Irving Howe once called Bernard Malamud “the most enigmatic, even mysterious of American Jewish writers.” In his empathic, exhaustively researched Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, Philip Davis seeks to shed new light on Malamud’s career. The first scholar to be granted access to the Malamud archives (which include notebooks, journals, memoirs, drafts of novels and stories, and correspondence housed at the Library of Congress and the University of Texas, Austin), Davis offers an intimate portrait of Malamud’s various “lives,” from Brooklyn-born immigrant’s son to Jewish-American literary celebrity. By drawing on the archive, Bernard Malamud hovers near the primal sources of Malamud’s genius, providing a genealogyemotional, biographical, aestheticof his art. In the end, however, Malamud continues to loom as an enigmatic and mysterious figure, a conjurer of magic stories marked by the bivalent rhythms of his invented English-Yiddish voice—a “tenseless broken English,” in the novelist Jonathan Rosen’s description—infused with a son’s compassion, rachmones, for the burdened world of the fathers.
Davis’s account of Malamud’s early years in Flatbush sketches a lower-middle-class immigrant family under constant financial and emotional pressure, leading to tragedy. Born in the Russian Pale in 1885, Mendel “Max” Malamud—the model for Morris Bober in The Assistant (1957)—ran a grocery store at 1111 Gravesend Avenue, shrouded by an elevated subway, from 1924 until his death in 1954. His wife, Brucha “Bertha” Fidelman, was emotionally unstable. When Malamud was thirteen, she attempted suicide by swallowing disinfectant (he discovered her body on the kitchen floor); she died in a mental hospital two years later, in 1929. Malamud’s younger brother, Eugene, was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young man, received electroshock treatments, and was hospitalized for most of his adult life. He died of a heart attack in 1973, at the age of fifty-six.
The hard facts of Malamud’s ’20s Brooklyn youth achieve a certain illuminating resonance, thickening our sense of the bleak but deeply affecting imaginative world we now call Malamudian: a terse linguistic landscape peopled with Jewish shopkeepers, shoemakers, and bakers, fantastic black angels, talking birds and horses, and luftmensch matchmakers (inspired by his reading in Yiddish folklore), all trying to stay afloat, weighed down by material circumstance, yet still dreaming—like Max Malamud entombed in the grocery on Gravesend—of New World promise. “Though our childhood was happy,” Malamud reflected in the mid-’70s, “it was meagre in terms of family life and things cultural. . . . My hungers were already deep and endless.”
Thanks to Davis’s research, we have even greater evidence that Max’s bent life stirred his son’s literary imagination, as in The Assistant, begun soon after Max died, and the stories collected in The Magic Barrel (1958). “The facts are turned into a story,” Davis shows, “into memory and feeling.” “The memory went into the writing . . . in indirect and complicated ways.”
The opening of the archive also allows Davis to set in counterpoint what might be called the internal tracks of Malamud’s writing career with the external ones, like the low comedy of English-department life at Oregon State College in Corvallis, where he was exiled between 1949 and 1961. Since he didn’t have an advanced degree, he was only allowed, in the beginning, to teach freshman comp. Those interested in the spectacle of academic intrigue will also enjoy the Bennington College soap opera of countercultural politics, assorted professional resentments, unhealed jealousies, and student-faculty liaisons during Malamud’s twenty-plus-year tenure, beginning in the early ’60s. Most revealing, in the case of his Bennington phase, is the figure of an unhappy, love-starved, middle-aged Malamud transforming his own infidelities into the veiled autobiographical novel Dubin’s Lives (1979).
More important, Davis shows the enormous labor of revision that Malamud’s art entailed. Through the reproduction of manuscript pages from various stories and novels, we can see Malamud’s arduous process (which often included the rewriting, by hand, of second and third drafts). Thanks to Davis’s attentive readings, we can observe how Malamud achieved his famous linguistic-rhythmic effects. Much like E. I. Lonoff in The Ghost Writer (1979)—Philip Roth’s composite portrait of Malamud as literary father—the archive shows how Malamud indeed, in Lonoff’s words, “turn[ed] sentences around. . . . I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and turn it around again.” About the Roth-Malamud connection, however, Davis doesn’t explore the charged relationship deeply enough.
Ultimately, Davis’s purpose in fleshing out Malamud’s “lives” is evangelical: “I seek,” he declares, “more recognition and more readers for Malamud in the future.” Is Malamud’s literary star in eclipse?
Judging from the contents of popular college anthologies of American literature, Malamud’s corpus is now reduced to a single story, “The Magic Barrel,” from 1954. Even more striking, perhaps, Malamud seems to have been written out of Jewish literary history itself. “Bernard Malamud would appear to be the ideal American candidate for the Jewish canon,” Ruth R. Wisse observes in 2000’s The Modern Jewish Canon; “ethnically, in the music of their speech and the herring aroma of their breath [an allusion to the matchmaker, Salzman, in “The Magic Barrel”] . . . [his characters] seem immediately familiar.” Ultimately, however, Wisse erases Malamud, for his characters, in her view, remain merely symbolic. “Once Malamud’s heroes quit Brooklyn,” she argues, “they leave their Jewishness behind. His Jews dissolve into a fiction of enchantment or anonymity.”
Fifty years ago, Alfred Kazin, in reviewing The Magic Barrel, voiced a similar concern—that Malamud’s Jews are unmoored from a recognizable social world. Despite Malamud’s uncanny ability, in stories like “Take Pity,” “The First Seven Years,” and “The Loan,” to capture the “Doomsday terseness to Jewish speech,” Kazin still worries: “What remains in the reader’s mind is not a world, the world, but the spectral Jew in his beggarly clothes—always ready to take flight.”
Malamud’s Jews may not exist in a landscape as socially dense or linguistically hybrid as does, say, Henry Roth’s David Schearl, the Joycean hero of Call It Sleep; nor in Malamud are there paranoid, threatening fathers, or mothers who can salve a son’s primal terror; nor in Malamud is there the latent potential of apocalyptic spiritual redemption residing in the city’s streets.
Rather, Malamud’s Jews inhabit an emotional landscape saturated with Jewish history and memory. As the brilliant short-story artist Leonard Michaels understood, Malamud “is concerned to represent feeling.” In his art of linguistic compression, where “Yiddish wiggles in and out of English,” Michaels recognized “there is a way to see in listening.”
What we overhear in Malamud’s condensed yet evocative Yiddish-cadenced English is the rhetorical translation of a (Jewish) “mood”; in Rosen’s beautiful description, Malamud’s “New York, like the terse, fanciful, broken English spoken by so many of his characters, is itself a kind of translation, a modernist abbreviation inflected with immigrant urgency.” In Malamud, Jewishness is never left behind; it is carried (schlepped?) at the level of feeling—filial feeling.
Listen, in this respect, to the anxious father in the great story “My Son the Murderer” (1968), worried about his son’s precarious emotional state in a time of social and political crisis (the war in Vietnam, the draft):
Harry, what can I say to you? All I can say to you is who says life is easy? Since when? It wasn’t for me and it isn’t for you. It’s life, that’s the way it is—what more can I say? But if a person don’t want to live what can he do if he’s dead? Nothing is nothing, it’s better to live.
In his best stories, even in comic masterpieces like “The Last Mohican”—where Fidelman haunts the Jewish ghetto of Rome in search of the always-in-flight Susskind, only to discover the horrors of Jewish history in the Holocaust—Malamud honors the wisdom of the fathers; theirs is the voice of compassion tinged with the weight, the tears, of Jewish memory.
Thus even when Malamud conjures the most fantastic stories, in the tradition of Yiddish folklore, his Jews remain embedded in history. What might be called Malamud’s political imagination, the implicit social dimension of his art, needs to be reexamined. Thanks to Davis, we now have access to the archives, which reveal Malamud’s relation to New Deal politics, his early desire to write a novel based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and his championing of politically threatened writers while president of pen between 1979 and 1981.
In light of Malamud’s relative “outsider” status in the academy, his provocative 1971 novel about black-Jewish relations, The Tenants, as recent work by Elisa New, Emily Budick, and Eric Sundquist suggests, may be a good place to begin to reconsider the author’s place not just in the Jewish-American literary canon but in relation to current debates about “ethnic” writing in general. “The Tenants marks a turning point in the history of American letters,” observes Aleksandar Hemon in his introduction to the new Farrar, Straus & Giroux edition of the novel: “the beginning of the rise of identity politics in literature and the related loss of confidence in the possibility of ‘pure art.’”
“Don’t work your roots on me,” the Black Arts–inspired revolutionary Willie Spearmint warns Harry Lesser, his literary mentor and rival. I wonder how such a challenge—Malamud’s sly overturning of identity-politics discourse—would play in today’s classroom. I wonder, too, how the novel’s final plea, “Mercy, the both of you, for Christ’s sake. . . . Hab rachmones, I beg you,” chanted over a hundred times as the novel’s third potential ending, sounds in the ears of contemporary, postmodernism-attuned readers?
Over a lifetime in writing, rachmones remained Malamud’s key and is perhaps one way to understand Malamud in the twenty-first century. “Rachmones, we say in Hebrew,” explains Yakov Bok in The Fixer (1966): “mercy, one oughtn’t to forget it.” Or Malamud.
Donald Weber teaches English at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, MA, and is the author of Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture from Cahan to ‘The Goldbergs’ (Indiana University Press, 2005).