National Book Award winners, number 29: 1967’s The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud.

19 Jul

1.

In 1967, Bernard Malamud won the National Book Award for his harrowing, thrilling, astonishing novel of anti-semitic oppression, The Fixer. It’s one of my favorite novels, and as dark a page-turner as you’ll ever read.

The story follows Yakov Bok, an embittered, povery-stricken, viciously angry Jewish man living on the outskirts of Kiev. Near the end of the Russian Empire, Yakov works as a fixer, receiving payment in noodles and potatoes and eggs. He cannot save anything, he cannot do anything other than toil. He reads a little at night. He has no friends. His maligned wife abandons him before the novel begins. So against the advice of his father-in-law, his only friend, he sets out for Kiev. He has terrible luck. Here’s how we found out about his family:

 

“His own father had been killed in an incident not more than a year after Yakov’s birth—something less than useless: two drunken soldiers shot the first three Jews in their path, his father had been the second. But the son had lived through a pogrom when he was a schoolboy, a three-day Cossask raid. On the third morning when the houses were still smoldering and he was led, with a half dozen other children, out of a cellar where they had been hiding he saw a black-bearded Jew with a white sausage stuffed into his mouth, lying in the road on a pile of bloody feathers, a peasant’s pig devouring his arm.”

Malamud is rather strangely characterized as a writer of fables, of little magical comedies. Re-read the passage above and see if that description fits. He is a writer of the first magnitude, a writer of moral fictions, a writer of great books that are also thrilling to read.

Yakov creates a new life for himself in Kiev, by lying about his identity. But his new life doesn’t last long. A Christian boy is found murdered, and the Russian police decide it is the work of Jewish killers. Yakov is arrested.

Most of the book is a prison novel, one of the greatest ever written. With brutal, precise, and harrowing prose, Malamud follows Yakov as he is intimidated, tortured, beaten, maligned, and humiliated.

Much of the novel follows Yakov interacting with his jailers, and you keep hoping he’ll make some type of connection. He doesn’t. Malamud is strict, exacting and unsentimental. There are few moments of kindness and little understanding. The guards are ignorant, cruel and superstitious. They beat him, starve him, poison him. One guard points a rifle at Yakov’s genitals every few days. Another douses him with cold water.

In a lesser writer’s hands, this would all be wearying. But the prose. It crackles. It spits. It burns. Each page holds surprises, twists, astonishments.

Great, great, great, but also punishing.

Great, great, great, but also punishing.

Malamud doesn’t just torment Yakov. He disassembles Yakov. He flattens him. Yakov ends up in solitary confinement, and here Malamud writes some of the greatest prose, with Yakov alone in his tortured thoughts, trying to make sense of his situation, trying to parse some moral rightness out of it:

 

“He tried to recall the biology he had studied, and reflected on as much of history as he could bring to mind. They sat God appeared in history and used it for his purposes, but if that was so he had no pity for men. God cried mercy and smote his chest, but there was no mercy because there was no pity. Pity in lightning? You could not pity anything if you weren’t a man; pity was a surprise to God. If was not his invention. . . . He recalled things from the Scriptures, in particular, fragments of psalms he had read in Hebrew on old parchment. He could, in a sense, smell the Psalms as well as hear them. They were sun weekly in the synagogue to glorify God and protect the shtetl from harm, which they never did.

“. . . . He thought of himself pursuing his enemies with God at his side, but when he looked at God all he saw or heard was a loud ha Ha. It was his own imprisoned laughter.”

Insightful but unforgiving. And yet, the greatness of this novel lies in Yakov’s ultimate refusal to accept leniency in return for larger condemnation of his people. Malamud finds redemption in the torture. It is a magnificent feat of writerly skill. In the new introduction, Jonathan Safran Foer says that after finishing The Fixer, he felt “castigated but inspired.” That’s just about perfect.

2.

Yakov’s sins are understandable and few. He desires a life for himself beyond the filthy confines of the little Jewish settlement where he was born. He pretends to be Goy. He misleads a few Russians. He is angry and bitter. He denies the existence of god, claiming to be a freethinker. For this the entire apparatus of a murderous state is brought to bear on him. He is subjected to enormous suffering, held in a bureaucratic stasis pulled straight from Kafka.

Some critics feel that Malamud is punishing Yakov for his sins. This is precisely wrong, a terrible interpretation. Yakov is a victim, and although he plays into the oppressor’s hands with his minor deceptions, he is being buffeted by the immense forces of history that have left the Jewish people in the crosshairs. Yakov’s story is based on a real-life crime.

 

“. . . . But Israel accepts the covenant in order to break it. That’s the mysterious purpose: they need the experience. So they worship false Gods; and this brings Yahweh up out of his golden throne with a flaming sword in both hands. When he talks loud history boils. Assyrian, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, become the rod of his anger, the rod that breaks the head of the Chosen People. Having betrayed the covenant with God they have to pay: war, destruction, death, exile—and they take what goes with it. Suffering, they say, awakens repentance, at least in those who can repent. Thus the people of the covenant wear out their sins against the Lord. He then forgives them and offers a new covenant. Why not? This is his nature, everything must begin again, don’t ask him why. Israel, changed yet unchanged, accepts the new covenant in order to break it . . . . the purpose of the covenant, Yakov thinks, is to create human experience, although human experience baffles God. God is after all God; what he is is what he is: God. What does he know about such things? Has he ever worshipped God? Has he ever suffered?”

Here we have Job with the God of the mysteries, the flashing teeth in the dark clouds, the maker of the tiger and the leviathan, the punishing Old Testament dragon who holds humanity in his mouth.

Malamud later in his career took this thinking to its bitterest conclusion with his final novel, God’s Grace, a companion to The Fixer. Grace has the last man on earth try to build a new society with talking monkeys while God looks on, a face in the clouds, inscrutable, unknowable, mocking. In both novels the protagonists strive to do something more than survive, haunted by failure, besieged by suffering. How do we go on? We go on.

Or, as Yakov thinks to himself near the end of the book:

“My God, what have I forgotten? I’ve forgotten nothing.”

Finally, The Fixer is one of the few novels Don Draper is shown reading in Mad Men. Why? An interesting question.

3.

The Fixer was the best novel of 1967, and just about of any year, but it beat out some notable works.

Paul Bowles (see here) published his potboiler, Up Above the World. Louis Auchincloss released The Embezzler. Truman Capote published his non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, which remains one of the highlights of the decade. Daniel Keyes published the seminal, if now rarely read in its entirety, Flowers for Algernon. Larry McMurtry released The Last Picture Show. Thomas Pynchon published his fascinating, and frustrating, novel of postal conspiracies, The Crying of Lot 49. And, one of my favorite authors, Philip K. Dick, released three novels, including the intriguing Now Wait For Last Year.

Around the world, immense novels appeared. Mihail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margarita—a hotly debated, love it or hate it type of novel if I’ve ever read one—surfaced. John Fowles’s The Magus, one of my favorite novels, was put into print. Jean Rhys published her best-known work, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Leonardo Sciascia, Mario Vargos Llosa, Patrick White, Margaret Atwood, Kingsley Amis and Chinua Achebe all published notable books.

But, The Fixer holds a special place, a novel that is both good and great, punishing and relevant but also paradoxically fun to read, the kind of book that can change your life, leave you feeling cleansed. I cannot recommend it enough.

Advertisements

One Response to “National Book Award winners, number 29: 1967’s The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud.”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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

    […] The 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, and his long incarceration and torture at the hands of the Czar’s operatives in prison. This is the second time I’ve read this, and it retains all the surprise and jolt and power. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: