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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.

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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.