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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2017



Delineating Bernard Malamud into a Label

Dr. Prerna Malhotra, Assistant Professor, Department of English,
Ram Lal Anand College, University of Delhi, Delhi

Whatever writers write is open to even contrasting and antithetical interpretations and accordingly the writers are labeled. Readers and critics may find layers of meanings in texts, never intended by writers. Feminist, post-colonial, psycho-analytic interpretations of older texts are rather common when these terms were never in vogue and the writers certainly had no clue of them while writing. 

Another problem with critics is that they seem to carry an authenticated and at times undesirable license to critically dissect and vivisect writers’ works in parts, not in toto. They extract certain elements and fractions out of works and pass opinions about the author as a whole. In this context the point raised by Sam Bluefarb is worth quoting: “[They are] like Melville’s sailors who charted whales as islands in the open sea or Lilliputian cartographers mapping puddles as lakes.” (Sam Bluefarb, p. 73)

With a writer as gifted and synergistic as Bernard Malamud, a contemporary American writer, his researchers and critics must take care to read him, interpret him and label him. More so, when his critics have frequently bracketed him with other Jewish writers, whereas he himself has repeatedly and vehemently defended against being labeled so.
In studying Malamud, in either the Yiddish tradition or the medieval folklore or both, the critics should also concentrate on the motifs and symbols in his writings and basically study him as a storyteller because it is a proven fact now that even very classy and refined contemporary novelists are basically first-rate story tellers.

While reading and interpreting him, one must keep in mind that Malamud as a modern writer has combined the elements of myth, medieval romance, Yiddish humour, irony and pathos, symbols and fables, and parables and archetypes. At the same time, he has used the age-old tradition of tales simultaneously being influenced by Hawthorne, Dostoevsky, Dreiser, Chekov, T.S. Eliot and Hemingway. Therefore, he must be read and analysed in a broader spectrum of a literary figure, a story-teller.

Realism and surrealism as well as reality and imagination seem to be the two central pillars of Malamud’s fictional structures. It is for The Magic Barrel that the judges, who awarded this collection the National Book Award, put paeans of praise on this volume of stories, “It captures the poetry of human relations at the point where imagination and reality meet”.

The same comments can safely be applied to other works of Malamud as well, particularly to The Assistant, in which is followed the tradition of Yiddish irony and realism and The Natural, for the mythic undercurrent of rituals. (Granville Hicks, p.32.)

Anthony Burgess analyses the great writer on the basis of his natural and spontaneous gifts as a writer:  “Malamud has great gifts of language, though not of construction; there is Jewish warmth, humor, irony, compassion in all his writings, expressed in supple prose-rhythms and exactly caught American speech.”(Burgess, p. 197-98)

In his works, Malamud has tried to present a search for affirmation and spiritual advancement. His fiction is full of possibilities and agents of redemption as its domain is the inner most vibes of human beings.

Malamud apparently seems to be offended by contemporary literary trends. In one of the early interviews in 1950s, he spoke about American fiction loaded with “sickness, homosexuality, fragmented man…It should be filled with love and beauty and hope…We are underselling man.”

As a novelist and a short story writer, Malamud has shown a rare kind of craft. He has been a dedicated writer and one of the few novelists who seek to liberate fiction, as Ludwig wrote, “…from the tyranny of symbolic smallness…to catch the visible world in all its complexity, clangor, and untriumphant celebration.” (Ludwig, p.42)

Malamud is a writer of human beings, of individuals, which ensures for him a high pedestrian in American fiction writers. He has a penchant for the resources of human character which are becoming extinct not just from literature but life itself. He has reiterated on the need to concentrate on humanity and mankind as his major concerns, as Malamud said, “Our most natural resource is Man.”(Granville Hicks, p.32)

The contemporary man seems to be the real subject of Malamud as Ihab Hassan also has made a very interesting and startling observation: “Yet even America no longer seems large enough as metaphor. In a cosmic frame, may not the Wandering Jew represent the human race itself, born in exile, chosen to consciousness, wandering through the intergalactic night, carrying its own enigma to the farthest stars?” (Ihab Hassan, p.64).

In fact, Malamud has proved his conviction more than once in his works to give representation to humans. He has presented an affirmative vision towards humans. He has portrayed characters that are engulfed by the fires of past and present, but at the same time he has provided a tragic vision of the past which imbues them with the spark of hopefulness for future. His motto seems to be to insist, through his characters, to oppose the dictum of ‘where there is a way, there is hope’ to ‘where there is no way, even there is hope’ and provide the conviction that human spirit will continue to endure even if it cannot endure.

Malamud believed in the ultimate goodness of human heart which got echoed in the words of his famous fellow writer, Philip Roth, “What it is to be human, to be humane is his subject: connections, indebtedness, responsibility, these are his moral concerns.”(Current Biography Yearbook, p.272)

But at the same time, the great contemporary writer of Malamud cautions the readers in reading the latter just as a moralist, “Artists cannot be ministers. As soon as they attempt it, they destroy their artistry…Writing must be true; it must have emotional depth; it must be imaginative. It must enflame, destroy, and change the reader.” (Philip Roth, p.228)

When we admit that Malamud is an artist who has moral vision, himself is of Jewish background and in most of his works, his characters are Jews, with these assumptions can we infer that Malamud was a religious writer or did he write within the Yiddish framework of life?

If the answer to these assumptions is yes, this would, in fact, be a misled conclusion. Moreover, one must not forget that many Jewish publications have criticized Malamud for lacking in Jewish material in his work. It is noteworthy that Jewish tragedy and rituals are unavailable in his fiction. His Jewish characters do not come forward as staunch believers of their community. At the most, they appear before the readers as men who have suffered a lot in their lives, are oppressed by fundamentalists but somehow have survived that oppression and managed to live with sympathy and compassion.

A Jew in Malamud’s hands becomes an ethical symbol. He has not written of Judaism (Jewish religion and thought), rather he has presented the workings of human mind and human values. Jew in his writings stands for any good man who has faced or is facing dehumanizing pressures of ruthless society but still aspires to do good.

Therefore, if from any angle Malamud is a religious writer, it is from a humanitarian perspective of his characters− characters living a life of misery, suffering and existential constraints, yet who have not forgotten the benevolence and compassion, the essentials of a human.

Another peculiar and appealing facet of Malamud’s writings is that in spite of various influences on him, he is not just a follower or adherent of those thoughts. His appeal is very general as the questions he poses through his fiction are fundamental questions, related to humanity. They are the questions being raised since times immemorial− why should one follow goodness when righteousness goes unrewarded most of the time? How many times is it that love begets love and not violence and hatred? Then how can and why should one continue flowing with the milk of human love and kindness?

These are the profound questions which have persistently appeared in Malamud fiction. Throughout his life, as a human, a writer as well as a teacher, he has been fighting within himself to find an answer to these pertinent queries. Both as a novelist and a short story writer, Malamud, gifted as a genuine writer, has been unflaggingly dedicated to his craft but even his whole life has not been sufficient for this assignment, as he spoke about it at length in a talk:

“I don't regret the years I put into my work. Perhaps I regret the fact that I was not two men, one who could live a full life apart from writing; and one who lived in art, exploring all he had to experience and know how to make his work right; yet not regretting that he had put his life into the art of perfecting the work”.

Another contemporary of Malamud, Saul Bellow has commented about the same topic of universality as subject of novels. He seems to feel precisely upset with some contemporary writers whose subjects remained of no value after some time. He has commented about them as “they sin when they suppose they know, as they conceive that physics knows or history knows….The subject of the novelist is not knowable in any such way. The mystery increases, it does not grow less as types of literature wear out. It is, however, symbolism and realism or Sensibility wearing out, and not the mystery of mankind.”

This statement of Bellow can be used as an epigraph to the works of Malamud. The mystery of humanity will never fade or wither in Malamud as he has tried to make a fine synthesis of love and belief for humankind on the one hand and doubts and restrictions on the other. Through it, Malamud has created a world of humans’ capacity to suffer and the enigmatic powers to recast themselves anew.

Through a Jew Malamud has given a common identity to humans as goes the famous quote of Malamud, “All men are Jews except they do not know it.” What can be inferred from this is - Take the outer appearance of a human being and what is left, i.e. heart and soul, (sensitivity and character) is a Jew. More than the equality under the Constitution or law, moral and spiritual equality is always desirable. If we do away with the badges of prosperity and position, underneath every human has access to God, deliverance and salvation. Take away the coating of materialism of the American Dream and therein lies the ‘real’ human and the real nature of things. Therefore, what is beyond and behind the exterior covering is the most pervasive theme of moralists like Malamud. 

In one of his public pronouncements, Malamud said of a former teacher who advised him, ‘Either you go in honest, or you sink’, to this Malamud admits: “And I’ve tried to stick to that ever since.” (Wershba)

It seems Malamud has very honestly tried to stick to the principle taught by his teacher which is evident from the newness of each of his works as he seems to be defining himself with each novel and story. But it must be remembered that honesty in literature is no undertaking of success, though it remains an indispensable ingredient in any attainment. At times, Malamud appears to be gambling with his art, yet he has nowhere denied the elements of spiritual despair and human isolation, of tarnished love and contaminated goodness.

Noman Podhoretz has aptly summed up the author, “His work, when it is good− which sufficiently often it is− seems a kind of miracle, an act of spiritual autonomy, perfect enough to persuade us that the possibility of freedom from the determining of history and sociology still exists.” (Podhoretz. P. 590)

But one very interesting and somewhat baffling factor for some critics is that Malamud has used various models and sources to reach to the inner most human vibes. If critics turn to him as a Jewish American writer, he mystifies them by mixing Christian ideas and saints in Jewish situations and referring to certain other people of different traditions. If he is very comfortable in the depiction of Yiddish irony and humour, equally dexterous he is in his use of medieval literature. What will one say after witnessing Frank in The Assistant being motivated by the vision of St. Francis to convert into a Jew?

If the medieval Knight went in search of glory and conquest, Malamud’s protagonists are in search of self-discovery and self-identification. Moreover, who knows better than Malamud to handle the quest of a Yiddish Knight? Of course, Malamud is a college professor and within the outline of his theme, he has a broad range to experiment and leave plenty of matter to flummox the critics. Malamud does not boast of himself as a great original thinker and he even shamelessly accepts the fact that he is influenced by other contemporary writers as well as from the age-old traditions.  Like a true professor, he delivers in his works a combination of rich vision assorted with a significant rich style which is uniquely and originally of Malamud. It would be a kind tribute to the writer by quoting from the obituary written by an equally great American writer of the later half of the 20th century, Saul Bellow at the demise of Malamud in1986:

“Well we are here, first generation Americans, our language was English and a language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us. Malamud in his novels and stories discovered a sort of communicative genius in the impoverished, harsh jargon of immigrant New York. He was a myth maker, a fabulist; a writer of exquisite parables…The accent of hard-won and emotional truth is always heard in Malamud’s words. He is a rich original of the first rank.” 

Therefore, the readers, researchers and critics of Malamud must keep a balanced approach while reading between the lines of his fiction. If Malamud is critical of the milieu, at the same time, he indicates towards inane goodness of man and his desire to be better placed than his present lot. Yet he can succeed only if he kills his enemy within in the form of greed and selfishness and then, of course, society can do little to thwart his goodness.

Malamud belongs to a multi-cultured background and writes about manifold cultures at a place where cultures meet, i.e. Jew and America. Malamud believes in assimilation as an act of reconciliation, not in terms of loss of identity. He has ardent faith in a mythical search for a common cord through which all barriers of religion, race, and nationality lose their significance.

His thematic and artistic concerns should get unprejudiced handling. The critics are not supposed to over-emphasise on  morality and human potential, causing Malamud the artist being overlooked. Then, Malamud’s moral perspective should not be evaluated in a labile way, rather he should be judged as an overall writer.


Notes and References

Bellow, Saul. (1963). Recent American Fiction, Washington. The Library of Congress, p.12.

Bluefarb, Sam. (1975). “The Syncretism of Bernard Malamud,” Bernard Malamud: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Leslie A. Field and Joyce A. Feild. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, pp. 72-79.

Burgess, Anthony. (1967). The Novel Now: A Student Guide to Contemporary Fiction. London: Faber & Faber, pp. 197-98.

Hassan, Ihab. (1977). “Bernard Malamud: Fictions Within Our Fictions,” in The Fiction of Bernard Malamud. Astro, Richard, and Benson, Jackson J., eds. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, p. 63.

Hicks, Granville. (1963) “Literary Horizons,” Saturday Review of Literature, p.32.

Ludwig, Jack. “Recent American Novelists,” Pamphlets on American Writers, no. 22. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, (1962). pp. 39-40.

Podhoretz, Norman. “The New Nihilism in the American Novel,” Partisan Review, XXV (Fall, 1958), p. 590.

Roth, Philip. “Writing American Fiction”, Commentary, March 1961, p. 228.

The Assistant. NY: New American Library 1957.

The Magic Barrel. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1958.

The Natural. NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1952.

Wershba, Joseph. “Not Horror but ‘Sadness’,” New York Post, Sept. 14, 1958, p.M2.