Malamud’s Grace

The Times headline reads: “Bernard Malamud is Dead at 71. Author Depicted Human Struggle.” Well, yes, I think, after recovering from the shock and starting to feel the sorrow, he did do that. But don’t all writers do it in one way or another? Isn’t there a depiction of human struggle even in those books that don’t make it their theme or subject, even in those “inhuman” works (as Robbe-Grillet’s novels were called) that are more concerned with the nature of language or perception than with lives? To write at all, to set down words in formal ways, to imagine fictively, is to report on a struggle. Malamud did that, more directly than most.

But what kind of a writer was he? Rilke spoke of fame as “the sum of misunderstandings that has gathered around a person.” Malamud was known for having had “compassion,” “moral wisdom,” a concern for the “ordinary man.” True, but was that what made him a good writer? The misunderstanding in his case lies in how the relation between those virtues and writing itself is seen.

If anything, what we might call the humanistic values of his writing gave him an air of being a little out of date—earnest, kindly, thoughtful. His gaze was on the perennial, instead of conjuring with our confusions and chaos and inventing brilliantly in order to confront and combat them. He was a storyteller in an era when most of our best writers have been suspicious of straightforward narrative. Nobody thinks of him as an innovator, unless being among the first to bring the rhythms and intonations of Jewish, or Yiddish, speech to formal prose counts as innovation.

He himself contributed to the image of a somewhat old-fashioned, or unfashionable, champion of the spirit, a humanist in a literary era in which humanism is almost anomalous. Again and again he used the word “human” in the occasional interviews and speeches he gave: “My work ... is an idea of dedication to the human. ... If you don’t respect man, you cannot respect my work. I’m in defense of the human.” And he spoke of art as “sanctifying human life and freedom.”

So what’s to object, as he might have put it? Those lofty, sonorous phrases, more mottoes than anything else, left me uncomfortable when they came from him and leave me so when they come from others. It isn’t enough to speak of defending the human or respecting man, or rather it sounds a bit self-serving and even pompous. Did he think it was what was expected of him? To shift the burden to us, isn’t it naive to say that he “touched our hearts”? Bad fiction, melodramas, kitsch touch our hearts too, bring tears more reliably, certainly in greater floods, than does good writing.

It seems to me that Malamud was usually at his weakest when he sought or fell into too direct a way to our emotions, when he was most self-consciously “humane.” I think of stories like “Black Is My Favorite Color,” “The Lady of the Lake,” and “The Loan,” each brought down by predictable sentiment, and even more of novels such as The Fixer, at once heavy, pseudo-lyrical, and tendentious; The Tenants, where social painfulness isn’t fully transmuted into imaginative truth; and God’s Grace, embarrassingly cute in a mode of fantasy—jocose, biblically flavored science fiction—to which he wasn’t suited.

To what, then, was he suited? To begin with, there is that swift rooting of so many of his protagonists in an occupation or a past. His opening words located his characters: “S. Levin, formerly a drunkard”; “Davidov, the census-taker”; “Manischevitz, a tailor”; “Fidelman, a self-confessed failure as a painter”; “Kessler, formerly an egg-candler.” Having so placed them, relieved of the necessity to develop them, yet having granted them a specificity that kept them from being parabolic, he moved them quickly into position to experience their fates. These are destinies of self-recognition—ironic, painful, lugubrious, or threnodic—and they are, when all is working well, revelatory of the morally or psychically unknown, or not yet known. And along the way, there are the pleasures of the text, the little fates of language:

From Idiots First: “He drew on his cold embittered clothing.”

From “The Magic Barrel”: “Life, despite their frantic yoohooings, had passed them by.”

From “The Girl of my Dreams”: “... he pitied her, her daughter, the world. Who not?”

From “The Death of Me”: “His heart, like a fragile pitcher, toppled from the shelf and bump bumped down the stairs, cracking at the bottom.”

From “The Jewbird”: “The window was open so the skinny bird flew in. Flappity-flap with its frazzled black wings. That’s how it goes. It’s open, you’re in. Closed, you’re out, and that’s your fate.”

From Dublin’s Lives: “On the road a jogger trotted toward him, a man with a blue band around his head. He slowed down as Dublin halted. ‘What are you running for?’ the biographer asked him. ‘All I can’t stand to do. What about you?’ ‘Broken heart, I think.’ ‘Ah, too bad about that.’ They trotted in opposite directions.”

From somewhere: “exaltation went where exaltation goes.”

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