The Beilis Conspiracy
A century after the last blood libel trial, the idea that Jews drink Christian vital fluid is still alive and well
Before he settled on Beilis, Malamud had thought of writing a novel about Dreyfus; but, he concluded, Dreyfus “was a dullish man … he did not suffer well.” Beilis did suffer well. And no theme was more central to Malamud’s work than suffering. In a letter to his friend Rosemarie Beck, he described his novel’s plot: “A man is put in prison, and there he must suffer out his existence with what he has and, in a sense, conceive himself again. It is, as you see, my old subject matter.”
Malamud too suffered as he wrote The Fixer; the novel required an excruciating, seemingly endless series of drafts. He would remark that “The book nearly killed me—but I couldn’t let go of it.” “I beat myself into shape with a terrible will,” Malamud once said, explaining how he managed to become an author. Nowhere was that will more apparent than in his writing of The Fixer. Malamud at the time was reeling from the aftermath of an affair with a young Bennington student, Arlene Heyman. He began The Fixer in 1963, just when he wrote to Heyman, who had ended the affair, to tell her that he was breaking off all contact with her. He was shutting himself off, in an act of solidarity with his persecuted hero. (Malamud and Heyman later reconciled, and he held one of the huppah poles at her wedding.)
Malamud’s Beilis figure, Yakov Bok, is the ne plus ultra among the author’s sufferers: isolated, poor, frustrated in love, blessed by nothing but a sardonic sense of humor about his troubles. Like most of Malamud’s heroes, he is, as Robert Alter put it, “nailed to the cumbersome load of his wearying work”: His destiny is ill-fitting, like a bad suit. Malamud disagrees with Kafka’s stark, uncanny sense of the eternal lack of fit between the human being and his fate: The humbler Malamud sees, instead, an ordinary and bruising mismatch between the individual and the role he is forced to play. Malamud once referred in an interview to “the cultural deprivation I felt as a child”: There were no books or music in his parents’ home and no pictures on the walls; it was, he felt, a kind of prison. Malamud wrote about Jews because he saw the Jew as the “prisoner of history”; but really, as he once blurted out, “all men are Jews”—and all men are prisoners.
There are a number of differences between Mendel Beilis and Malamud’s fixer. Yakov Bok is childless and has even been abandoned by his wife (for a Gentile, no less); he is an inveterate reader of Spinoza and a religious doubter, whereas Beilis was conventionally religious (though he had to work on the Sabbath, since his factory was open Saturdays). Yakov Bok fearfully masquerades as a non-Jew in order to make his way in Kiev, the “holy city” traditionally closed to Jews; by contrast, Beilis easily received a special dispensation from Zaitsev, the wealthy Jewish owner of the brick factory, allowing him to live on the factory premises. Most important, Malamud’s hero is alienated from the goyish world that surrounds him in Kiev, as well as from the tradition-bound ways of the Jewish shtetl that he fled. Beilis had no such discomfort with either the Jewish religion or with Gentiles: He sent his sons to heder and was popular with his Christian neighbors.
The most crucial difference between The Fixer and the Beilis case is Malamud’s decision to depict Beilis as an oppressed prisoner rather than a man successfully defending himself in court. In the Beilis trial, Jews, and sympathetic Gentiles along with them, were given a chance to stand up for their rights. But the rise of Nazi Germany a mere two decades later erased this possibility; a fair trial seemed a relic of a bygone, more enlightened age. Malamud, as he drew on the Beilis case, omitted the trial completely. He wrote in the wake of an era in which Jews were denied all opportunity to speak for themselves, in which they were condemned en masse as guilty.
The result of the Nazi nightmare was that Malamud had to go outside of history to suggest the triumph of the accused Jew, since the Germans had obliterated the hope for such a victory. Unreality infiltrates the narrow world of The Fixer, most noticeably in the fantasy that finally sets Yakov Bok free: At the book’s end, he interrogates and kills Czar Nicholas II and is acclaimed by a roaring crowd.
Like Hollywood with its recent spate of movies about Jews who defend themselves violently when faced with Nazi persecutors, Malamud in the final pages of The Fixer moves from the Jew as archetypal sufferer to the Jew as omnipotent avenger. Both these roles are disquieting, unsatisfying; they testify to the persistent grip of myth on our ideas about Jewish identity. But there is still no way to skirt the myths entirely, to insist that proclamations of Jewish guilt and Jewish innocence, Jewish victimhood and Jewish mastery, merely get in the way of our diverse peoplehood. Jewish identity is made out of myth, too, even as Jews remain properly wary about the risks of subscribing to fantasy images of themselves. There is real danger here: The blood libel, like nothing else, shows the strength of the outside world’s addiction to fantasies about Jews.
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