Folk Jews

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 24 1997 3:30 AM

Folk Jews

The mystical world of Bernard Malamud.

The Complete Stories
By Bernard Malamud
Edited and introduced by Robert Giroux
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 400 pages; $35

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One of his first stories of love, "The First Seven Years," from Partisan Review in 1950, strikes me as nearly perfect, though. A poor immigrant Jew works as an assistant shoemaker, patiently waiting for the master shoemaker's daughter to grow old enough to marry. The assistant shoemaker is another of Malamud's weirdly insistent, lonely souls--impelled, who knows why, to devote himself to a hopeless love; still wincing from the horrors of Europe, which he has not entirely escaped; inarticulate, yet bursting with passion, if only his boss, the master shoemaker, will deign to listen.

"You are crazy," the boss says to him about his love for the girl. "She will never marry a man so old and ugly like you." But she will, of course, which is going to be too bad. The story is moving. It arouses wonder. Biblical overtones--the tale of Jacob and Laban--bubble up from Malamud's simplicity. In his introduction, Robert Giroux, Malamud's editor, quotes Cynthia Ozick, who said of Malamud: "Is he an American master? Of course." Which is right--sometimes.

It was inevitable that Malamud's editor would bring out a Complete Stories. Completeness is not always a virtue, though. The lesser stories in the Complete edition cast a wrong light on the greater ones. Malamud, the true American Master, wrote, in my estimation, a volume slightly different from The Complete Stories, and the name of that slightly different volume ought to be, more cautiously, Selected Stories.

Paul Berman is a regular contributor to Slate.