National Book Award winners, part 14: 1959’s The Magic Barrel, by Bernard Malamud.

14 Nov

1.

In 1959, Bernard Malamud won the national book award for his fifteen short stories, titled The Magic Barrel. It is a magnificent collection.

The stories detail crucial moments in the lives of New York Jews. Malamud’s narrative voice is sustained by a wise, slightly detached, unflinching observer who has love but no help in his heart.

His sentences are clear and concise, but also sneaky, heart-rending. Here he writes of a shoemaker who has failed to set up Miriam, his daughter, with a capable bachelor:

He left. Miriam had not been mentioned. That night the shoemaker discovered that his new assistant had been all the while stealing from him, and he suffered a heart attack.

The characters all speak in a Yiddish-inspired idiom that Malamud mines for great comic effect. Here’s an excerpt from the title story, between a matchmaker named Salzman and Leo, a new rabbi.

“Her age is thirty-two years.”

Leo said after a while, “I’m afraid that seems a little old.”

Salzman let out a laugh. “So how old are you, rabbi?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“So, what’s the difference, tell me, between twenty-seven and thirty-two? My wife is seven years older than me. So what did I suffer?—nothing. If Rothschild’s daughter wants to marry you, would you say no on account of her age, no?”

“Yes,” Leo said dryly.

Salzman shook off the no in the yes. “Five years don’t mean a thing.”

One of the great collections of short stories.

One of the great collections of short stories.

My favorite story in this collection is “The Mourners.” It follows an old Jewish misanthrope who lives alone in an attic apartment in a tenement. He has an argument with the super, and the landlord, on a whim, evicts him. What follows is short, wild, crisp, heartbreaking. “He was much alone, as he had been most of his life. At one time he’d had a family, but unable to stand his wife or children, always in his way, he had after some years walked out on them. He never saw them thereafter because he never sought them, and they did not seek him. Thirty years had passed. He had no idea where they were, nor did he think much about it.”

And right there, the same honest, slightly detached tone of an observer who wants to help but can’t. It captures the heartless bored essence of a weak man, and sets the tone for a devastating comeuppance. You feel like hugging that same callous fellow by the story’s end. It speaks to Malamud’s supreme writerly skill that he can make you care about such a lout.

2.

Bernard Malamud is one of the great writers of the 20th century, an artist of the first order, a profound humanist, and so, so, so much fun to read. I love him.

His stories are supercharged with emotional power. His sentences are elegant but combustible. He sneaks gut punches into his work.

“‘Go anywhere,'” the narrator tells a recent widow in “Take Pity”. “Go to your relatives.”

“She laughed like laughs somebody who hasn’t got no joy. ‘My relatives Hitler took away from me.'”

I’m not sure why he isn’t held in higher regard. He’s infinitely better than Bellow, more interesting than Roth, more consistent than Updike, and more varied than Cheever, yet he clocks in behind them all. I’ve come up with a few possible reasons for this:

1. There isn’t a clear thematic line through all of his work, save perhaps the dignity of suffering, and thus he’s mislabeled as a magical realist, or a comic chronicler of Jewish immigrants. He’s both, and neither.

2. He doesn’t have one big book, or really any bad ones. The big book syndrome (such as Joseph Heller with Catch-22) allows students and academics to study an author through his/her best work. Malamud doesn’t have a best work; he has five excellent novels and fifty superb short stories. The interesting misfire—think of Norman Mailer—humanizes an important author and, as strange as it sounds, endears readers to him/her.

3. Malamud is easy to read, but handles complex material. The pleasure he affords makes him seem light, especially to academics, who tend to study byzantine writers like Pynchon, DeLillo, Wallace, or the old warhorses Hawthorne, Melville, and so on. But he’s a damn good writer, better by far than most of the maximalist counterparts.

4. He has some kooky setups, such as with “The Angel Levine,” where a Jewish man prays for help and it comes in the form of an African American street-wise hustler who claims to be a Jewish angel. (The story is fantastic and it works.) Some of these oddball plots seems childish.

5. He sold well, and was also critically successful, and writers who accomplish both often are approached with suspicion by contemporary readers, critics, and so on.

6. He doesn’t traffic in a specific genre. He roams. He wanders. He writes comedy, tragedy, harsh realism, druggy fictions. He sets his stories in 1970s decaying Harlem, 1960s west coast towns, 1950s Brooklyn. He populates his stories with the old and the young. He writes about shop owners, criminals, writers, artists, the poor, the rich, the down on their luck.

7. Unlike many other great authors, he doesn’t have an autobiographical novel (David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, all of Philip Roth’s work, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Naked and the Dead, etc.), and therefore it’s difficult to get at Malamud the man through his work.

8. Finally, he doesn’t belong in any one school of fiction, such as the hardboiled west coast authors, the maximalist or minimalist or regional schools; he isn’t even a New York writer, as his novels are set all over. He’s independent, and this sets him outside the purview of high school and college teachers. He’s tough to pin down. (John Williams, another great, underrated author, has this exact same problem.)

3.

Two years ago I read everything Malamud wrote (except Dubin’s Lives; not sure why I’ve skipped it; I’m a mystery to myself sometimes). He’s a fabulous stylist, big-hearted yet unsentimental. I can’t remember a writer giving me such happiness, pleasure, and heartache in equal portions. He’s funny, sensitive, elegant, but also brutal, unrelenting and vicious. He’s one of the rare, great novelists who writes killer short stories (there are others: Philip K. Dick and John Cheever among them.) He’s the cat’s meow. He’s the mutt’s nuts. He’s the real deal.

Here’s a breakdown of his novels. Do yourself a favor and start reading them.

The Natural is an epic study of a baseball star who comes late to the sport and even later to celebrity. It’s wonderful. It’s also misunderstood. It isn’t a fable so much as a sports saga with tall tale-ish undercurrents running through its pages. But the story is as much about regret, lust, corruption, manipulation, disassembly and loss of self-control. It’s unpredictable and hypnotic, written in near-perfect prose.

The Tenants[1] follows two writers, one Jewish the other African American, in a tenement building, in the 1970s. They are surrounded by urban squalor, casual crime, a decaying society. They attempt a friendship, fail, and become more and more antagonistic towards each other. The novel descends into a nightmare of paranoia, violence, as they each begin to sabotage the other’s writing life. It’s a thrilling, disturbing read; think Chekov dictated to Travis Bickle and then translated by Richard Wright and you’re close.

The Good Life is Malamud’s academic novel. It’s fascinating, thrilling even, following an idealistic young professor as he butts heads with the dean of his department, while accumulating small mistakes that eventually unravel his life. It’s funny at times, but in the end it’s closer to Coetzee’s Disgrace.

The Fixer follows a Jewish repairman in Kiev who is unjustly imprisoned. The rest of the novel follows him struggling to maintain his dignity while being subjected to physical and psychological torment at the hands of his jailers. In lesser hands this would be a depressing read, but it somehow isn’t. I can’t remember a novel I enjoyed reading more, that gave me more pleasure, and yet was a detailed account of a person’s suffering. Malamud’s narrative skills are unparalleled.

The Assistant is his great working class novel about the suffering of the Jewish people. A white dude robs an aging, struggling Jewish grocer and gets away. Yet he feels so guilty about it, he decides to try and help the grocer by becoming his employee who works basically for free. And throughout this amazing book, every time the thief tries to help, he causes the grocer more harm, more suffering. This is Malamud’s most complete philosophical statement, that all men are Jews, making his point that the absurdity of life, and the tragedy of human existence, don’t just scar Jewish people but the whole human race. And yet we must find some dignified, humane way to prevail. I cannot recommend it highly enough; a great place to start with Malamud.

God’s Grace sounds like a kooky idea; the last man on earth is commissioned by God to start a new world, and his only companions are apes who begin to talk. The last man begins to craft a nicer, sweeter society with the apes, and then it all comes crashing down. The blurbs describe this as comic, but it isn’t. It’s an angry howl against aging[2], a screed against the needless violence and suffering in the world. One of the most devastating horror novels I’ve ever read.

He also wrote Pictures of Fidelman, five short stories about a struggling artist (three of them are great).

I’ll finish with Malamud—it’s difficult for me to write about him—with praise that Flannery O’Conner said about him in a personal letter. “I have discovered a short story better than any of them, including myself.” High praise from a fellow master.

4.

1958 was a good year for fiction.

Raymond Chandler released Playback. Mary Renault continued with her groundbreaking historical novels, The King Must Die. Jack Kerouac published his intriguing if slightly overrated Dharma Bums. Terry Southern—who never quite lived up to his talents—released the overrated yet titillating Candy. Truman Capote published his very fine story collection, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

World literature was on the march. Lawrence Durrell, Alberto Moravia, Graham Greene, Kenzaboro Oe, Alan Sillitoe, Carlos Fuentes, Samuel Beckett, and Kingsley Amis all published novels. Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart.

Science fiction continued to blossom. Robert Heinlein, William Tenn, Alfred Bester, Harlan Ellison, and Jack Vance all published book-length fiction.

Interestingly, although it had been in publication for a while, 1958 marks the date Lolita was officially published in the U.S. Barrel beat it out for the top award and it’s easy to see why. Malamud’s stories are rich, varied, sexy even, but subtle, graceful, and most importantly, humane. Lolita is a grand, masterful novel—like most everyone else I think it’s one of the great novels of the 20th century—but it’s also a study of evil and rationalization by a weak, disturbed mind. The language is stunning, the book is funny and thrilling, too, but it’s an unpleasant, compromised experience.

I think the National Book Award people got this year exactly right.


[1] They made a pretty good movie version of this with Snoop Dogg and Dylan McDermot. I’m not kidding.

[2] In the same way that the movie version of  A Prairie Home Companion seems sort of nice and frivolous, but is a terrible disturbed scream against death and dying.

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5 Responses to “National Book Award winners, part 14: 1959’s The Magic Barrel, by Bernard Malamud.”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. National Book Award winners, part 17: 1964’s The Centaur, by John Updike. | simoneandthesilversurfer - December 19, 2013

    […] National Book Award for The Centaur. He beat out Thomas Pynchon, Bernard Malamud (I reviewed him here), Mary McCarthy and Harvey […]

  2. National Book Award winners, part 19: 1966′s The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. | simoneandthesilversurfer - January 10, 2014

    […] on to Bellow (boo!) and Malamud […]

  3. National Book Award number 29: 1967′s The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud. | simoneandthesilversurfer - July 19, 2014

    […] 1967, Bernard Malamud won the National Book Award for his harrowing, thrilling, astonishing novel of anti-semitic […]

  4. National Book Award winners, number 30: 1974’s A Crown of Feathers, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. | simoneandthesilversurfer - July 28, 2014

    […] has much in common with Bernard Malamud. Both write about racism, oppression. Both write with terse elegance, folksy humor, and dark spiky […]

  5. Books I read in 2014. | simoneandthesilversurfer - January 5, 2015

    […] Fixer—Bernard Malamud, one of my favorite writers, fires on all cylinders in this novel about a Ukrainian Jew who is wrongfully accused of murder, […]

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