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Bernard Malamud’s ‘The Fixer’ Is a Jewish Classic. But Did It Defame and Plagiarize a Hero?

Mendel Beilis’ grandson takes up the cause a century after the blood-libel trial that riveted the Jewish world

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Mendel Beilis (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)
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This complaint of David Beilis echoes the 1930 letter of Rabbi Kook:

The man Beilis endured these severe tests in a spirit of truth and righteousness, fortified by the sanctity of Judaism, and with an unwavering conviction that his hands were innocent and clean. He emerged with honor, crowned with the wreath of victory. And his honor was also that of our entire nation and the honor of the holy and pure Torah.

David Beilis wrote another letter protesting The Fixer to Francis Brown, editor of The New York Times Book Review, who then forwarded the letter to Malamud.

Malamud responded in a letter dated April 19, 1967: “Though The Fixer is based on an historical event it is a fiction and makes no attempt to portray Mendel Beilis or his wife. Yakov and Raisl Bok, I am sure you will agree, in no way resemble your parents.” The problem, of course, is that readers of The Fixer, knowing that the character Yakov Bok was based on Mendel Beilis, might well believe that Yakov and Raisl Bok did resemble Mendel Beilis and his wife Esther.

Malamud’s Bok is ultimately a sympathetic and heroic figure. Most people are not as heroic as Yakov Bok, and perhaps would not complain if they were assumed to have qualities similar to those of Bok. But Beilis himself was at least as heroic as Bok. Malamud copied Beilis’ character in that respect (even dialing down Beilis’ heroism a bit), while making Bok in other ways less appealing. So, for Beilis, the comparison is unflattering. In creating a character so close to Mendel Beilis in historical details, in fortitude and courage, yet endowed with many unappealing personal traits, Malamud assaulted the reputation and dignity of Mendel Beilis, his wife, and his descendants.

There is one matter as to which we commend Malamud. In response to David Beilis’ complaints, Malamud wrote David Beilis that he was attempting to arrange for the republication of Mendel Beilis’ memoir by his own publisher, Roger Straus, Jr. of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with royalties going to Beilis’ surviving family. This plan did not come to fruition.

***

It might be thought that by complaining both about Malamud’s plagiarism from Beilis’ memoir and his debasement of Beilis’ memory, David Beilis was making, and we are endorsing, two inconsistent accusations against Malamud. Are we saying both that Malamud’s character Bok is too much like Beilis and not enough like him?

In fact, the accusations are not inconsistent. In writing The Fixer, Malamud caused two kinds of confusion about Beilis. First, he created the perception that Beilis’ work, which he copied without attribution, was in fact Malamud’s own work. Second, he created the perception that the traits of his characters Yakov and Raisl Bok were the traits of Mendel and Esther Beilis. Both of these confusions can exist at the same time; indeed, they can coexist in the same reader. We will illustrate what we call the two confusions through the response of literary critics to The Fixer.

The first kind of confusion (the perception that Malamud originated what in fact he copied from Beilis) is of course to be expected when there is copying as extensive as Malamud’s. This confusion is reflected in critical commentary on the rejected-pardon incident.

As previously described, Beilis was told he would be freed through a general pardon for convicts on the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. He refused, stating: “[E]ven if you open the doors of prison, and threaten me with shooting, I shall not leave. I shall not go without a trial. I am strong enough to suffer all until the trial.” Malamud copies the basic details of this incident, patterning Yakov Bok’s response after Beilis’: “Yakov said he wanted a fair trial, not a pardon. If they ordered him to leave the prison without a trial they would have to shoot him first.”

Several critics have called attention to this incident as the high point of the novel. Sheldon J. Hershinow, author of Bernard Malamud, writes:

The tsar has agreed to grant certain classes of criminals, including Yakov, amnesty. But Yakov does the unimaginable, he refuses—because he is to be pardoned as a criminal rather than freed as an innocent man. The gesture is absurd but magnificent, an affirmation of his personal dignity and moral integrity. This emotional high point of the novel inspires the reader at the same time that it defeats Yakov’s enemies.

In his essay “The Hero as Schnook,” in Bernard Malamud and the Critics, Alan Friedman writes:

[L]ater he [Bok] is offered freedom without conditions—he need sign nothing, he need confess to no crime: “He was to be pardoned and permitted to return to his village” … And Yakov Bok, long victimized by a horror and degradation that would make the strongest of men despair, and long after we who have identified with him—and to read the book is to identify with him—long after we have stopped hoping for a way out, have in fact asked ourselves again and again why the poor schnook doesn’t simply give up this farce, this absurd parody of human life, then Yakov Bok is offered this way out—and he refuses, refuses because he is to be pardoned as a criminal rather than freed as the innocent man he is. And our shock at his absurdly magnificent refusal is intense, and it endures long after we have finished the book, and it remains with us as perhaps its supreme affirmation.

With vast unintentional irony, Friedman then adds: “No one, we feel, no one … could have made such a grand refusal under such circumstances.”

In the view of these literary critics, Bok’s rejection of a pardon is a credit to Malamud’s great inventiveness. In fact, however, this “absurdly magnificent refusal,” this “emotional high point,” was not the invention of Malamud at all, but rather a retelling of the courageous act of Beilis himself, lifted by Malamud from Beilis’ memoir.

The second kind of confusion (the perception that the traits of Malamud’s characters Yakov and Raisl Bok were the traits of Mendel and Esther Beilis) is illustrated in the work of the critic Alfred Kazin. In 1997, Kazin published an article on Malamud in The New York Review of Books, titled “A Single Jew.” Shockingly, Kazin had this to say about Beilis:

Beilis … 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.

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Bernard Malamud’s ‘The Fixer’ Is a Jewish Classic. But Did It Defame and Plagiarize a Hero?

Mendel Beilis’ grandson takes up the cause a century after the blood-libel trial that riveted the Jewish world