Saturday, April 26, 2014

(Quote of the Day (Bernard Malamud, on Writing as a Jewish American ‘For All Men’)

I’m an American, I’m a Jew, and I write for all men. A novelist has to, or he’s built himself a cage. I write about Jews, when I write about Jews, because they set my imagination going. I know something about their history, the quality of their experience and belief, and of their literature, though not as much as I would like. Like many writers I’m influenced especially by the Bible, both Testaments. I respond in particular to the East European immigrants of my father’s and mother’s generation; many of them were Jews of the Pale as described by the classic Yiddish writers. And of course I’ve been deeply moved by the Jews of the concentration camps, and the refugees wandering from nowhere to nowhere. I’m concerned about Israel….Sometimes I make characters Jewish because I think I will understand them better as people, not because I am out to prove anything. That’s a qualification. Still another is that I know that, as a writer, I’ve been influenced by Hawthorne, James, Mark Twain, Hemingway, more than I have been by Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz, whom I read with pleasure. Of course I admire and have been moved by other writers, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, for instance, but the point I’m making is that I was born in America and respond, in American life, to more than Jewish experience. I wrote for those who read.”— Bernard Malamud interviewed by Daniel Stern in “Bernard Malamud, The Art of Fiction No. 52,The Paris Review, Spring 1975

You can truly understand the vicissitudes of literary reputations when you consider the reviews of Adam Begley’s new biography of John Updike, which frequently have noted that the late man of letters could sure use a boost among critics these days. The fact that such a fate could befall the prolific and accomplished Updike—long a ubiquitous presence, and only dead five years—makes you appreciate the rather sorry posthumous fate of Bernard Malamud, with nowhere near his output and dead 28 years now. Several years ago, his daughter Jenna, a psychiatrist, came out with a biography in which she frankly admitted to the hope of bringing him back to where he was in the late Seventies: i.e., spoken as one of the "big three" postwar voices of Jewish America, along with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.

Janna Malamud Smith’s 2006 bio, My Father is a Book, doesn’t seem to have done the trick, but the time might be right now for her father’s rising critical stock. Anniversaries, for instance, concentrate readers’ and publishers’ attention. Today, as it happens, marks the centennial of the birth of the novelist-short story writer in Brooklyn. Right on time come two volumes from the Library of America—Novels and Stories of the 1940s and 1950s and Novels and Stories of the 1960s—that, in effect, admit him to the American literary pantheon. Now, hopefully, more readers will approach him in the same spirit of astonished delight as Flannery O'Connor, who wrote a friend in 1958: "I have discovered a short-story writer who is better than any of them, including myself. Go to the library and get a book called The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud."

Longtime readers of this blog might recall my prior post on the novel that won Malamud the Pulitzer Prize, The Fixer. But really, I don’t think that comes close to exhausting all that might be written about his carefully calibrated, exquisite prose; his compassion for his suffering characters and suffering humanity as a whole; and his quiet sense of irony and humor.

Malamud’s quote above comes cocooned in all kinds of irony. In the interview from which it came, he spoke of how protégé Philip Roth needed to stop writing so obsessively about his troubled first wife. Roth indeed followed that advice that year: his My Life as a Man, a thinly veiled exorcism of that matrimonial disaster.

Yet you can also practically hear the note of exasperation in Malamud’s voice when he says: “the point I’m making is that I was born in America and respond, in American life, to more than Jewish experience.” The best reminder of that is an apprentice novel that, over the years, has become one of his best known: The Natural (1952).

For more than three decades, my admiration for Robert Redford’s Capraesque film adaptation has led me to avoid what I have long known to be Malamud’s far more somber take on baseball. Now, however, I may be in the mood for the original. 

At a basic psychological level, Malamud can probably tell much about why athletes such as Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez could misuse their many, pure gifts to spoil America’s pastime. More broadly, its dominant literary conceit—Roy Hobbs’ New York Knights as a counterpart to King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table—can enable us understand the short-lived promise of the Camelot that held sway in the Kennedy White House within a decade of the novel’s publication—as well as why its collapse, amid treachery and tragedy, has proved so traumatic.

Short-story writer-critic Cynthia Ozick gave the correct response to her own question about whether Malamud was "an American Master": "Of course. He augmented it with fresh plasticity, he shaped our English into startling new configurations....He wrote about the plentitude and unity of the world."

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