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.