Bernard Malamud: The Magic Barrel

I have raved about Bernard Malamud’s novels here (well, one of them), but it never occurred to me to try his stories until I was on holiday and picked up a copy of this book in a second-hand bookshop in Kenmare, Co Kerry. Anyone who has been on holiday with an infant will know, in any event, that a book of stories averaging twelve pages apiece is the perfect occupation.

The Magic Barrel (1958) was Malamud’s first collection and contains stories which are, not to muck about, stunning. Together, they create a portrait of Jewish immigrant life in post-war America which, if not quite Dubliners, is coherent and complete.

Many elements recur in these stories: the characters are either penniless or heading there. The highest social station they can attain is to run their own small business: a store (as with his novel The Assistant), or a shoemender’s. Such is the role of Feld in ‘The First Seven Years’, who reacts with horror (“You are crazy. She will never marry a man as old and ugly as you”) when his assistant Sobel tells him that he wants to marry Feld’s daughter Miriam:

Then he realized that what he called ugly was not Sobel but Miriam’s life if she married him. He felt for his daughter a strange and gripping sorrow, as if she were already Sobel’s bride, the wife, after all, of a shoemaker, and had in her life no more than her mother had had. And all his dreams for her – why he had slaved and destroyed his heart with anxiety and labor – all these dreams of a better life were dead.

In ‘Angel Levine’, the small businessman is Manischevitz, a tailor, who has “suffered many reverses and indignities.” Like most of these characters, he is at the end of his rope. When an episode of divine intervention seems to relieve his backache for a few days, he is disappointed when it returns. “He had hoped for a longer interval of easement, long enough to have some thought other than of himself and his troubles.” He resents the pain not just because it is pain but for richer reasons too.

Who, after all, was Manischewitz that he had been given so much to suffer? A tailor. Certainly not a man of talent. Upon him suffering was largely wasted. It went nowhere, into nothing: into more suffering.

We might observe that, if Malamud is speaking from experience, either his own or that of his contemporaries, then the suffering did not go into nothing. Anyway these stories, for their grim detail, are not for a moment colourless. Malamud has black humour by the bucket and, linked to this, a mastery of insight into his characters’ worst impulses. In ‘The Girl of My Dreams’, a frustrated writer, Mitka, meets a woman with whom he has struck up a correspondence, and ends up more frustrated still. “The irony of it – immured for months in a rat hole, to come forth for this. He’d go back now and entomb himself forever.” How much lower can he go? “He was wondering, what after this? Where would he drag that dead cat, his soul?”

As well as recurring settings – I’m guessing too that Malamud spent time in Italy when young – there is a universal current of desire (or need) in the stories in The Magic Barrel. I remember, years ago, reading Kurt Vonnegut’s guidelines for story writing. The third was “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This seemed to me laughably unsophisticated (though if these were rules by which Vonnegut wrote the stories in Welcome to the Monkey-House, I couldn’t much complain about the results). Well, to prove me wrong again, Malamud makes an art out of making his characters want something. Often this is, or appears to the character to be, selfless, something they want for others rather than themselves: Feld’s wishes for his daughter’s future in ‘The First Seven Years’; Rosen’s urgent desire to help a widow financially in the extraordinary ‘Take Pity’ (one of those stories where the last few lines make you recast everything that has gone before). A couple of times, in ‘Behold the Key’ and ‘The Magic Barrel’, the want runs so deep that Malamud gives us a comedy of multiple attempts to get something right: an apartment, a bride. But his characters are destined not to get things right, though Malamud’s compassionate eye means we feel nothing but sympathy for them.

So here is a chance encounter that thrilled me as much as any book this year. Great writing in capsule form, Malamud’s Magic Barrel is a bran tub of delights.


  1. Jacobson tick, Malamud tick, Roth tick, cheesecake tick, hypochondria tick, . . . . ok as an accredited representative of the Jewish people I’m authorised to offer you full membership of the Chosen Ones, pending the normal surgical procedures.

  2. This is a lovely, lovely book. Malamud is a really marvellous writer. I recently read his ‘The Natural’, a novel ostensibly about baseball, and was gripped. If Malamud can make a committed sports-loather like myself enjoy that, he can do anything. Next up I intend to tackle his ‘God’s Grace’, a satirical post-apocalyptic story.

  3. Mazel tov, Linda!

    JRSM, oddly, I’ve avoided The Natural as I’d heard it was more or less an apprentice work. I’ve read The Assistant, The Tenants and Dubin’s Lives. I think he wrote only seven novels, didn’t he, so I plan not to speed through them too quickly.

    As is often the case with the great overlooked, availability of his stuff in the UK is patchy. He used to be in Penguin 20th Century Classics, then Vintage Classics, and a couple of the latter titles (Pictures of Fidelman, Dubin’s Lives) are still available in their Random Collection print-on-demand format (the results are pleasingly floppy, but the cover print quality seems to suffer).

    I understand however that Vintage are reissuing The Magic Barrel, The Natural and The Tenants in 2012, and I believe Atlantic are reissuing The Fixer (reported by some to be his best novel) around then also.

    1. Sorry, I was just using the phrase (wrongly) as an all-weather sort of Jewish ‘wahay!’ Just shows how much I still have to learn once the pain of the surgeon’s knife has subsided.

  4. Mazel means luck, tov is good (this is Hebrew not Yiddish, btw) and is usually used to congratulate someone.

    ‘You’ve won the Booker, Mr Jacobson! Mazel tov!’

    More importantly you need to take on board the ur Jewish joke which is the Jewish telegram:

    Start Worrying. Details to follow.

  5. “The Fixer is his masterpiece.” This and ‘A New Life’ are just brilliant. If you’re after some other brilliant mid-century Jewish writing, I can also commend Isaac Bashevis Singer–I just finished his ‘The Magician of Lublin’, about a womanising, mostly-lapsed Jewish travelling stage magician (who is also contemplating a career in burglary) in 1870s Poland, and it is truly wonderful.

  6. Interesting that you should mention Singer, JRSM: another of those writers I used to browse in Penguin 20th Century Classics back in the early 90s when I was first exploring the glorious riches of bookshops. I don’t think I ever read him, and only one title (Satan in Goray) sticks in my mind now. I think I mentally had him down as ‘too difficult’, as I did with Bellow.

    Speaking of mid-century Jewish writing, what about Chaim Potok? Penguin sent me a couple of reissues of The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev last year, which I greeted with great enthusiasm but haven’t actually got around to opening yet.

  7. Nice review; I’ve been meaning to re-read Malamud for a while and this has whet my appetite.

    A heads-up for those who haven’t already heard it: Aleksandar Hemon read Malamud’s “A Summer’s Reading” (from The Magic Barrel) on the New Yorker’s fiction podcast:

    He has a tone of voice that would be absolutely unbearable if he had chosen to read any story except for this one. It’s perfectly suited to Malamud’s material.

  8. I never read the collections, I went straight to the _Complete Stories_ of Bernard Malamud. And they remain a delight. Well, most of them. At least, I think so, because it must have been at least ten years since I’ve read them.

    But I got to know them in translation, at least a decade before that.

    [If anyone can read this, it seems that the hiccups of the big Microsoft Live/Wordpress transition are over]

  9. Singer’s novels aren’t great but his stories are not difficult at all once you enter and get used to his world.

    Isaac Babel!!!!!!!!!!!!

    He is the reason why I will NEVER forgive the Soviet Union, for murdering one of its greatest writers and then lying about it for fear of alienating the post-war French intellectuals like Sartre. Don’t get me started.

    ‘A man with Autumn in his heart and spectacles on his nose’

    And let’s complete the set with Joseph Roth.

  10. Thanks for the link, Daniel. I look forward to listening to it. I keep meaning to subscribe to that podcast ever since I heard Richard Ford reading Cheever’s ‘Reunion’ (kindly sent to me by Steve Mitchelmore).

    ijsbrand, I’m pleased you were able to get through eventually! When I read The Magic Barrel – over two months ago now, but the review has kept getting pushed back – I went online in search of more info on Malamud’s stories, and found this archived review from the NYTimes of the Complete Stories. It points out that although The Magic Barrel is Malamud’s first collection, it doesn’t contain his earliest stories, such as ‘The Cost of Living’. Here is the wonderful extract they print from that story, where Sam (another small businessman: a grocer) takes account of his life:

    ”The thousands of cans he had wiped off and packed away, the milk cases dragged in like rocks from the street before dawn in freeze or heat; insults, petty thievery, doling of credit to the impoverished by the poor; the peeling ceiling, flyspecked shelves, puffed cans, dirt, swollen veins, the backbreaking 16-hour day like a heavy hand slapping, upon awakening, the skull, pushing the head down to bend the body’s bones; the hours, the work, the years.

    And this, presumably, a story that Malamud thought not good enough to go into The Magic Barrel!

    Lee: oh god, Babel! The original inspiration for all great story writers who don’t cite Chekhov. I picked up the Penguin Classics edition of Red Cavalry and other stories earlier this year (in the LRB shop), but, as ever, have yet to knuckle down.

    1. Babel’s a great, great writer and you kind of wonder how you can read quite extensively for years and only come across someone that good by accident. It’s a joke. Everyone should read him.

      1. Fascinating piece, Linda. I hope you don’t mind my pasting a particular passage in here.

        “But to 19th-century Russian intellectuals, including Tolstoy, Trilling points out, the Cossack was rather an appealing figure: “He was the man as yet untrammelled by civilisation, direct, immediate, fierce. He was the man of enviable simplicity, the man of the body – and of the horse, the man who moved with speed and grace… For [Tolstoy] the Cossack was indeed the noble savage, all too savage, not often noble, yet having in his savagery some quality that might raise strange questions in a Jewish mind.”

        Thus Trilling saw in the figure of the Cossack a yearning in Babel to throw off his own liberal, intellectual instincts, an itch in him to become part of a people of the body rather than a people of the mind. He points to the story which exposes the psychic divisions within Babel’s mind during this period. In “After the Battle”, the narrator is discovered to have gone into battle with no ammunition in his gun; he is accused of being a member of the Molokan Sect – a pacifist and God-worshipper. But this is not it at all. Trudging through the rain, the narrator pleads for a favour, “imploring fate to grant me the simplest of proficiencies – the ability to kill my fellow-man”. This sentiment in Babel’s mouth is, Trilling says, only partly ironic.”

  11. Funny you should mention Joseph Roth, Linda. I picked up The Radetzky March the other day from my shelves (well, piles) and ummed and ahhed a bit trying to decide between it and The Counterlife. Which Roth, which Roth? In the end I plumped for Philip.

  12. Here’s your list:

    Joseph Roth, Radetsky march
    Philip Roth American Pastoral
    Franz Kafka Metamorphosis
    Isaac Babel Collected Stories, particularly the Odessa ones and Red Cavalry
    Vasily Grossman Life and Fate
    Saul Bellow Humboldt’s Gift
    Bernard Malamud The Fixer

    1. With only Radetsky March and Life and Fate to go, I’m almost there (although some re-reading would be advisable). I guess it would be hopeless national chauvanism to put a Mordecai Richler title on the list (Duddy?) — perhaps a sub-genre.

      1. I have read Duddy Kravitz, Kevin, and only a few years ago. Unfortunately I didn’t think it all that wonderful, and having no blog review to tether my thoughts so, I can’t even remember now why that was.

  13. If it’s any consolation, he only one I’d read at your age was the Kafka. But all of these are works best read in middle age when the terror and disappointment of life has kicked in a bit.

    But I do think it’s a pretty definitive list of the great and universal Jewish writing of the 20th century, which was, after all, for better and for worse, the Jewish century, offering the greatest emancipation (in America) and the worst ending (in Europe)

  14. I stumbled on a copy of that pink edition with multi-colored lettering, the second image above, in a library sale a few months ago and picked it up on a whim, having heard his name mentioned somewhere. It’s only been a few months, but this makes me want to re-read the entire collection…

    Apparently they made a bad movie out of Angel Levine, which I’m nevertheless curious to see.

  15. Another vote for Babel here, too.

    ‘Speaking of mid-century Jewish writing, what about Chaim Potok?’

    He’s good. This sounds like a criticism, but it’s not meant to, but his writing has the plain straightforwardness of good writing for teenagers: lucid, unflashy, but very engaging.

  16. Oh yes, Cynthia Ozick for sure, Kevin! (I omit Linda Grant only because she doesn’t fit the time frame.) It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to call Ozick more contemporary – yes, she’s still writing, but she’s five years older than Roth, and only a decade or so younger than Bellow and Malamud.

  17. Anyone hear of Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky)? Ten years ago he was about my favorite writer, but haven’t heard his name much since. If I remember correctly, he wrote a spectacular novel called “Goodnight!”

  18. If you’re going to do the full canon of 20th century Jewish novelists then you will have to have S.Y. Agnon, A.B. Yehoshua, Aaron Appelfeld, Imre Kertesz, Yorman Kaniuk, Amos Oz and David Grossman.

    It pains me that they are all men.

    Btw John Self, if you haven’t read him already, I suspect you’d like the very short stories of Etgar Keret.

  19. Well I have already read some Kertesz and Appelfeld.

    But I started reading ‘How it was Done in Odessa’ earlier this evening and gave up on page 2, completely baffled as to what was happening and who they were talking about. That’s particularly shaming given that, at 10 pages, it’s one of the longest stories in the whole book.

  20. I’m a great Malamud fan especially The Assistant and A New Life. The latter has the most wonderful description of what’s it’s like to be in love in a new relationship. I loved Bellow’s The Dean’s December a wintry book which reflected a sad and wintry period in my life but on the whole I find Bellow clever but unappealingly sexist ( and Roth too for that matter ) . Malamud for me is far warmer and sympathetic. Chaim Potok in my opinion is a far inferior writer though his descriptions of life in the NY Hassidic community are interesting.
    Lee – I picked up The Sleepwalkers in the UCL library in London once, having read an interesting description of it but glancing through it made me put it down again as it looked thuddingly boring and enormously long and I speak as someone who reads fast and is not usually intimidated by enormous novels.

  21. I’ll put in a vote for the ‘Sleepwalkers’ trilogy, though I’ve only read the first 2 books, which I really enjoyed. The second book especially, about a man who works as a promoter for female wrestlers in 1910s Berlin, is really good.

  22. How about an Anglo-Jewish writer? Alexander Baron is rather excellent, and ‘The Lowlife’ (a Jewish gambler in 1960s Hackney) and ‘From the City, From the Plough’ (an English infantry regiment finds its fate in Normandy) are both newly reissued and quietly fantastic. Both books left me stunned, frankly. He is particularly good with drawing realistic characters, and making you care about them. I don’t know why he is so forgotten; he really should be on a big (Penguin, Vintage) Classics list.

  23. Thanks for the recommendation, Jonathan. I haven’t heard of Baron but I see that The Lowlife was one of Harvill’s short-lived London Writing series just before it got swallowed up into the Random House behemoth. The newly reissued edition from Black Spring Press is significantly less handsome. But a lot cheaper! Thanks again for the suggestion.

  24. Another vote for Alexander Baron here, too. ‘The Lowlife’, ‘From the City, From the Plough’, ‘There’s No Home’ (a second WW2 novel) and ‘The In-Between Time’ are all excellent. ‘Strip Jack Naked’, a sequel to ‘The Lowlife’, is a little disappointing, given the first book’s greatness.

  25. Great blog by the way, John. And give Baron a try. Another of the London Writing titles is also good (actually, all four are, but this one is relevant to the Jewish theme here): Fowler’s End by Gerald Kersh. It is very, very funny. Sam Yudenow is glorious. It’s been google booked, if you fancy a quick on-line taster.

  26. I was going to complain here that John had added another writer to my ever growing pile of people to read.

    Then I read this thread. Ouch. The Magician of Lublin sounds just up my street. I’ve printed off Linda Grant’s list of which I’ve only read one (Hotel Savoy is a very accessible first Joseph Roth by the way and I’ve blogged one of his essay collections, a wonderful writer).

    I also have When I Lived in Modern Times on the bookshelf, which I’m rather looking forward to. It has one of the most bizarre reviews I’ve seen on Amazon, where someone rates it according to 20 factors (though lists 21 in fact) including whether it made him feel better about humanity. Amazon reviewers, they can at times be a special breed (and I say that having written a couple myself, back when I was younger and more foolish).

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