The Otherworldly Malamud
“A small miracle has come to pass,” Bernard Malamud said in 1959, accepting the National Book Award for his short story collection The Magic Barrel. The miracle was that the short story was being so honored—the form, in many ways, Malamud was best at, but which, during awards season, tends to be neglected in favor of the novel. It was Malamud’s first moment in the spotlight, but the evening was a clumsy one. He forgot his $1,000 award check at the podium and, arriving late at the dinner in his honor, was told that there was no place for him to sit.
“Not for the first time I was seeing a Malamud story unfold,” the critic Alfred Kazin observed.
There’s a tendency, if not a formula, in Malamud’s fiction to invest humanity with a spiritual melancholy. Malamud protagonists are forever being held back, locked out, or stifled. Consider the graduate student whose efforts to research art in Rome are stymied by his inability to find a suitable apartment in “Behold the Key,” or the young man trapped in his room by his promise to consume a stack of books in “A Summer’s Reading,” or the ballplayer shot and disabled on the cusp of fame in The Natural, or the man exasperated by a faith healer’s evasions in “The Silver Crown.”
The conclusions of Malamud stories are often spiritual but rarely redemptive. They remind us of life’s strangeness and the inexplicability of God’s will. The arrival of a talking black bird in “The Jewbird” conveys both a sense of wonderment and a caution that reality is about to come crashing down.
“That’s how it goes,” he writes early in the story. “It’s open, you’re in. Closed, you’re out and that’s your fate.”
Who writes stories like this anymore? Who aspires to? In the fifties and sixties, Malamud’s talent for giving workaday sufferings and shortcomings the cast of a fable made him the quintessential postwar American writer; his work was a reminder that the degradations of the past, particularly for Jews, were not long past. For this, Malamud received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award (twice), and was installed in a triumvirate with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, what Bellow called the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx of literature.
Today, one hundred years after his birth, Malamud’s name endures in the Pen/Malamud Award, given annually to a distinguished short story collection, and now the Library of America has brought out a second volume of his novels and stories covering the 1960s. Still, his reputation lacks the towering height of Roth’s or Bellow’s. In truth, he was always an uneasy fit with those two. Bellow and Roth sought to balance their Jewish backgrounds with a commitment to the larger American scene. Malamud, to the contrary, stuck with Yiddish folklore and continued to bear witness to its strange magic. Imitators of that strategy will inevitably be rare, but it gives him a unique standing in American letters. To read him now is to experience something that feels new, in large part because its inspirations come from the very bedrock of all storytelling.
As innovators go, Malamud’s life was interior and modest. He all but hermetically sealed himself off from the outside world to dedicate his life to writing. He was born in New York in 1914 to immigrants from a Jewish shtetl in Ukraine. His father, Max, worked for a series of struggling groceries, an experience that provided Malamud with a model for his early fictions, particularly the foundering shop in his second novel, The Assistant (1957). His mother, Bertha, died in a mental hospital when he was fifteen.
He never aspired to be anything besides a writer: “At eight or nine I was writing little stories in school,” he told an interviewer in 1975. But, during the thirties and forties, literature vied with domestic responsibilities for priority in Malamud’s life. Raising a family forced him to take teaching gigs, and his failure to land an East Coast professorship sent him west, to the relatively undistinguished Oregon State College. There he labored over a novel, The Light Sleeper, that was roundly rejected by publishers. “I knew little about novel construction,” he later said, “and . . . less about the man I was writing about.” There’s no trace of the book now; he burned the manuscript pages in his backyard.
Malamud’s fortunes turned with the publication of his first novel, The Natural (1952), which had the support of the legendary editor Robert Giroux. It set the template for his storytelling, blending psychological realism and mythology, which alternately captivated and alienated readers and critics; few major American novelists’ careers have been so pockmarked with mixed reviews.
Unlike much of his cohort, Malamud was reluctant to discuss his work, or to weigh in more generally on the affairs of the day. Only late in his career, in 1971, with The Tenants, did he engage with contemporary race relations; his deepest exploration of anti-Semitism, his 1966 novel, The Fixer, was inspired by events in prerevolutionary Russia.
“I wanted the historical tie-up so I could invent it into a myth,” he wrote in an essay about the book. Eschewing relevance, Malamud emphasized work, letting the modern world dissolve as he wrote, rewrote—and rewrote the rewrites. In this regard he resembled E. I. Lonoff, the novelist at the center of Roth’s 1979 novel, The Ghost Writer. “I turn sentences around,” Lonoff says. “I write a sentence and then I turn it round. Then I look at it and turn it around again.”
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