Bernard Malamud (April 26, 1914 – March 18, 1986) was 26 when he wrote Armistice in mid-1940. The story had remained unpublished for nearly 50 years until released posthumously in 1989 as the first of his 16 theretofore uncollected stories in a volume with the others and his unfinished novel, The People. When he wrote it, the United States had not yet struck out against the German onslaught in Europe that would soon expand into World War II, but Malamud was already profoundly disturbed over the plight of the Jews there as the Nazis gained control over one country after another. Until his mother died in 1929, Malamud lived in Brooklyn with his parents, who had immigrated from Ukraine early in the century; afterward he remained with his father until he rented an apartment of his own at 25 to begin his career as a writer. Like Malamud’s father, Morris Lieberman in “Armistice” is a grocer with a small city store who fears not only for himself and his son, Leonard, but for Jews everywhere.
Anti-Semitism is behind the relentless distress that pervades it. “Armistice” opens with Lieberman’s memory of a horrific act of violence he had witnessed as a youth during a pogrom against the Jews in his native Russia, an act that initiates the fright and stress that underlie the rest of the story. He had seen “a burly Russian peasant seize a wagon wheel that was lying against the side of a blacksmith’s shop, swing it around, and hurl it at a fleeing Jewish sexton. The wheel caught the Jew in the back, crushing his spine. In speechless terror, he lay on the ground before his burning house, waiting to die” (103). This graphic description shocks readers and remains with them to the end of the story, continually reinforced by radio broadcasts of the Nazi advance in Europe and underscored by the gloating approval of their success by Gus Wagner, a German-American sausage salesman peddling his wares to the grocer.
Morris is literally addicted to the radio broadcasts; he cannot break away from the war news that informs him of what he fears to hear but for which he compulsively listens hour by hour, day by day. His son, Leonard, pleads with him to stop, as do the other salesmen with whom he trades, all of whom insist that the war in Europe has no relation to the United States, but they cannot convince him. As France gives way, Morris feels lost, and Gus’s periodic stops with baskets of sausages include his increased crowing over the inevitable French surrender. When it occurs, Marshall Pétain signs an armistice for “peace with honor” according to Hitler’s demands and becomes the notorious leader of Vichy France. With this news, Morris is devastated (105). Malamud must have been drafting his story immediately after these events were occurring in June 1940, while holding a civil service position in Washington, D.C. (Giroux vii–ix).
To complicate further Morris’s conflict with Gus, the salesman attempts to cheat him by making small errors in his bill for meat purchased, but Leonard’s checking the figures exposes his chicanery. An argument that ensues over Morris’s reason for expecting a French victory—whether to support democracy or protect the Jews—reveals Gus as an anti-Semite. When Morris calls the salesman a Nazi, Gus, already angry over being caught cheating on his bill, admits his admiration for the victorious German army and curses at Leonard, leading the grocer to hug and kiss his frail son protectively. Knowing he has pushed too hard and fearing to lose future sales, Gus places several sausages on the table and leaves, saying he can wait for payment. The story does not end there, however. Whereas it begins with Morris’s shocking memory, it concludes with a description of Gus driving from the store in his truck, musing disgustedly over the Jews’ holding and consoling each other. “Why feel sorry for them?” he asks himself. Sitting straight with the steering wheel firmly in hand, Gus imagines himself driving a “massive tank” with the terrified Parisians on the sidewalks watching him pass. “He drove tensely, his eyes unsmiling. He knew that if he relaxed the picture would fade” (109).
The armistice to which the title of the story ostensibly refers is the one Pétain signed to end the fighting, allegedly restore “peace with honor,” and give the Nazis control over France, but on a lesser scale it also represents an unspoken truce between Morris and Gus, who despise but need each other. Morris and Leonard, always defensive, can live with it because they know where they stand in a hostile world. Gus Wagner, in contrast, whose surname recalls the renowned German nationalist composer and antiSemite Richard Wagner, cannot come to terms with his stifled humaneness. He has suppressed his sympathy in favor of an arrogant, domineering facade governed by his imagination, itself fueled by the news of glorious German conquest that he shares in name only. Unnatural restraint prevents him from sympathizing, from sharing the kind of affection that enables the grocer and his son to fear, suffer, and love openly. Gus knows this but will not face it; instead he allows the news of Nazi victory to feed his ego and dominate his relations not only with two frightened and relatively helpless Jews but with his own inner self. For him alone there can be no armistice until he surrenders to compassion and faces the truth about himself, but whether he can or will do it is left an open question.
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).
Astro, Richard, and Jackson J. Benson, eds. The Fiction of Malamud. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1977. Field, Leslie A., and Joyce W. Field, eds. Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1975. Giroux, Robert, ed. “Introduction.” In Bernard Malamud, The People and Uncollected Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989, vii–xvi. Malamud, Bernard. “Armistice.” In The People and Uncollected Stories, edited by Robert Giroux, 103–109. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989. Solotaroff, Robert. Bernard Malamud: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.