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Wallace Markfield, Contender

The novelist and film critic was the most gifted also-ran of the 1960s Jewish-American literary renaissance

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; original photos University of South Carolina Library and Shutterstock)
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Markfield meanwhile was at work on the short story that would implant itself in Alex Portnoy’s mind. His last major piece on movies, “By the Light of the Silvery Screen,” was a position paper also published in Commentary in March 1961, a year before Film Quarterly ran Kael’s not dissimilar, “Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?” Markfield began with the observation that, given the absence of a canon or even an accepted notion that movies deserved serious attention, “the intellectual who turns film critic is letting himself in for a rough time.” Then, with a nod to Agee, Farber, and Kael, he proceeded to give Siegfried Kracauer and Parker Tyler, the twin pillars of American intellectual film analysis, a very rough time indeed—pillorying the former, the Weimar émigré who had more or less invented sociological film criticism with From Caligari to Hitler, for writing an aesthetic treatise on cinema; and the latter, a surrealist poet and author of Magic and Myth of the Movies, for daring to analyze Hollywood products as cultural dreams.

But if Markfield retired ingloriously from the fray, movies figure significantly in his three subsequent novels. In To an Early Grave, as the author would later describe it, “a pair of New York intellectuals test each other’s ability to call back, among other things, 17 movies wherein Bogart was featured but not starred: 9 actors who have played Tarzan; the last line spoken by Victor McLaglen in The Informer; and the name of the Ritz Brothers.” The father of the youthful hero of Teitlebaum’s Window is employed by a Brighton Beach movie-house, and the 10 years between 1932 and 1942 are individuated largely in terms of the era’s popular culture; in the wonderfully titled You Could Live If They Let You (1974), Markfield, having been compared (by Kazin, among others, and like Philip Roth) to a stand-up comedian, took a Lenny Bruce-like comic, interestingly named “Jules Farber,” as his protagonist.

Although dismissed by some as a plotless rant, the novel is actually Markfield’s most avant-garde, with Farber’s compulsive shtick hilariously filtered through the consciousness of the WASP academic who is studying him. The book’s first 44 pages are a comic shpritz unparalleled in the Markfield oeuvre: “My destiny was in the hands of—not Moses Maimonides, but Louis B. Mayer,” Farber raves, riffing on the representation of Jewish mothers in MGM’s biblical spectacles.

Once, only once show them watching a scale, yelling from a window, grating a little horseradish. You want to make Quo Vadis and Ben Hur? Go ahead, you’re entitled. Give a little boost, though to your own. It’s costing you anyway for a nativity scene, so punch up the Virgin Mary part. “Cheapskates, lice, pascudnyakim! You see my presents? Frankincense, myrrh. … I need it badly? I still got in my closet a jar garlic powder, it’s not even touched because by me spices are poison. Not even a box bridge mix, in Galilee they’re selling the best bridge mix fifty-nine shekels a pound. Do I care? I’m only embarrassed for the innkeeper.”

And so on.

Although Markfield must have known that, published a few months ahead of You Could Live If They Let You, Albert Goldman’s massive biography Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce! would upstage his novel. Still, he gave the Goldman book a wonderfully generous New York Times review. You Could Live If They Let You was, on the other hand, slammed in the Times by Robert Alter, a long-standing foe of the Jewish American literary renaissance who used his review to knock Roth, Markfield’s fellow ethnic “mimic,” as well. “Farber intimates that reality itself may have become a hopeless mishmash of vulgar inanities,” Alter observed.

That apocalypse of kitsch has fortunately not yet arrived, but Markfield writes as though it were fully upon us, excluding all possibility of coherent narrative design, limiting fiction to a mocking imitation of trivia, an ambiguously ironic exploitation of nostalgic recall.

Perhaps. But not even so unsympathetic a critic could resist quoting some of Farber’s one-liners as when he gratuitously, if verbally, attacks some women in his audience: “Never never never be ashamed you’re Jewish … Because it’s enough if I’m ashamed you’re Jewish.”

At the same time as he inhabited the character of Jules Farber, Markfield was, for several years, the New York Times Book Review’s remarkably unenthusiastic go-to guy for books on movies. In a 1972 review of Robert Henderson’s scholarly press biography of D.W. Griffith, he asked for a “10-year moratorium declared by pundits and publishers on books in any way dealing with the motion picture.” And in a round-up of such books, published some 20 months later, Markfield made a distinction between the film historian and the “nostalgia addict” and declared himself firmly among the latter, citing a willingness to go his own “wild way” in responding to movies “without meditation or mediation!”

Moving over to the Times “Arts and Leisure” section, Markfield published a trio of pieces, over a six-month stretch of the mid-1970s, that mined his knowledge of Hollywood detritus. “Remembrances of ‘B’ Movies Past” is a creditable, annotated list of 10 outré classics from the ’40s and ’50s that quoted Farber and included both The Leopard Man and The Incredible Shrinking one. Ruefully citing the 5-page trivial pursuit passage in To an Early Grave as the defining accomplishment of his career (“camp turned compulsion for me”), Markfield next provided Times readers with a movie quiz: “In What Movie Did Marlene Dietrich Wear an Ape Suit? And Other Weightless Questions.”

“I’m now what critics and commentators nagged me into becoming these last 11 years: a ‘king of kitsch,’ a ‘seer of shlock,’ a ‘titan of trivia,’ ” Markfield complained á la Farber in a brief introduction to his quiz. Although To an Early Grave “had a thing or two to say about modern literature and literary men, one 5-page sequence drew a special kind of lopsided attention from reviewers [and] pretty soon those 5 pages were on the required reading lists of several sociology courses and anthologized in texts bearing such snappy titles as The Popular Arts: Aspects and Attitudes.”

Markfield claimed that he thought of passing this exercise off as either a new approach to “the problem of cinematic perception” or a secret chronicle of Hollywood movies. Indeed, a subsequent fun piece, “Hollywood’s Greatest Absurd Moments,” published in the “Arts and Leisure” section in January 1976, identifies him as working on just such a secret history. (It would be Markfield’s luck that he envisioned something along the lines of Robert Coover’s 1987 A Night at the Movies or, You Must Remember This, with its fabulously pornographic gloss on Casablanca, and that Coover beat him to it.) Perhaps Markfield abandoned his secret history; perhaps it was buried with him. In an alternate universe, it coulda been his masterpiece.

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Mark_Shechner says:

Wonderful to see Markfield brought back. He was a funny and gifted writer. One of my favorite moments from “You Could Live If They’d Let You” involved a movie scene where the comic Jules Farber goes to see a western with his Uncle Shermie.

I went one time to the movies with him‑‑a western. With a scene‑‑you know the scene? Morning, first thing in the morning. The gunslinger gets up. The gunslinger rubs his beard. The gunslinger takes out his razor. and he strops his razor, he gives himself a
lovely shave and again he rubs his beard.
He rubs his beard and he wipes his face and he wipes his razor. He finishes wiping the razor, he takes his
coffee pot, he goes to the stream, he fills the coffee pot with water from the
stream, he collects twigs, with the twigs he makes a fire, on the fire he makes
coffee, he drinks a cup of coffee, he sloshes out the grinds, he finished
sloshing out the grinds and he pours himself a second cup, he drinks the second
cup‑‑

And my Uncle Shermie yells out, “Nu,
und pishn darft m’nisht?”
(Nu? And he doesn’t have to
piss?)
Wonderful. The old Yiddish-based comedy seldom got better than that.
–Mark Shechner

thank you Tablet! for not only reviving one of my favorite writers, but for not giving the assignment to Liel Liebovitz. You Could Live if they Let You is a great book, and don’t forget they made a movie out of To An Early Grave (By By Braverman). My mother went to Brooklyn college with Markfield and talked about him lots when I was young. A wonderful writer, way more fun than Philip Roth.

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Wallace Markfield, Contender

The novelist and film critic was the most gifted also-ran of the 1960s Jewish-American literary renaissance

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