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Bernard Malamud’s 99th Birthday

A straw poll of the writer’s greatest work

Adam Chandler
April 26, 2013
Bernard Malamud.(LaLiteratura)
Bernard Malamud.(LaLiteratura)

As I’m sure all of you know, today would be Bernard Malamud’s 99th birthday. The Brooklyn-born writer, by many accounts, sits in the pantheon of great 20th-century American writers (and American Jewish writers, I suppose) along with Saul Bellow (his contemporary) and Philip Roth (who frequently lists Malamud as a major influence).

Too often Malamud gets overlooked–despite the one-off fame afforded by the adaptation of his book The Natural in a hit Robert Redford flick that totally bastardized the book’s ending–and so I thought to look/ask around for opinions on Malamud’s best work and see what titles came up. Both a novelist and a short story writer, I didn’t limit it to one form (although Malamud was known for writing slow and produced only eight novels and 60-plus stories).

Writing for Tablet back in 2008, Rachel Donadio asked the question: Where have all the Bernard Malamud readers gone? She then praised his short stories thusly:

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.

That same year, Joe Hill communed with Malamud’s famous story “Jew Bird” (a personal Scroll favorite) here and in 2010, Benjamin Baliant praised the keen eye of Commentary Magazine, which decades ago published nine of Malamud’s stories, including five stories from his collection The Magic Barrel, which went on to win the National Book Award.

Speaking of anniversaries, today we have a great piece by David Mikics about the 100th anniversary of the Mendel Beilis affair, a blood libel trial, the legacy of which sadly still has its modern analogues. As Mikics notes, the torments of Mendel Beilis were the inspiration for Bernard Malamud’s book The Fixer (which also won the National Book Award along with the Pulitzer Prize).

A poll about Malamud at the office today yielded a number of different responses, none of which repeated themselves. (This fact alone is a really nice discovery.) Among the noted:

God’s Grace, The Fixer, the short story “A Summer’s Reading,” The Assistant, and The Natural.

Related: The Beilis Conspiracy [Tablet]
Restoration Project [Tablet]
Of a Feather [Tablet]

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.