Malamud Bernard

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.

Bernard Malamud: The Assistant

I’ve heard Bernard Malamud’s name returning like an echo from the past in recent months. A biography by Philip Davis was well received last year. He was said by some to be the model for E.I. Lonoff, the admired writer in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books, which have given me so much pleasure of late. And he was mentioned in blogs I admire such as This Space and The Age of Uncertainty. My own experience of him was limited to two novels, read maybe ten or more years ago: The Tenants and Dubin’s Lives. I enjoyed both, so it was time for a belated continuation of Project Malamud.

The Assistant

The Assistant (1957) was Malamud’s second novel and, like most of his books, is out of print in the UK – a scandal, but what can you do? – so I picked up this US edition, which has that kind of uniquely bad cover design which can only come from someone trying very hard but who really doesn’t know what they’re doing. I would almost have preferred the charming cleavage-based cover of an earlier mass market edition. But – for once – forget the cover design. Inside it’s all good: Roth had great taste in mentors.

From the first page Malamud throws us into real life, as refracted through Morris Bober, Jewish grocer in New York whose store isn’t doing too well. And no wonder:

The front door opened and a girl of ten entered, her face pinched and eyes excited. His heart held no welcome for her.

“My mother says,” she said quickly, “can you trust her till tomorrow for a pound of butter, loaf of rye bread and a small bottle of cider vinegar?”

He knew the mother. “No more trust.”

The girl burst into tears.

Morris gave her a quarter-pound of butter, the bread and vinegar. He found a penciled spot on the worn counter, near the cash register, and wrote a sum under “Drunk Woman.” The total now came to $2.03, which he never hoped to see. But Ida would nag if she noticed a new figure, so he reduced the amount to $1.61. His peace – the little he lived with – was worth forty-two cents.

Immediately I felt I was in safe hands; safer than Morris’s store anyway. He moved to the US for a new life, but “he had hoped for much in America and got little. And because of him Helen and Ida had less. He had defrauded them, he and the bloodsucking store.” Helen is his daughter, and the centre point of the triangle which The Assistant describes (and very much the centre point of the older cover above). Morris spends most of his time out the back of the store, waiting for custom that rarely comes – “Waiting he thought he did poorly. When times were bad time was bad” – and when Helen comes home to the store:

“Me,” she called, as she had done from childhood. It meant that whoever was sitting in the back should sit and not suddenly think he was going to get rich.

The third point is Frank Alpine, a drifter who volunteers to work in Morris’s store to make up for various misdemeanours which it would be inappropriate to reveal.

If he could root out what he had done, smash and destroy it; but it was done, beyond him to undo. It was where he could never lay his hands on it any more – in his stinking mind.

And “he was troubled by the thought of how easy it was for a man to wreck his whole life with a single wrong act.” Well, he has at least one more wrong act in him, but in the meantime Frank manages to turn around Morris’s grocery store, bringing its best turnover since the opening of the rival delicatessen around the corner. Morris suspects Frank’s success is due to goyish customers being more willing to deal with their own kind than with a Jew, though as is often the case in The Assistant, he is misinformed – or underinformed anyway.

Malamud sets up a classical three-way stasis, a sort of essence of sitcom where the three characters whose minds we inhabit – Morris, Helen and Frank – all have reasons to leave their confinement within the world of the store, but cannot bring themselves to. They are trapped by an attachment to their unhappiness. In Morris’s case, he fears change, even from the hell he currently experiences. Helen is torn between a couple of lunks who would take her hand if she’d only give them another part; “she walked on, lacking, wanting, not wanting, not happy.” Frank longs for Helen but also for Morris’s acceptance, which will be an even longer time coming if Morris ever finds out the other terrible thing he’s done.

All this cannot begin to touch on half the material of the story, the Jewishness and need for belonging which permeate the pages, or summarise the delight which Malamud takes in telling his thin but intertwined tales. His precise but devastating perceptions of how the human mind and heart work together to bring about their owner’s misery had me drumming my heels in perverse merriment. He writes – to quote a critic’s comment on Howard Jacobson which fits perfectly here – with an agility that gives pleasure akin to humour even when it isn’t actually funny. And it isn’t funny: what happens to these people is mostly terrible. But oh my, it’s thrilling to read it. Why? Why do you think?

He asked her what book she was reading.

The Idiot. Do you know it?”

“No. What’s it about?”

“It’s a novel.”

“I’d rather read the truth.”

“It is the truth.”