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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Bernard Malamud was a writer with a real genius for evoking the cosmic and the transcendent; but reading his Complete Stories makes me think that transcendence has its limits. Malamud was born in Brooklyn in 1914 (and died in 1986), and he grew up in the kind of immigrant environment in which little children, because they are the native-born half of a foreign-born neighborhood, are obliged to shield their vulnerable elders from the contempt of the outside world. It was a background, as I imagine it, that led naturally to the Malamudian insight that visible life is a veil, behind which can be glimpsed, by means of sympathetic insight, a vaster and more beautiful reality.

The heroes of his early stories, from the 1940s and '50s, tend to be poor, inarticulate shopkeepers and workers (tailors, grocers, shoemakers, census-takers--Malamud almost always identified his characters by profession, in a bow to the proletarianism of the '30s), New York Jews mostly, whose rough outer appearances suddenly fall away to reveal inner souls of the purest lyrical passion. Or else he writes about strange, grief-stricken, lonely souls, perhaps half-mad, who seem to have been picked up like leaves by some inexplicable wind and blown around the world until they attach themselves randomly to the first unlucky person who comes their way. Sometimes the author himself seems to float upward on a gust of wind, into the airy zones of fable, which seem to have been his instinctive home.

In "The Jewbird," a melancholy black bird named Schwartz lands on the balcony of a New York family and insists on being taken care of--a sad nuisance of a talking bird, fleeing God knows what tragedies (the bird says, "Gevalt, a pogrom!" and complains about "anti-Semeets"--to which one of the family members replies, "What kind of anti-Semites bother a bird?"). A "Talking Horse," in the story of that name, turns out to be a half-man or centaur named Abramovitz, cruelly disguised as an authentic horse and forced to entertain circus audiences with pathetic jokes. The fabulist images are wonderful and mysterious precisely because, in Malamud's hands, they seem perfectly believable, an effortless demonstration that the grotesqueries of workaday existence are merely masks.

He sketches his stories usually with a few bold colors and fewer details, as in a Raphael Soyer painting. His language is notable mostly for the oniony taste of Yiddish, when it is appropriate: "Who comes on Friday night to a man that he has guests, to spoil him his supper?" But you come away from these colors and tastes with the feeling that Jewishness for Malamud is more than ethnic, that the weird little events in his tales correspond to unseen doings in the cosmos of an Old World folk-Judaism. In one of his later stories, "The Silver Crown" from 1972, a high school teacher visits a raggedy wonder-rabbi in the rundown Bronx who builds a miracle crown for nearly $1,000. And though the schoolteacher concludes that the wonder-rabbi is a con artist, we ourselves, the readers, are not so sure. The talking Jewbirds and centaurs, the wonder-rabbis and the magic silver crowns--all seem to hint at larger, transcendent truths.

B ut where can these larger truths be found? Sometimes Malamud pointed to art, especially to painting and sculpture, which he elevated into an ideal. He devoted a number of his later stories to an artist named Fidelman who goes to live in Italy, which move occasions all kinds of theorizing about art and its meaning. But the effect is gassy:

"Form may be and often is the content of Art."

"You don't say."

"I do indeed."

Other times, he looked to love and tried to put a little flesh on his spiritual creations, in an effort to endow his poor, suffering Jews with at least a few shreds of a romantic life.

But in these stories, especially the later ones, he seems to have been unable to get beyond his own commonplace fantasies about prostitutes and 1960s miniskirts. Fidelman takes up with a prostitute in "A Pimp's Revenge," a student confesses her hooker past in "A Choice of Profession," a father trails after his streetwalker daughter in "God's Wrath," a doctor imagines his neighbor as a "semi-prostitute" in the story "In Retirement"--it gets to be a little much. The writing leers, for want of any better way to conjure a sexual attraction. Malamud's daughter, Janna Malamud Smith, has just now brought out a book called Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life, in which she says that, coming across a sexual scene in one of her father's novels, she put the book down in embarrassment, out of daughterly modesty. But even a nondaughter could feel that way. I reached a point in reading The Complete Stories where the arrival of a new young woman in any given story made me roll my eyes--not because Malamud's masculine reveries are particularly scandalous, but because the reveries seem scandalously inadequate to the cosmic hintings of his other stories.

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.

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