman says, is “the Jew who got away,” away not only from the pogroms of Russia, but also from the ethnic ferments of New York and the wildness of his Jewish antithesis, Felix Abravanel, Roth’s fictional amalgam of Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer. Lonoff escaped all this, Zuckerman observes, yet “still all you write about are Jews.” “Proving what?” is Lonoff’s deflecting reply, to which Zuckerman says cautiously, “That…is what I’d like to ask you.”
Malamud hid the clues to his puzzle with one hand while displaying them with the other. The Library of America’s edition of his novels and stories—two volumes recently published, a third in preparation—makes it clear that his half-concealed secret was an inward drama of ambition, guilt, and expiation in which his Jewishness had private meanings very different from the pieties he provided for B’nai B’rith.
Malamud wrote in sculpted sentences, compressing Yiddish diction into a demotic modernist prose-poetry: “Broke in him something…. Broke what breaks.” “The rabbi’s trousers were a week from ragged.” “Don’t you understand what it means human?” His paragraphs moved with concentrated efficiency toward unexpected endings. “I am an inventor,” he said. “I am…
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