Analysis of Bernard Malamud’s Stories

All Bernard Malamud’s (April 26, 1914 – March 18, 1986) fiction seems based on a single affirmation: Despite its disappointments, horror, pain, and suffering, life is truly worth living. His work may be best understood in the context of mid-twentieth century American literature. When Malamud arrived upon the literary scene, he disagreed with the period’s twin pillars of negativism and nihilism, and his work is a reaction to this prevailing trend. “The purpose of the writer,” contends Malamud, “is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” Therefore, his characters, no matter how bad their lot, push toward a better life, a new life. “My premise,” notes the author, “is that we will not destroy each other. My premise is that we will live on. We will seek a better life. We may not become better, but at least we will seek betterment.”

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In this respect, for Malamud the most important element of fiction is form, a belief that appropriately reinforces his thematic beliefs. Literary form as “ultimate necessity” is the basis of literature. The writer’s duty, he argues “is to create the architecture, the form.” This element of structure, so prevalent in both his short and long fiction, runs counter to the practice of many of his contemporaries, who preferred the inherent formlessness of the so-called New Novel. The essence of this form, says Malamud, is “story, story, story. Writers who can’t invent stories often pursue other strategies, even substituting style for narrative. I feel that story is the basic element of fiction.”

This belief, however, raises the question of what for Malamud constitutes a good story. Here Malamud is likewise a traditionalist, returning to such nineteenth century influences as Fyodor Dostoevski, Leo Tolstoy, and Gustave Flaubert. Malamud’s stories grow out of character. More often than not, the typical protagonist is the schlemiel (usually Jewish, though sometimes Italian). According to the author himself, “A Malamud character is someone who fears his fate, is caught up in it, yet manages to outrun it. He’s the subject and object of laughter and pity.” When Malamud began publishing his stories, the emphasis was often on case studies rather than elaborate personality development, a trend that irritated Malamud:

The sell-out of personality is just tremendous. Our most important natural resource is Man. The times cry out formenof imagination and hope. Instead, our fiction is loaded with sickness, homosexuality, fragmented man, “other-directed” man. It should be filled with love and beauty and hope.We are underselling Man. And American fiction is at its weakest when we go in for journalistic case studies instead of rich personality development.

A typical Malamud story, then, is an initiation story, the classic American pattern. Malamud admits that his American literary roots lie in Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, and Sherwood Anderson. The story usually begins with a youth—or an older man with arrested personality development—who has led an unfulfilled life because of undeveloped emotions, failed relationships, and questionable morality. This protagonist then encounters a father figure—similar to the Hemingway tutor-tyro technique— who guides him through his odyssey by prodding him to ask the right questions, teaching him the meaning of suffering and spirituality, and ultimately coaxing him to accept the responsibility for his own life.

Because Malamud is Jewish, his protagonists are, more often than not, Jewish as well. Given Malamud’s background—his father was a Jewish immigrant and passed on his knowledge of the Yiddish tradition of storytelling—this is to be expected. Malamud himself admits, “I write about Jews because I know them. But more important, I write about them because Jews are absolutely the very stuff of drama.” By itself, this assertion is misleading, for unlike his fellow members of the Jewish literary renaissance, Malamud is not preoccupied with the uniqueness of the Jewish experience. The Jew for Malamud is a metaphor for all human beings. “Jewishness is important to me,” Malamud asserts, “but I don’t consider myself only a Jewish writer. I have interests beyond that, and I feel I am writing for all men.” Malamud’s method, then, is synecdochic—by detailing the plight of his Jews, he reveals the human’s common humanity.

Throughout his career Malamud alternated writing novels with short stories. Of the two forms, he confesses to “having been longer in love with short fiction.” One aspect of the short story that Malamud especially enjoys is “the fast payoff. Whatever happens happens quickly.” A related matter is compression. Short fiction, Malamud argues, “packs a self in a few pages predicating a lifetime. . . . In a few pages a good story portrays the complexity of a life while producing the surprise and effect of knowledge—not a bad payoff.”

Ironically, this fastness and compression are part of the ultimate illusion of Malamud’s art. For him the writing of a short story is a long task that demands constant revision. “I would write a book, or a short story,” Malamud admits, “at least three times—once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.”

The First Seven Years

“The First Seven Years,” which first appeared in the Partisan Review in 1950 and later in The Magic Barrel, is a straightforward tale set in the favorite Malamudian milieu, the New York Jewish ghetto. Feld, the shoemaker, decides to play matchmaker for his nineteen-year-old daughter, Miriam, whom he desires to attend college. Feld’s choice is Max, a college boy, but the shoemaker is disappointed to learn that Max is a materialist (he wants to be an accountant), and for this reason his daughter rejects the chosen suitor. Simultaneously, Sobel, Feld’s assistant, quits his job, and Feld has a heart attack.

The story turns on a typical Malamud irony. What Feld has failed to realize is that he, like Max, is a materialist and that his dreams of his daughter’s having “a better life” are wrapped up in money, her marrying well. Malamud here also reverses the typical older-man-equals-tutor, younger-man-equals-tyro pattern. Apparently, Feld is teaching Sobel the shoemaker’s trade, but in truth, Sobel is the instructor: He admits that he has worked cheaply and lived poorly for the past five years only to be around the woman whom he truly loves, Miriam. As Malamud might have punned, the assistant teaches the master the difference between soles and souls. Finally, Sobel agrees to remain an assistant for two more years before asking Miriam to marry him.

Malamud’s symbolism is both simple and mythic. Feld suffers literally from a damaged heart and metaphorically from an organ that is too materialistic. The rebirth pattern is inherent in the story’s time frame, which moves from winter toward spring. The seven-year cycle of fertility—Sobel’s wait—suggests that he is in tune with larger forces in the universe. Interestingly, the story is also an early version of the tale on which Malamud would elaborate in The Assistant.

The Magic Barrel

“The Magic Barrel” utilizes another familiar Malamud pattern, the fantasy. Here, he blends elements of the traditional fairy tale with Jewish folklore. The story in fact begins like a fairy tale, with the line “Not long ago there lived. . . .” In the story, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student searching for a wife, is the prince; Salzman, the marriage broker with the “magic” barrel and his sudden appearances, is the supernatural agent; and Stella, Salzman’s prostitute daughter, is the princess of the tale. The plot is likewise reminiscent of a fairy tale as the prince finally meets the princess and through the intervention of the supernatural agent has a chance at a happy ending.

Malamud’s fairy tale borrows elements from Jewish folklore. The characters are certainly stereotypical: the marriage broker, the schlemiel, and the poor daughter. The setting is the usual lower-class milieu. With Leo helping Salzman at the end (each man plays both tutor and tyro), the plot has the familiar reversal, and the story is based on the age-old subject of parent as matchmaker. Even the theme is familiar: Love is a redemptive force earned through suffering and self-knowledge. Malamud also infuses his story with humor. Aside from the stock characters and stock situations, he utilizes puns (for example “Lily wilted”), hyperbole, and comic juxtaposition (prospective brides are described in the jargon of used-car salesmen). Finally, the story contains social criticism directed at the Jews. Leo Finkle, the would-be rabbi, has learned the Jewish law but not his own feelings. He takes refuge in his selfpity (a frequent Malamud criticism), he wants a wife not for love but for social prestige, and he uses his religion to hide from life.

Angel Levine

“Angel Levine” is part fable, part fantasy, and an example of the typical Malamud theme, the brotherhood of all people. Manischevitz, a Malamudian Job-victim, seeks relief from his suffering and aid for his sick wife, Fanny. In the Malamudian world, help comes from human rather than divine sources; here, the aide is a Jewish Negro angel, Angel Levine. In his narrow religious pride and prejudice, Manischevitz can only wonder why God has failed to send him help in the form of a white person. The tailor’s subsequent refusal of aid, an act saturated with egotistical pride, fails to lead to relief.

Eventually, Manischevitz, in pursuit of aid, roams into Harlem, where, finding Angel Levine in Bella’s bar, he overhears the essential Malamudian lesson about the divine spark in all persons: “It de speerit,” said the old man. “On de face of de water moved de speerit. An’ dat was good. It say so in de Book. From de speerit ariz de man. . . .” God put the spirit in all things.

Socially color-blind at last, Manischevitz can now believe that the same spirit dwells within every human, uniting them all. In a scene reminiscent of Felicity’s vision at the end of Flaubert’s “Un Coeur simple,” Manischevitz is rewarded by the sight of a dark figure flying with dark wings. The final meaning of his experience he conveys to Fanny when he admits, “Believe me, there are Jews everywhere.” Here, he is Malamud’s rationalizer, mouthing the familiar theme of brotherhood.

The Last Mohican

“The Last Mohican” introduces the recurring Everyman character Arthur Fidelman (the stories about him were collected in Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition) and reveals Malamud’s growth and artistry in enlarging the scope of his essentially Jewish materials. Although the setting is not New York City but Rome, the protagonist is familiar. Fidelman, “a self-confessed failure as a painter,” is also a failure as a human being, a self-deluded egotist who knows little about his self. His teacher is the familiar aged Jew—this time called Shimon Susskind in typical Malamudian gentle irony, “a Jewish refugee from Israel.”

The essential lesson is again brotherhood. As Susskind persists in asking for help on his own terms, Fidelman inquires, “Am I responsible for you, Susskind?” The elderly Jew replies, “Who else . . . you are responsible. Because you are a man. Because you are a Jew, aren’t you?” Like Dante descending into the depths of Hell, Fidelman must enter the personal hell of his own ego to learn the powerful lesson. Fearing that Susskind has stolen his manuscript-laden briefcase, Fidelman discovers the refugee in the Jewish ghetto of Rome, “a pitch black freezing cave.” Susskind admits to burning the Giotto manuscript inside the case because “the spirit was missing.”

This “rebirth of the spirit” story reads less like a Jewish parable than do many of Malamud’s stories. Malamud has set the tale in Rome, and he has obviously undergirded it with mythic dimensions by using Inferno motifs (using, for example, “Virgilio” Susskind and a street named Dante). Some critics even contend this is the best of the stories in The Magic Barrel. Perhaps this story is more believable than others, for rather than merely learning an abstract lesson, Fidelman actually begins to care about Susskind, even forgiving him.

Idiots First

“Idiots First,” the title story of his second collection, reveals Malamud’s willingness to experiment. The story is a strange combination of fantasy and fable. Although set at night in his familiar territory, this New York is more of a dreamscape, a nightmare, than a realistic environment. No character motivation is provided, key information is omitted, and one Jewish character, Ginzburg, matter-offactly introduced à la the fairy godmother in “Cinderella,” follows an elderly Jew named Mendel, has the ability to freeze people, and seems to represent God/death. Malamud has either invented a new dramatic form or reverted to an old, nineteenth century American mode known as the romance.

Mendel, convinced that he will die that night, desperately seeks thirty-five dollars in order to send his mentally disabled son to Uncle Leo in California. What is not made clear is that Mendel seems to have made a pact with Ginzburg—he will go willingly to his death if he is given time to take care of his son. Mendel is helped not by the rich (a pawnbroker or the supposedly philanthropic Mr. Fishbein), but by the poor, a dying rabbi who gives him a coat, and by death (or Ginzburg) himself, who gives him extra time.

Whereas earlier Malamud stories usually had contrivances such as obvious symbols or preachy raisonneurs, “Idiots First” offers no such aid. On one level, the story seems almost metaphysical, a questioning of God/death for being so detached (“What will happen happens. This isn’t my responsibility”) and wrathful (Ginzburg sees wrath mirrored in Mendel’s eyes) that He no longer understands what it means to be human. In any case, this open-endedness and general ambiguity represent a new development.

Black Is My Favorite Color

“Black Is My Favorite Color,” first appearing in The Reporter in 1963, is representative of another of Malamud’s frequent concerns, the relationship among the races. Like “Angel Levine” before it and the novel The Tenants after it, this story explores the fragile love-hate bonds between Jews and African Americans.

Nat Lime, a white Jew who operates a liquor store in Harlem, professes to be colorblind (“there’s only one human color and that’s the color of blood”). Throughout his life, Lime has befriended “colored” people, but they all seem to resent his attempts. Buster Wilson, his would-be childhood buddy, Ornita Harris, the black woman to whom he proposes marriage, and Charity Sweetness, his current maid, all reject his overtures of friendship and more.

This story is difficult to understand. Both Lime’s words and his actions indicate that he is free of prejudice. He operates a business in black Harlem, and he hires black workers. In return, he is rejected by the three black people he truly likes and helps; twice, he is beaten and robbed by blacks, once obviously for dating a black woman. Yet, through it all, Lime retains his good sense as well as his good humor, and he pursues his cleaning lady everywhere (“Charity Sweetness—you hear me?—come out of that goddamn toilet!”). Malamud appears to be indicating that prejudice and divisiveness can reside in black people as well as white.

The German Refugee

“The German Refugee,” one of the few first-person stories in the Malamud canon, also illustrates the theme of brotherhood. The narrator, Martin Goldberg, relates his attempts to teach English to a German refugee, Oskar Gassner, who is scheduled to give a lecture in English aboutWalt Whitman’s relationship to certain German poets.

Two distinct stories emerge: Oskar’s anguish over his failure to comprehend English and the irony of Goldberg’s failure to understand why. Thus, once again, each man is both tutor and tyro. While Martin teaches Oskar English, the German army begins its summer push of 1939. What the narrator fails to grasp is his pupil’s deep involvement in his former country’s fate and that of his non-Jewish wife, whom he left there.

To emphasize the irony, Malamud uses references to Whitman. Oskar ends up teaching his teacher the important lesson when he declares about the poet that “it wasn’t the love of death they [German poets] had got from Whitman . . . but it was most of all his feeling for Brudermensch, his humanity.” When Oskar successfully delivers his speech, the narrator feels only a sense of pride at what he taught the refugee, not the bonds of Brudermensch that have developed between them. When Oskar commits suicide, the narrator never sees that he is partially responsible.

The Jewbird

“The Jewbird” is a modern, urban version of “The Raven.” Just as the raven flew through the open window of Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator and stayed to haunt his conscience, so Schwartz, this black jewbird, which looks “like a dissipated crow,” flaps through the window of Harry Cohen’s top-floor apartment and lingers to bedevil him. “Bird or devil,” demands Poe’s narrator; “How do I know you’re a bird and not some kind of a goddman devil?” asks Cohen.

Malamud’s beast fable, however, is concerned with more than nebulous guilt over a lost love. On one hand, the tale is lighthearted with a considerable amount of hyperbole, sarcasm, and comic banter; on the other, “The Jewbird” focuses on a heavier theme, prejudice. When Schwartz first enters the Cohen apartment, the bird announces that it is running from “anti-Semeets.” At the conclusion of the story, young Maurie Cohen goes in search of the bird, which had been driven from the apartment by his father. Finding the damaged jewbird by the river, the boy asks his mother who so hurt Schwartz, and his mother replies, “Anti-Semeets.” In other words, Harry Cohen is anti-Semitic.

Malamud’s story, however, is still more than a parable of anti-Semitism. Harry Cohen is a cruel man and an inherently selfish father who has little to do with his son. When Schwartz begins to help Maurie with his reading, math, violin lessons, and even games, the narrator notes that the bird “took on full responsibility for Maurie’s performance in school.” Harry Cohen is so self-absorbed that he has been unable to function successfully as a parent.

Rembrandt’s Hat

Nathaniel Hawthorne once admitted that a few of his tales suffered from an inveterate love of allegory. The same diagnosis might apply to some of Malamud’s stories. “Rembrandt’s Hat,” the title story from the collection that was published in 1973, is typical of the essentially two-person psychological dramas that Malamud does so well. Often in such stories, two people who apparently work closely together never grasp what is truly going on in each other. As a result, painful misunderstandings occur, with a major one and its subsequent suffering leading to selfknowledge as well as a greater understanding between the two. Feld and Sobel, Finkle and Salzman, Manischevitz and Levine, Goldberg and Gassner, Fidelman and Susskind—the names change, but the pattern remains.

In “Rembrandt’s Hat,” Rubin, a sculptor, and Arkin, an art historian, are colleagues at a New York art school, and they run into each other occasionally and utter polite, meaningless words. One day, Arkin makes a chance remark to Rubin that the latter’s white headwear resembles a hat that Rembrandt wears in one of his selfportraits. From this point on, Rubin grows silent and starts shunning his colleague. Then, each wearing a different hat, the two art teachers go to great lengths to avoid each other. Ultimately, Arkin apologizes, Rubin weeps, and the two men resume their tenuous friendship.

The story turns on another prominent Malamud motif; like Henry James before him, Malamud uses art as a touchstone of character. For example, Fidelman’s success as a human being is mirrored in his self-appraisal as an artist. Arkin, like some other Malamud characters, uses art to hide from life; it occurs to him that “he found it easier to judge paintings than to judge people.” Rubin’s self-portrait is sculpted in a single welded piece, a dwarf tree in the midst of an iron jungle. Thus, when Arkin makes the innocent comment, Rubin’s inferiority complex interprets it as a comparison of the sculptor to the old master, Rembrandt, with the sculptor much less prominent. Finally, all the hats, from Arkin’s white Stetson to Rubin’s railroad engineer’s cap, become self-Rorschach tests of the story’s participants.

Notes from a Lady at a Dinner Party

“Notes from a Lady at a Dinner Party,” appearing in Rembrandt’s Hat, is a typical Malamud tale about the relationship between the sexes. In the Malamudian world, men and women desperately seek out each other, reach the verge of true commitment, but find it difficult to communicate, often to commit. Thus, Sobel silently pursues Miriam for seven years without revealing his true feelings, and Fidelman in “Naked Nude” finds it necessary to forge paintings in a whorehouse.

At a dinner party, Max Adler finds himself attracted to Karla Harris, the young wife of his former professor who is more than twice her age. Adler and Harris develop an alluring intimacy by secretly passing notes back and forth. An artist mired in the traditional role of wife-mother, Karla flirts with Adler, who, though previously daring only in his architecture, kisses her. After planning a late-night rendezvous at a nearby motel, they both get cold feet, part, and return to their separate lives of quiet desperation.

Both Karla and Adler are different versions of Malamud’s self-limiting human beings. For the most part, Adler can only express his desires in architecture, while Karla’s inner self comes out only in the relative safety of watercolors and romantic notes. In Malamud’s twentieth century America, then, would-be lovers still cling to the courtly love tradition. Art is a medium not solely to express one’s feelings but a place to hide and sublimate. Love rarely blossoms. Adler is divorced. Karla is content to write enticing notes to strange men and keep getting pregnant by her aging husband. Other Malamud men never marry. Oskar Gassner and his wife live in two different countries and are separated by war. Mendel’s wife has died. Feld claims his wife does not understand man-woman relationships. Fidelman ultimately becomes bisexual.

God’s Wrath

“God’s Wrath” is another story about parent-child relationships. As with the sexes and the races, Malamud indicates that there is very little communication between parents and children. Glasser, a retired sexton, is a Lear-like figure with three daughters (by two wives) who have all been disappointments. His hope for one’s having a better life is pinned on his youngest daughter, Luci, who quits college, leaves her job, and moves out of his apartment. After a long search, Glasser finally locates Luci, learning that she has become a prostitute. “God’s Wrath” offers little explanation for the reason things are the way they are, except that God occasionally winks an eye. The story’s conclusion is once again open-ended. Unable to dissuade his daughter from a life of prostitution, Glasser stations himself at her haunts and calls down God’s wrath on her. Interestingly, at this point, Malamud switches from the past to the present tense, which indicates a sort of never-ending tension between parent and child, a perpetual inability to communicate, and the ultimate ignorance about how a parent affects a child. In the midst of a pessimistic, naturalistic universe, Malamud suggests that certain conflicts are eternal.

Malamud is an acclaimed twentieth century master of the short story. Often writing realistic fantasy, he is able to imbue his initiating Jews with a mythic dimension, while simultaneously depicting social and spiritual squalor in a realistic manner. His tales contain a great depth of feeling that is occasionally marred by obvious moralizing and transparent mythology. He evinces a deep concern for his fellow human beings. His major flaw has been called the narrowness of his subject matter, the plight of the lower-class Jew, but this problem is only a misunderstanding when one realizes that the Jew is a symbol for people everywhere.

Major Works
Novels: The Natural, 1952; The Assistant, 1957; A New Life, 1961; The Fixer, 1966; The Tenants, 1971; Dubin’s Lives, 1979; God’s Grace, 1982; The People, 1989.
Nonfiction: Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work, 1996 (Alan Cheuse and Nicholas Delbanco, editors).

Bibliography
Abramson, Edward A. Bernard Malamud Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Avery, Evelyn, ed. The Magic Worlds of Bernard Malamud. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Bernard Malamud. New York: Chelsea House, 2000.
Giroux, Robert. “On Bernard Malamud.” Partisan Review 64 (Summer, 1997): 409- 413.
Malamud, Bernard. Introduction to The Stories of Bernard Malamud. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.
____________. “Reflections of a Writer: Long Work, Short Life.” The New York Times Book Review 93, no. 20 (March, 1988): 15-16.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Ochshorn, Kathleen. The Heart’s Essential Landscape: Bernard Malamud’s Hero. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.
Sío-Castiñeira, Begoña. The Short Stories of Bernard Malamud: In Search of Jewish Postimmigrant Identity. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.
Sloan, Gary. “Malamud’s Unmagic Barrel.” Studies in Short Fiction 32 (Winter, 1995): 51-57.
Smith, Janna Malamud. My Father Is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Watts, Eileen H. “Jewish Self-Hatred in Malamud’s ‘The Jewbird.’” MELUS 21 (Summer, 1996): 157-163.

 



Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Short Story

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1 reply

  1. The assistant is a best short story by malamud.

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