The Magazine

More in Sorrow

For Bernard Malamud, fiction was the hard road to Truth.

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Bernard Malamud

A Writer's Life

by Philip Davis

Oxford, 388 pp., $34.95

Saul Bellow used regularly to refer to himself, Bernard Malamud, and the considerably younger Philip Roth as the Hart, Shaffner, and Marx of American literature. The comment, as often with Bellow, is a loaded one: Loaded with suspicion about the acceptance of Jewish writers in America, with contempt for those critics and readers who tended to lump the three distinctly different writers together, and with resentment for his being reduced to the status of a writer of chiefly ethnic interest.

Certainly, the three writers are easily enough distinguished. Saul Bellow was the virtuoso of the sentence, the comical physiognomical detail, the brilliant cityscape, the high philosophical schmooze, and less than strong on plot. One doesn't read Bellow for the story; at the end one is never quite sure what the story was. One reads him for Bellow himself, in the same way that one didn't go to a Yehudi Menuhin concert to hear Mozart but to hear Menuhin. Philip Roth has always been a writer most happy when épaté-ing Jews, Gentiles, and whoever else happens to be free at the moment; in his fiction, sex is always waiting in the wings, ever ready to present itself center stage, which sooner or later it generally does. He is the man, as he put it in Portnoy's Complaint, who has attempted to put "the Id back in Yid."

The fiction of Bernard Malamud is quite a different dish of kreplach. His fiction possesses greater gravity than that of either Bellow or Roth. His themes--guilt, redemption, the urge for the beginning of a newer, fuller life--are more in the line of the great 19th-century Russians. In My Father Is a Book, a memoir of her father, his daughter Janna Malamud Smith compares Bernard Malamud's fiction to that of another Russian, the painter Marc Chagall. "Like the painter born a generation earlier," she writes, "the writer also, at a greater remove, carried tales of the shtetl, had familiarity with Yiddish folk literature, found freedom in fables, and could capture in a short story a seemingly naïve moral complexity in which studiedly simple words evoked deep feeling."

"How much feeling have you got in your heart?" Malamud claimed was the question that a serious writer must always ask of himself. He seems to have had a vast quantity. Much of Malamud's feeling was acquired through his own difficult upbringing. Born in 1914 to Russian immigrant parents, he lived upstairs of their Mom and Pop grocery store in Brooklyn. Max and Bertha Malamud's life in America was the reverse of an immigrant success story: Everything his father touched turned to sawdust; his mother, diagnosed as schizophrenic, died at 41, in a mental hospital, when Malamud was 15. When he was 13 he returned one day from school to find her on the kitchen floor, her mouth foaming from poison she had just swallowed. His younger brother later turned up schizophrenic, and he, too, died, in a mental hospital.

Such was Bernard Malamud's early life: scarred by mental illness, poverty, sad immigrant ignorance, with a major economic depression looming in the background. Malamud's wife Ann said that her husband's "leitmotif" was that "Life is sad." The title of one of his darkest stories, "Take Pity," could stand as a rubric over much of his fiction. A relentless worker, Malamud revised and polished and burnished his stories and novels. He believed in revision as a form of truth seeking: find the precise words, cut away all that is extraneous, put enough pressure on each sentence, and with luck the truth, filtered through the powerful lens of storytelling, will emerge.

Along the way, Malamud developed an unmistakable style, a use of language sometimes referred to as Yinglish, a combination of English words and Yiddish syntax and sentiment. "Where would he drag that dead cat, his soul?" runs such a line from the story "The Girl of My Dreams." From the same story: "He stared unbelieving, his heart a dishrag." A character in "Take Pity" says: "Kiddo, this is a mistake. This place [a grocery store like Malamud's father's] is a grave. Here they will bury you if you don't get out quick."