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Where have all Bernard Malamud’s readers gone?

Rachel Donadio
March 11, 2008

Not long after I moved to New York, I found myself browsing one day at the Strand. Amid the piles of remainders, I came across The Complete Stories of Bernard Malamud, a hefty volume that had been released a few years earlier, in 1997. I’d heard of Malamud, of course, but for some reason hadn’t ever read him. I bought the book, though more out a sense of obligation than enthusiasm.

After spending four years in Italy, I was homesick for the melancholy yet comfortable feeling of not belonging. I wasn’t used to New York. Before too long, I opened the volume and turned to “Behold the Key,” since it was set in Rome. In the story, Carl Schneider, a graduate student in Italian at Columbia, travels to Rome with his wife and two small children to research a dissertation on the Risorgimento, the nineteenth-century movement toward unification. Schneider searches in vain for suitable lodging. Finally, he finds a perfect apartment for a reasonable price. But there’s a catch: the apartment is being rented by a contessa, who has given up her lover to marry another man. The only key belongs to the lover—and he demands that Schneider pay him for it. The cash-poor graduate student refuses. Finally, he persuades the superintendent to pick open the lock. “The place was a ruin,” Malamud writes. “The furniture had been smashed with a dull axe. The slashed sofa revealed its inner springs. . . . The white walls had been splashed with red wine.” The lover, De Vecchis, arrives in the doorway. “Ecco la chiave!” he shouts, flinging the key toward Schneider. “The key,” Malamud writes, hit Carl on the forehead, “leaving a mark he could not rub out.”

Reading this story for the first time, I too was left with a mark I could not easily rub out. I’d had some dim idea of Malamud as a latter-day I.B. Singer, writing about shtetls, talking animals, and quasi-folkloric characters—a literary cousin of Marc Chagall. Yet here was someone who had captured, better than any other English-language writer since Henry James, what it was like to be an American in that impossible, glorious city. I too had spent many despair-inducing weeks seeking a place to live in Rome, only to discover, as Malamud so brilliantly captured, that when an Italian is compelled to rent out an apartment, it means something has gone terribly wrong in the family order.

I quickly read Malamud’s other Italy stories, the ones featuring Henry Fidelman, another young scholar who travels to Italy to research Giotto, but whose research, art-making, and sex life all prove equally disappointing. In “The Last Mohican,” Fidelman is endlessly pursued by a scrawny schnorrer from the Jewish ghetto who demands Fidelman give him his suit. When he doesn’t, the schnorrer steals his book manuscript and destroys it. In one of Malamud’s most haunting stories, “The Lady of the Lake,” a young American Jew named Henry Levin travels to Italy and takes to calling himself Henry Freeman to pass as a gentile. He falls in love with a beautiful woman, Isabella, on an island in Lake Como. When she asks if he’s Jewish, he scoffs and denies it, thinking she might think less of him if she knew the truth. In the unforgettable final scene, Isabella unbuttons her blouse to reveal her breasts—and a blue number tattooed on her flesh. “Buchenwald,” Isabella tells him. “I can’t marry you. We are Jews. My past is meaningful to me,” she says. “I treasure what I suffered for.”

Of course, the bulk of Malamud’s writing has nothing to do with Italy. His most celebrated novels are set in deepest Brooklyn, a Russian prison around 1913, and the baseball fields of America. There are many treasures, and there is much suffering. It’s a pity that Malamud, who died at 72 in 1986 and was relatively quiet even in his prime, isn’t read so much today. Although his writing is world class, these days Malamud is probably best known for the 1984 film adaptation of his novel The Natural, starring Robert Redford and directed by Barry Levinson. Still, though Malamud may lack Bellow’s linguistic pyrotechnics and Roth’s raw aggression, he is as central as they are to late twentieth-century American literature. His prose—spare, at once self-consciously anachronistic and timeless, rich in undertones and cast in endless shades of brown and grey—is unlike anything else in the English language. To read Malamud is to enter a strange world of hallucinations and dreams, of birds as metaphors—for liberation and degradation, sexuality and soulfulness—and birds that talk. Sometimes it takes a few pages to realize you’re reading a dream sequence. Sometimes you never know for sure. Malamud’s Yiddish-inflected dialogue cuts to the quick, as in this passage from the story “Take Pity”:

“How did he die?” Davidov spoke impatiently. “Say in one word.”
“From what he died? — he died, that’s all.”
“Answer, please, this question.”
“Broke in him something. That’s how.”
“Broke what?”
“Broke what breaks.”

What is it that can break? In Bernard Malamud, A Writer’s Life, an excellent new biography and the most comprehensive such work to appear, the British literary scholar Philip Davis uncovers just how much Malamud was up against. Malamud’s parents, Max and Bertha, were immigrants from the Kamenets-Podoloski shtetl in Ukraine. Both had a tenuous grasp on English. Bernard was born in 1914, his brother Eugene in 1917. Like Morris Bober in The Assistant, Max Malamud owned a small grocery in Brooklyn’s Gravesend—“an apt title for Max’s commercial career,” Davis notes—and was always one step away from failure. “It was not very good anywhere until the Depression,” Malamud once said in an interview. “Then it was bad.”

Max Malamud—“a loving but unimaginative husband and father,” as the novelist once described him—“thought of himself as a socialist and a free thinker,” Davis writes. “He was not a member of the synagogue, did not believe in God, but wanted his son to make up his own mind. For the young Malamud, this was not freedom, it felt more like not belonging.” Here, Davis draws on an unpublished essay called “The Lost Bar Mitzvah,” part of a memoir Malamud began writing in 1980 but never finished. Though not educated himself, Max had always encouraged his son’s education. When Malamud survived a terrible bout of pneumonia at age nine, his father gave him The Book of Knowledge, a 20-volume children’s encyclopedia. In a household with no books or magazines except the Yiddish Daily Forward, this was the novelist’s first exposure to the “English-language world of knowledge and language,” Davis writes. They were Max’s life-gift to him.”

But the biography also opens up a world of pain. Malamud’s mother, Bertha, born, yes, Fidelman, suffered from mental illness. When he was 13, Malamud found her frothing at the mouth on the kitchen floor, having swallowed disinfectant, and rushed to the drugstore to get help. It was a coming-of-age far more brutal than any bar mitzvah. Bertha survived her suicide attempt, but was institutionalized for schizophrenia and died two years later, most likely by her own hand. Malamud last saw her when she waved at him from the window of the mental hospital. Malamud’s younger brother, Eugene, also suffered from schizophrenia, and spent most of his life in and out of institutions.

In spite of this weighty family burden, Malamud proved himself a gifted student, and early on had an interest in acting. He excelled at Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School, then at City College. He received an M.A. in English literature at Columbia (his thesis: “Thomas Hardy’s Reputation as a Poet in American Periodicals”). He published his first short stories in 1943 in small magazines, including Threshold and American Prefaces; by 1950, his stories were appearing in Harper’s, Commentary, and Partisan Review. Malamud knew he wanted to write, but needed to earn a living. For a time, he worked as a substitute teacher in the New York City high schools. He tutored German refugees in English. He took a civil service exam and worked for a year as a clerk at the census bureau in Washington.

Along the way, after a three-year courtship, in 1945 Malamud married Ann de Chiara, who was from a lively upper-middle-class Italian-American family. Their son, Paul, was born in 1947; daughter, Janna, in 1952. In 1949, Malamud was offered a job teaching English and freshman composition at Oregon State College, an agricultural school in Corvallis, near the Pacific coast. It was a ticket to freedom, a move away from the familiar pressures of New York, and the end of what Davis calls Malamud’s “long adolescence.” Not that the lifelong New Yorker was prepared. “Does the Corvallis climate call for any special clothing?” Malamud wrote to the chairman of the English department, who advised he purchase a gabardine overcoat.

The cross-country move was crucial for Malamud’s career, but it took a heavy psychic toll. In one of the most powerful threads in the biography, Davis quotes from the weekly letters Malamud exchanged with his brother, who was institutionalized for the first time in 1951. In those years, Malamud’s father wrote him heartbreaking letters in halting English. “Dear Bernie,” Max wrote in 1952. “I saw Eugene Sunday he told me that he received writing paper and a Pen from you. But he trough Every thing out The Window. Wen I went home he saw me Standing Waiting Outside for Taxes he said To me through the Window Pop look here maybe you will find the Pen. I was looking But I coulnt find her.”

In 1954, at age 69, Malamud’s father died of a heart attack. A month later, Malamud began to write The Assistant, which appeared to great acclaim in 1957. It centers on Morris Bober, a failing Brooklyn grocer with heart problems, and Frank Alpine, an itinerant Italian who becomes his self-appointed apprentice. Alpine steals from Bober and tries to rape his daughter, Helen, yet winds up converting to Judaism and essentially inheriting the store—and the mantle of suffering that goes with it. “Suffering,” Alpine thinks to himself, “is like a piece of goods. I bet the Jews could make a suit of cloth out of it.”

The Assistant is suffused with themes of exile and return, thefts and gifts, crime and punishment, the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, and the limitations of confession. Realizing what he’s done to Helen, Frank reckons with himself: “He planned to kill himself; at the same minute had a terrifying insight: that all the while he was acting like he wasn’t, he was really a man of stern morality.” Davis cites Jay Cantor, a student of Malamud’s, who argues that through “guilt” and “the memory of regret and failure,” the novelist’s characters seek an inner “moral law.”

With its unsettling moral ambiguity and spare, mysterious writing, The Assistant is considered by many to be Malamud’s masterpiece. But after the stories, which are my favorite of his work, I find that I actually prefer The Fixer, which appeared in 1966 and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Based on the real case of Mendel Beilis, a Jew arrested in Kiev in 1911 and accused of ritual murder, the novel tells the story of an unbelieving Jewish handyman, or fixer, who is accused of murdering a Christian child. Although it is set largely in a Russian prison, The Fixer is somehow more full of life and humor than The Assistant, perhaps because its protagonist, Yakov Bok, with his philosophy that “life could be better than it is” and his insistence on being “a free thinker” even in prison, is more appealing than shifty, unpleasant Frank Alpine. “Since I can’t be a professional on account of lack of education, I wouldn’t mind being wealthy,” Bok reckons to himself as he prods his near-lame donkey and cart out of the Pale toward Moscow. Later, the Russian tribunal questions Bok’s reading habits. “Would you mind explaining what you think Spinoza’s work means?” the judge asks. “‘That’s not so easy to say,’ Bok answers. ‘The truth is I’m a half-ignorant man. The other half is half-educated. There’s a lot I miss even when I pay the strictest attention.’”

At one point, I nearly gave up on The Fixer. Pages and pages of prison degradations, of torture, of body-cavity searches, of physical pain and suffering, of rancid food and nasty guards—enough, Malamud, enough! But just when the suffering is on the verge of becoming a parody of itself, Bok begins to dream and hallucinate—and it is if the sun had emerged from behind the clouds. “A hard-boiled egg with a pinch of salt is delicious,” Bok thinks to himself. “Also some sour cream with a cut-up potato. If you dip bread into fresh milk and suck before swallowing, it tastes like a feast. And hot tea with lemon and a lump of sugar. In the evening you go across the wet grass to the edge of the wood. You stare at the moon in the milky sky. You breathe in the fresh air. An ambition teases you, there’s still the future. After all, you’re alive and free. Even if you’re not so free, you think you are.” There are unexpected phrases of startling beauty. When Bok is reunited with his estranged wife, “he felt, as he watched her, the weight of the blood in his heart.”

Malamud was not without his critics. Some argued that he elevated, and therefore “Christianized” Jewish suffering. Alfred Kazin said Malamud needed “to outwit his own sentimentality.” In her important 1971 book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse placed Malamud’s characters—including Fidelman, Henry Freeman, Morris Bober, and Yakov Bok—in the long tradition of the schlemiel, a stock figure with “the potential for suffering, submitting to loss, pain, humiliation, for recognizing himself as, alas, only himself.” In Wisse’s view, “the character courageous enough to accept his ignominy without being crushed by it is the true hero of Malamud’s opus, while the man playing the Western hero without admitting to his real identity—Jewish, fearful, suffering, loving, unheroic—is the absolute loser.” Malamud took issue with this characterization in a Paris Review interview in 1974. “I dislike the schlemiel characterization as a taxonomical device,” he said. “It reduces to stereotypes people of complex motivations and fates. One can often behave like a schlemiel without being one.” Indeed, if Malamud’s characters are schlemiels, they’re schlemiels with some dignity, some personal agency, and no small amount of irony.

In 1958, when he won the National Book Award for his story collection The Magic Barrel, Malamud criticized the limitations of the vocabulary then in vogue to describe the human experience—“fragmented, abbreviated, other-directed, organizational.” It’s interesting to note—though hard to imagine—that Malamud’s best short stories appeared in the late 1950s, when America was preoccupied with the “other-directed” men of David Riesman’s Lonely Crowd, and the disconnected office-workers of William Whyte’s Organization Man, books that captured postwar anomie and the rootlessness of the burgeoning suburbs. In some ways, Malamud’s characters are the poor immigrant cousins—or perhaps even the grandparents—of the men in the grey flannel suits. It’s equally hard to imagine now that The Fixer appeared in 1966, at the moment of ascendancy of Bob Dylan and Antonioni, three years after the Kennedy assassination and three before Woodstock.

But Malamud’s evident moral seriousness did not make him a saint. Indeed, Davis’s biography goes into great detail about the passionate affair Malamud had with a student, Arlene Heyman, after he began teaching at Bennington College in 1961, where he spent the rest of his career. The two remained close until the novelist’s death. Even in this sensitive matter, Davis was able to interview the Malamud family, who gave him permission to quote from the author’s correspondence. (In some ways, Malamud’s daughter, Janna Malamud Smith, paved the way for Davis’s book with her loving 2006 memoir, My Father Is a Book, in which she writes with emotional candor about both her parents’ infidelities.) It shows a certain lack of imagination that Malamud’s own publisher, Roger Straus, at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, had never been terribly enthusiastic about the idea of a Malamud biography. When Davis began his research, Straus, the garrulous scion of a wealthy German-Jewish family who died in 2004, called the project “ridiculous.” “Saul Bellow’s filet mignon,” he told Davis, “Bernard Malamud’s a hamburger.”

Davis’s biography also offers an intriguing perspective on the complicated rapport between Malamud and Philip Roth, who was one of Malamud’s harshest critics and deepest admirers. In a 1974 essay in the New York Review of Books, Roth wrote that in associating “the Jewish Jew with the struggles of ethical Jewhood and the non-Jewish Jew and the Gentile with the release of appetite and aggression,” Malamud’s work had “the lineaments of moral allegory.” The Assistant, Roth argued, “proposes that an entombed and impoverished grocer shall . . . by the example of his passive suffering and his goodness of heart transform a young thieving Italian drifter named Frank Alpine into another entombed, impoverished, suffering Jewish grocer, and that this shall constitute an act of assistance, and set Alpine on the road to redemption.” A “less hopeful Jewish writer than Malamud,” Roth wrote, “might not have understood Alpine’s transformation into Jewish grocer and Jewish father . . . as a sign of moral improvement, but as the cruel realization of Bober’s revenge. ‘Now suffer, you goy bastard, the way I did.’”

According to Davis, Malamud once said of Roth: “He’s always water-skiing when he should be diving, or at least swimming.” And yet, although Davis’s biography is comprehensive, rigorously researched, and written with great energy and insight, it somehow doesn’t carry as much emotional weight as Roth’s fine 1979 novel, The Ghost Writer, with its fictionalized version of Malamud as the writer E.I. Lonoff. The themes are all there: the burdens of the writing life, the strong yet long-suffering gentile wife, the affair with the beautiful young student at the rural New England college where he teaches. Lonoff writes with a quotation from Henry James pinned above his desk: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

For me, it is Malamud’s stories that linger most vividly. “I like packing a self or two into a few pages, predicating lifetimes,” Malamud told The Paris Review. “There’s, among other things, a drama, a resonance, of the reconciliation of opposites: much to say, little time to say it, something like the effect of a poem.” Indeed. In “The Magic Barrel,” one of my favorite stories, an uninspired rabbinical student searching for a wife falls hard for a snapshot of a woman with eyes that suggested she “had somehow deeply suffered”—only to discover that she’s the “wild” daughter of the bedraggled matchmaker himself. “Her I can’t introduce you to,” the matchmaker cries. “This is my baby, my Stella, she should burn in hell.” Still, the two meet—Stella in a white dress and red shoes, smoking on the street—which was perhaps the matchmaker’s original intent, even though he stands around the corner, saying Kaddish.

In “The Jewbird,” a black bird alights in the East Village apartment occupied by Harry Cohen and his wife and son, demanding food. “If you can’t spare a lamb chop,” says the bird, “I’ll settle for a piece of herring with a crust of bread. You can’t live on your nerve forever.” Cohen laughs when the bird calls himself a Jewbird. But later in the story, “the bird began dovening. He prayed without book or tallith, but with passion.” “No hat, no phylacteries?” Cohen asks. “I’m an old radical,” the bird answers. In Davis’s biography, Malamud’s longtime literary agent, Tim Seldes at Russell and Volkening, tells a wonderful story. On the day Malamud died, Seldes recalls, a bird flew in through the office window. This couldn’t have come as a complete surprise. After all, as Malamud always recognized, no one can live on his nerve forever.

Rachel Donadio is a Paris-based journalist, a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a former Rome Bureau Chief and European Culture Correspondent of The New York Times.

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