Bernard Malamud (1914-1986)
Contributing Editor: Evelyn Avery
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Jewish in style and character types, Bernard Malamud's fiction appeals to a broad range of students who appreciate the author's warmth, ironic humor, and memorable characters. Above all, they find his blend of the universal and the particular appealing and unique.
A writer who uses fantasy and history, who creates tragic and comic characters, who can write realistically and metaphorically, Malamud will challenge and delight students of varied backgrounds. Occasionally, "Yiddish" expressions or Jewish ritual will have to be explained, but, for the most part, meaning will be derived from context.
Since the effects of suffering are central to Malamud's fiction, students should learn that his Jews symbolize all victims and that his characters cannot be easily categorized as heroes or villains.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Writing in the last third of the twentieth century, Malamud was aware of social problems: rootlessness, infidelity, abuse, divorce, and more, but he believes in love as redemptive and sacrifice as uplifting. Often, success depends on cooperation between antagonists. In "The Mourners," for example, landlord and tenant learn from each other's anguish. In "The Magic Barrel," the matchmaker worries about his "fallen" daughter, while the daughter and the rabbinic student are drawn together by their need for love and salvation.
If Malamud's readers are sometimes disappointed by ambiguous or unhappy endings, they are often reassured about the existence of decency in a corrupt world. Malamud's guarded optimism reflects several influences. He cites American authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, as guides to moral and spiritual struggles. Like them, Malamud holds individuals responsible for their behavior. He also admires Russian writers, Fyodor Dostoyevski and Anton Chekhov, for their vibrant portrayal of the self versus society. Although he does not mention other Jewish writers as influences, he concedes "a common fund of Jewish experience and possibly an interest in the ethical approach."
In interviews, Malamud credits his hardworking "Yiddish" parents and their Eastern European immigrant generation with providing models of morality, but he emphasizes that humanity is his subject, that he uses Jews to communicate the universal just as William Faulkner created a universe from a corner of the American South.
Despite his universality or perhaps because of it, Malamud resembles a number of American Jewish authors, including earlier twentieth century writers, such as Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierska, and Henry Roth, as well as post-World War II authors such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth. Because Jewish fiction can reflect life's uncertainties and absurdities, it has broad appeal to contemporary readers, who applaud the attempt of ordinary people to determine their fate. Such themes, however, are evident in non-Jewish literature that Malamud recognized when he described himself, in a 1975 interview, as "an American . . . a Jew, and . . . a writer for all men."
His universality, however, is rooted in distinctive character types, settings, and details. Thus, the "schlemiel," a common type in Eastern European Yiddish literature, appears in some American Jewish fiction. Although at times a victim of bad luck, the "shlemiel" compounds his problems by choosing wrongly. Yakov Bok (in The Fixer), fleeing his Jewish identity, Morris Bober (in The Assistant), attempting to burn his store down, and Leo Finkle (in "The Magic Barrel"), insisting that his future wife be young and beautiful, learn to revise their values, reject assimilation, materialism, and conformity; and embrace sacrifice and spirituality. Trapped in depressing, even dangerous settings, in cramped, deteriorating stores, suffocating apartments, condemned buildings, in a nation, Russia, where Jews are at risk everywhere, Malamud's characters are both archetypal Jews and suffering humanity. Malamud's awareness of Jewish pain is best portrayed in The Fixer, a novel of extreme anti-Semitism in Tzarist Russia, which for many critics evokes the Holocaust.
Although a serious writer, Malamud uses humor to underscore the preposterous, to highlight grief, and to instruct readers. Thus Frank Alpine (in The Assistant) tumbles into the grocer's grave, Seymour Levin (in A New Life) lectures with his pants unzippered, and Yakov Bok (in The Fixer) rescues an anti-Semite whose gratitude will later lead to Bok's persecution. If Malamud's fiction produces sorrow, it also provokes laughter, albeit nervous laughter.
A best-selling, critically acclaimed author, Bernard Malamud, like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Philip Roth, earned success with the publication of his early Jewish works, The Magic Barrel (a collection of short stories) and The Assistant in the late 1950s. Although the American Jewish literary renaissance peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, writers like Malamud continue to be read and enjoyed. In fact, his reputation is steadily growing as students are introduced to his works. Moreover, the general interest in ethnicity draws readers to Jewish literature, where they discover that Bellow, Malamud, Ozick, and Singer, to name a few, speak to all sensitive, intelligent readers.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
As indicated earlier, Malamud's fiction may be compared and contrasted with works by certain European, American, and Jewish authors. Like Fyodor Dostoyevski's characters, Malamud's protagonists are tormented, guilt-ridden, and paranoiac. Their suffering recalls Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne's and Henry James's psychological tales. While Malamud has been identified as an American Jewish writer, his work can be differentiated from Saul Bellow's (considered more cerebral) and from Philip Roth's (judged more satiric). Perhaps the best of his old world stories resemble those of Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose work attempts to reconcile the old world and the new.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. A variety of questions can be posed about Malamud's fiction. Is Malamud, for example, a Jewish writer or a writer who happens to be Jewish? Since "The Magic Barrel" includes a rabbinic student and a matchmaker, how universal is the story? Does the story have a happy ending? What happens? Is this tale representative of the author's works?
2. More ambitious assignments can analyze literary influences on Malamud, his style in comparison to other Jewish writers, or male-female relationships; or possibly an imaginative option such as rewriting the story's conclusion.
Since Malamud's death in 1986, his reputation continues to grow. With the establishment of the Bernard Malamud Society and the publication of a newsletter, Malamudian scholars are kept apprised of research and conferences. For further information contact Dr. Evelyn Avery at Towson State University, Towson, Maryland, 21204; or Dr. Lawrence Lasher, English Department, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Baltimore, Maryland, 21228.