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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

“Suffering spiced by the wine of comedy”: Philip Davis discusses the novels and stories of Bernard Malamud

The author of the definitive biography Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life (2007), Philip Davis recently edited Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s and Novels and Stories of the 1960s, two new volumes from The Library of America. Davis is Professor of English Literature and Director of the Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems at the University of Liverpool.

Why read Bernard Malamud, and why now?

It was Saul Bellow who described himself, Malamud, and Philip Roth as the Jewish literary equivalent of Hart Schaffner & Marx, the first-generation rag-trade, gone upmarket. Of the three, Malamud is the great neglected figure—perhaps because there is no novel of his which has a huge dramatic canvas, such as Herzog or American Pastoral. But that is precisely the point: Malamud puts the big within the small, the extraordinary inside the mundane, the struggling, and the hurt. There are geniuses who tower above us: Malamud’s genius was different, more like that of an ordinary man, made extraordinary by his hard-won literary power.

This is now a good time to renew American idealism and American heart in defense of the common and the unglamorous, in defiance of charges of old-fashioned sentimentality, through an unshowy literary care with words. I hope you won’t mind an Englishman presuming to remind you of this: I, a secularized Jew, the son of a shopkeeper, have loved Malamud from the other side of the pond for more than forty years. And that precisely because he himself had to learn how to love, through and in his writings.

Malamud grew up in Brooklyn the son of struggling immigrant shopkeepers, and the Jewish immigrant background appears directly (“The Cost of Living” and The Assistant are both set in Brooklyn groceries) and indirectly in the subjects, characters, style, and cadences of his fiction. Yet asked if he was a “Jewish” writer, Malamud famously replied: “I’m an American, I’m a Jew, and I write for all men.” How would you describe the connection between Malamud’s roots and his work?

He was not as well educated as Bellow, for all the unglamorous value of Brooklyn’s Public School 181 and Erasmus Hall High. Aged nine, he travelled forty-five minutes by himself to get to PS 181. Education was a privilege, but everything was a struggle. This meant that everything counted for more, not being easily won in that impoverished but humanly rich Brooklyn. He came of age really in the spirit of the Depression: the mix of suffering and goodness in Brooklyn never left him, and neither did his own fictional sense of a New Deal for us.

He did not want to be labelled or ghettoized and dated: again it’s a matter of one thing hidden—you might say intentionally assimilated—inside another: the broader humanity within the narrowed Jewish lives, the sense of the Jews representing more than themselves in the Western tradition, in feeling, in morality, in law, in the old themes of suffering and redemption, in living by felt ideas personally come upon at the right time in a life. (That right time was often late for his characters but never too late. Malamud himself was a late starter.) Malamud believed in Jewish assimilation, he loved the American melting pot, welcoming and mingling the races and kinds.

Philip Roth, commenting on the Library of America Malamud edition, writes that Malamud “has more than a little in common with Beckett—the eerie clowning, the magic barrel of unadorned prose, the haunting melancholy of stories about ‘things you can’t get past.’” As Malamud worked to claim the people and places he knew for American fiction, who were the writers, American and European, who strongly influenced him?

He was a profoundly American writer, loving the unstuffy democratic vibrancy of a free yet ethical country, and yet if you think about the humanist tradition in which he stands as a result of the diaspora, the writers nearest to his heart are Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and George Eliot and Hardy, the Victorian realist novelists in their moral seriousness and straight strong compassion. You see this especially in the novels, his emotional masterpieces: in unashamed defense of good feelings, feelings struggling for good. In them we see America taking on the heart of Western cultural humanity in specific, unself-conscious situations of common life. But Roth is generously right about the strange mix of things in the work—the comic suffering, the unexpected life, the joyous possibilities hidden within the melancholy and oddly preserved by it in stubbornly innocent belief. Suffering spiced by the wine of comedy was how Malamud put it.

Malamud didn’t fully flourish as a writer until moving to Oregon, where he wrote The Natural, The Assistant, and “The Magic Barrel” while supporting himself and his family teaching composition at Oregon State University. How did this inveterate New Yorker respond to the Pacific Northwest?

The West made him discover all the more the world itself, the non-human world of sky and landscape, the drama of the changing seasons and the open gifts of nature. These were the paradoxes: to go away from Brooklyn in order to write about it, to be an American first in order to write about the Jewish heart within American humanism, to find the richness of things because of a previous urban poverty. Of course A New Life is satirically severe on the parochial narrowness of small town life—some in Corvallis never forgave Malamud for that—and his worst insult flung at a member of faculty was that his heart was made of cornflakes. But it was satire against McCarthyism, against boring philistinism, and ultimately in defense of that new life of Levin’s—a New Yorker, ex-drunkard, who almost reluctantly falls in love with his boss’s wife. “‘The truth is I love Pauline Gilley.’ His confession deeply moved him. What an extraordinary only human thing to be in love.” (Malamud added that little word “only” in revision, about which I will say some more in a moment, but just imagine why he might add it . . .)

The Natural would be on anyone’s list of the greatest novels written about baseball, yet Malamud never wrote about sports again. What drew him to this material, and why was he able to write so well about it? Why didn’t he continue to explore it?

It gave him the hidden story-form: to write about something popular (and a game he loved) whilst making it more than itself, in all the inner myths, the trials of heroism, of second chances, comebacks, and repeated failings. It was more than just sport: it was a fusion of Ring Lardner’s popular journalism and those studies of Jessie Weston on mythology that T. S. Eliot used to such lofty effect in “The Waste Land.” This was the chutzpah of the combination. I guess he wanted to grow beyond the popular packaging of baseball. At any rate, he never wanted to repeat himself so didn’t write about sports again.

In the stories there seem to be two Malamuds: the pared-down naturalist of the early Brooklyn stories and the magical fabulist of tales such as “The Magic Barrel,” “Angel Levine,” and “The Jewbird.” How do you understand this?

Malamud is a more innovative and various writer than he is given credit for—realism, fantasy, satire, the great historical novel that is The Fixer, the experiments in Pictures of Fidelman. And he can suddenly turn round in the midst of one mode to create another: suddenly the jewbird is more human than the humans around him, or the man next door more angel or devil than you could have believed.

Some readers may not be aware how often and painstakingly Malamud revised his novels before publication, a subject your biography explores in fascinating detail. How would you characterize his process of revision?

Laborious. He was not confident, entirely, with his first thoughts, was obsessed with second chances and second lives, and revision was a version of this. He also wanted to be the best he could make of himself. Doubtless, the method was not optimally efficient—he wasted time copying things out again and again to live inside them the more, to be for the writer longer. But it worked. A word or two here was everything.

Here is a tiny example you might want to read about. There was draft after draft of The Fixer, with what might seem an unnecessary process of writing out in long hand and then retyping of what was much the same material. And then at the end his hero is planning in his fantasy to kill the Tsar in revenge for the injustice he has suffered, thinking: This is for all suffering and the wrong and, specifically, the murder of his only defender, the decent magistrate Bibikov. Then at the last moment Malamud inserts in a mere little bracket: “(though Bibikov, flailing his white arms, cried no no no no).” There is still room for the voice of that dead and decent man, in the midst of revenge meant to be for his sake!

The feeling here and the process of finding it finally—that is quintessential Malamud, the labor worthwhile for a handful of extra words in defense of goodness. And in a little bracket. That is why he needs attentive readers now in defense of what literature is when it does not merely make a loud noise—readers who can know how big these small things are, even whilst Malamud stays loyal to their ostensible smallness. He took the risks of being neglected for the sake of something not facile, something deep. I am asking here for these readers to turn back to Malamud.

The day Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize, Malamud made a dismissive entry about it in his journal. What was his relationship toward his contemporaries, especially Bellow and Roth, the two Jewish American writers with whom he is most often linked?

“21 October Bellow gets Nobel Prize, I win $24.25 in poker.” Bellow could have a hundred electrical ideas in an hour but it was Malamud with his one or two or three who relied on revelation. But Malamud never felt he won the big prizes in life, and when he did win the smaller awards they came too late. He always wanted to have his work in The Library of America. That for him was to be canonical. He had the first volumes of others in the series on his shelves and said to Claude Fredericks, pointing to the shelves above him, “One day my work will be up there.” I want Malamud to have the big prizes now. He wasn’t the towering intellectual that Bellow was, the risky bad boy Roth offered himself as; he was something less dramatic, on the side of what is still vulnerable and even innocent, despite hard experience.

Personal favorites among the novels and stories in these two volumes?

I love The Assistant and A New Life about people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, as we say in England. What a heart, what idealism from below aspiring upwards, Malamud’s America offers in those novels. Why go through all the pain, the bother, why burden yourself? asks one character of the protagonist in A New Life: “Because I can, you son of a bitch.” Those last five words add to the first three: Obama (whom Bern would have loved) would have had those too in a Malamud version of his campaign. Of the stories, “Angel Levine” and “The Jewbird” go together in my mind, but “My Son the Murderer” breaks the heart.

1 comment:

  1. "Thank You!" to Philip Davis for this interview, as well as for all of his hard work on the two LoA volumes by "Bern." I've passed this news on to other Interested Malamud Readers, as well as suggested these books for purchase at all of the "local" Los Angeles-area libraries where I have cards. ---Michael D. Toman


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