The following essay appeared in the October, 2003 issue
of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of National
Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays by Neil
Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National Book
The Magic Barrel
National Book Award Fiction Winner, 1959
an American, I'm a Jew, and I write for all men
write about Jews because they set my imagination going."
- Bernard Malamud
Returning to the writing of Bernard Malamud (1914-1986),
embarrassed, after so many years, that I have forgotten
which of his works - The Natural, The Assistant,
The Fixer, A New Life, Pictures of Fidelman -- I
have and have not read, my critical resources fail me.
Every story in the collection is great. Every sentence
is perfectly-honed. The pages turn as if propelling
themselves forward. I hunger for more and more, gratified
as a reader presented with such gifts, yet gently saddened
by a pervasive, underlying tone of frustration.
I marvel at Malamud's ability to change voices from
one story to the next: to sound like a "schlemiel"
Jewish immigrant still feeling his way through the irrationalities
of the American language; and then to fall just as effortlessly
into the diction of a young Italian man tending the
neighborhood grocery store. I marvel at his ability
to soar to ethereal heights and idealize the evanescent
beauty of an exotic girl in one story; and then to enter,
wraithlike, into a Harlem speakeasy and mingle with
the gritty crowd.
The son of a "Yiddish" grocer, Max, and his
wife, Bertha, Bernard Malamud was born on April 26,
1914, in Brooklyn. During grammar school years, he began
to frequent neighborhood movie houses, memorize the
plots of the films he saw, and recount them to his school
friends. At age ten, he wrote his first story, and embellished
upon history lessons, turning them into plots of his
own devising. Growing up during the Depression, the
young man watched his father's store gradually slide
into disrepair, and his business into marginality. He
watched his mother die when was only fifteen, and his
younger brother become consumed by schizophrenia.
Bernard graduated from Erasmus Hall High School, went
on to City College, and then got a $4.50 per day job
as a teacher in training, returning to Erasmus to teach
while earning a master's degree in English at Columbia
The subject of his thesis was the poetry of Thomas
Hardy, at first glance a stretch - and yet
was another writer who took as his province the nobility
of the lone, misunderstood hero searching for higher
meaning in life, all the while enduring the inevitability
of solitude and "difference."
Starting in the early 1940's, Malamud's first stories
found publication in little magazines such as Threshold,
American Preface, and Assembly. He married
Ann de Chiara in 1945, and they had a son, Paul, and
a daughter, Janna. For more than a decade, the family
lived in Corvallis, Washington, where Malamud taught
in the English department at Oregon State College. Classes
met on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; Tuesdays, Thursdays
were reserved for writing.
With the National Book Award in 1959 for The Magic
Barrel, his first book of stories, written in longhand
and then typed; the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award
from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and
Letters; and a Ford Foundation Fellowship in the humanities,
Bernard Malamud achieved wide recognition. In 1961,
he moved back east to teach at Bennington College, spending
the winters in New York City. He won the National Book
Award for a second time in 1967, for The Fixer-a
powerful novel based upon the 1913 Kiev blood libel
persecution of a Russian Jew, Mendel Beilis. That same
year he also took the Pulitzer Prize.
"Every man is a Jew, though he may not know it,"
Malamud wrote; once we accept "the Jew as Everyman,"
then we are in possession of "the primal knowledge
that life is tragic, no matter how sweet or apparently
full." Jews in America, the author believed, were
Everyone has a heritage,
but the Jews, because of their everlasting struggle
to maintain theirs, are especially conscious of it."
It is instructive to view these assertive (and decidedly
ironic) ethnic sentiments placed against the fact that
Malamud professed great admiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne
and Henry James. At first glance this affinity might
seem contradictory, until we become more familiar with
Malamud's characters as so beautifully exemplified in
the stories comprising The Magic Barrel. Manischevitz,
the tailor in "The Angel Levine," for example,
is depressed by the chronic illness of his wife, Fanny,
until he meets with an angel in the form of a black
discovers a new path toward liberation (which I am certainly
not going to reveal here).
In "The Lady of the Lake," Henry Levin, an
American writer, seeks a new life and a new identity,
changing his name to the less-revelatory if more symbolic
"Freeman," and voyaging to Italy, where he
falls in love with the seductive Isabella - only to
discover the painful consequences of covering up his
Jewish background. And George Stoyonovich, the bored
"neighborhood boy" of "A Summer's Reading"
thinks he has found a way to deceive everyone about
how he spends his endless, lazy days in his apartment
above a butcher shop.
Hawthorne and James - and Hardy and Dostoevsky and
Chekhov, for that matter, three more authors Bernard
Malamud likewise pointed to with affection. Without
descending into excessive literary synthesis - where
is the joy in that exercise? - we can assuredly say
that the quintessential modern dilemmas of situation
and identity inform the writings of these giants. To
some degree, their protagonists are trapped in an alien
place or an uncomfortable role. They feel ill at ease
with their contexts. They often harbor some deep moral
quandary. They try to find ways to live with or escape
from this quandary, and in the process, their thoughts
and actions impinge upon loved ones and family members.
Our great modern authors - and there is no other suitable
adjective for them right now - have the ability to draw
huge issues into the framework of quotidian life in
such a way that when we read them, we nod, and say,
"there but for the grace of God go I."
Perhaps that is what Bernard Malamud is trying to tell
us when he uses the Jew as a metaphor.
-- Neil Baldwin. October 2003
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Baldwin photo credit: Sandra Wavrick