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National Book Award Classics

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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 Award.

Bernard Malamud
The Magic Barrel
National Book Award Fiction Winner, 1959

"I'm an American, I'm a Jew, and I write for all men…I 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 University.

The subject of his thesis was the poetry of Thomas Hardy, at first glance a stretch - and yet…here 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 and Saturdays 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 unusually "lucky…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 man, and 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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