Friday, April 30, 2021

Bernard Malamud / The Human Remains


Bernard Malamud

Bernard Malamud

The Human Remains

Tony McKibben

January 8, 2018

Bernard Malamud is a hard writer. This is not the same thing as saying he is cold or aloof. His writing can be cruel but never dismissive, harsh but with compassion. He rarely describes a character as they would wish to be described, seeing them in all their physical decay, yet is sympathetic to their mental anguish. “My novels are more moral than philosophical” Malamud says. “I am a novelist, a moralist. Not a philosopher. The notions of hope, of redemption are essential to my characters.” (‘Studies in American Jewish Literature’) His resistance to the philosophical but acceptance of the moral might seem unusual for a post-war writer, and Malamud in this sense is the absolute antithesis of the important French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet insists, while “I have no training in philosophy proper”, that he sees his novel The Voyeur and Camus’ The Outsider as “phenomenological novels, insofar as they present a perception of human consciousness that is of a phenomenological order” (Paris Review), as he admits the importance of Hegel and Heidegger on his work. He would clearly prefer the philosophical to the moral. “When a novelist has “something to say,” they mean a message. It has political connotations, or a religious message, or a moral prescription. It means “commitment,” as used by Sartre and other fellow-travelers. They are saying that the writer has a world view, a sort of truth that he wishes to communicate, and that his writing has an ulterior significance.” “I am against this”, he says, “Flaubert described a whole world, but he had nothing to say, in the sense that he had no message to transmit, no remedy to offer for the human condition.” (Paris Review)

Malamud would seem to believe in having something to say, and yet wouldn’t always be afraid of philosophy as he says it. As biographer Philip Davis says of one of Malamud’s most famous books, The Fixer “this is increasingly why in his second draft Malamud brings in Spinoza in dramatic opposition to Job…” (Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life) There is no doubt that for Malamud he wants from philosophy ethics rather than phenomenology: the importance rests on how we should live rather than how we perceive. It is why so often we find his descriptions of character morally contained rather than perceptually original. They are not at all stale, but they are not new either. Here are a few of them. “Manischevitz’s flat…was a meagre one, furnished with a few sticks of chairs, a table, and bed, in one of the poorer sections of the city. There were three rooms: a small, poorly papered living room; an apology for a kitchen with a wooden icebox, and the comparatively large bedroom where Fanny lay in a sagging second hand bed.” (‘Angel Levine’) “The Jewish actor saw his graying hair, the thick black eyebrows, the hunch of disappointment in his shoulders, and the sardonic grimness of his face accentuated by the twisted line on the lips.” (‘Benefit Performance’) Cronin, a tall, bulky-shouldered man with sensitive eyes and a full brown moustache, smoked too much. His trousers were usually smeared with cigarette ashes he brushed off his thighs and lately, after a period of forbearance, he had begun to drink.” (‘A Choice of Profession’) But if Malamud is resistant to much of philosophy it rests surely on his interest in the concretely moral. What is the moral life his work so often seems to ask, and this can seem both an outdated question and an immensely burdensome one. If the writer takes for granted the presence of a higher being, that power need have no great force within the material: in numerous nineteenth-century novels God can be invoked casually: Nietzsche had not yet killed him. In the middle of the twentieth, bringing God in is like an interloper at a party: what place has He there? His presence becomes a provocation (Spark, O’Connor, Greene), a superstitious presence (Singer) or a felt absence (in very different ways Bernanos and Malamud). Malamud wonders what are we to make of our lives if we are not sure whether any higher being is guiding our actions; what sort of responsibility does that place upon us? While Robbe-Grillet picks up on de Sade’s idea that a universe without meaning offers a license to pursue one’s own pleasures, however ‘depraved’, Malamud frets over the question of responsibility. In a belief in God we needn’t concern ourselves especially with a term like responsibility: guilt, yes, inadequacy, certainly, fear of retribution, perhaps. But in responsibility it is as if the principles of the religious are present but the certainties no longer there. The crisis many of Malamud’s characters find themselves in cannot be found in scripture and verse, yet there is a lingering sense in which one’s deeds are contained by many of the values to be found in the scriptures. When Malamud describes a character or a place, we feel he is never just offering a description; he is also insisting upon an evaluation. This is why we proposed he is a hard writer: his evaluative delineations try to get to the moral heart of a character rather than settle for a description of an appearance.

Let us think of the story ‘A Choice of Profession’. Here we have the central character, already described, wounded over his two-timing wife, building his life anew as a teacher away from Chicago. One of the students is a bit older than the others and though he doesn’t find her that pretty he is drawn to her nevertheless. As they start spending time together Mary Lou admits that for a while she made money working as a prostitute and Cronin decides to keep his distance. When it looks like she has started seeing a married colleague he believes it his duty to tell him about her past in a moment that from one angle might seem the right thing to do, but from several others appears to reveal a sanctimonious side to his character that also shows up his confused feelings. He might believe that he owes it to the friend’s wife to warn his friend off Mary Lou, aware that if he doesn’t she might soon find herself in the position he happened to be in before divorcing his spouse. That Mary Lou happens to have been a sex worker gives him the premise needed. But he also feels jealous that though he can’t countenance seeing Mary Lou, nobody else should either as he finds himself following Mary Lou and his friend. Before the end of the tale he will meet up with her again and she will tell him that she trusted him: why had he obviously told his friend about her past? Cronin can see he hasn’t acted well; partly because he has not allowed his experiences to transform him. Has he imposed upon Mary Lou, both in her work as a prostitute and her friendship with his friend, the jealousy he felt over his wife? The story opens with the narrator saying he had loved his wife and “jealousy lingered unbearably.” It would still seem to be there projected onto Mary Lou. While he senses she is learning from her ‘mistakes’, he wonders whether he has managed to learn from his. His pain has not made him morally successful as he thinks: “It’s not easy to be moral.”

The moral lesson in many of Malamud’s stories rests on this – the difficulty of being moral: an extension of the parables into the doubt of the mid-to-late 20th century. One might initially take Malamud to be an old-fashioned writer in his concern for morality, but its complexity rests in seeing the purpose in parabolic values whilst knowing that parable is not the form in which modern stories can be narrated. There is frequently not a moral to be learnt, but a sense of alienation looking for solace. By the end of ‘A Choice of Profession’, one feels Cronin’s loneliness, the difficulty of communication across an abyss of personal idiosyncrasies and the absence of universal values. The idea of misunderstandings is a commonplace in the contemporary relationship, but this rests partly on complex pasts and different value systems. We might not wish that everybody marries their third cousin at eighteen, but the consequence of not doing so can lead to an emotional complexity and moral fret, that makes us much more responsible for our actions than an arranged marriage that plays like an emotional equivalent of God. The immediate family playing the role of a higher being. Cronin and Mary Lou may well be complex people, but their attempt at becoming a couple is fraught with past experiences that cannot be overcome, even if Mary Lou looks like she might be able to move beyond hers as Cronin cannot move beyond his. If she had kept her secret to herself would Cronin have been happier; and is the revelation of her secret part of a modern problem? That we are expected to tell all? It would seem that Mary Lou wants to get closer to Cronin; Cronin wants someone he can trust. She is honest about her encounters, but in that honesty lies for Cronin further distrust.

Yet Mary Lou has given to Cronin what it seems Florence cannot provide in the story ‘Spring Rain’. Here Florence is in love with Paul, who seems reluctant to share her enthusiasm for the romance. One evening Florence goes to the cinema with a friend and Paul arrives at the house and asks the father, George, if he wants to go for a walk. During their stroll in the Spring rain, Paul says to George, “Florence is in love with me. She told me that. I want to love her because I’m lonely, but I don’t know – I can’t love her. I can’t reach her. She’s not like you. We go for a walk along the Drive, and I can’t reach her. Then she says I’m moody, and she wants to go to the movies.” Here there is communication, but with the wrong person as it paradoxically creates a space between the father and daughter as a bond is developed between the potential son-in-law and George. When Florence hears that Paul was around she asks her father what Paul said. “George tries to speak, but the words were suddenly immovable. He could never tell her what Paul said. A feeling of sorrow for Florence stabbed him.” In each instance, in A Choice of Professions’ and ‘Spring Rain’. we see that the nature of disclosure is never simple: it is repercussive as a truth revealed creates pain elsewhere. It is indeed not easy being moral.

There is a sorrow present in many of the stories; what we might call an ontological sadness which has little to do with tragedy. The point of tragedy is hamartia: a fatal flaw in usually powerful figures that destroys the characters’ existence. But In Malamud’s work there is the low-key despair of humbler lives accepting not so much their fate (which might suggest the tragic), but the inevitable misery of small lives. If tragedy can pronounce on big themes that could have been different if a character had been less ambitious, less proud, or less greedy, Malamud’s stories flatline towards death and despair. In interviews, Malamud is resistant to claims he is a Jewish writer and sees himself as an American one, and when Yolanda Ohana says “the hero of Jewish fiction, of Jewish writing, seems to be the schlemiel, the mensch. He is a poor but proud man” (‘Studies in American Jewish Literature’), Malamud responds by saying that this doesn’t account for all his characters. But Ohana has more than a point and we find constant evidence of it in the writer’s approach to description. Time and again as we have noted Malamud describes people who are defeated by life, yet at the same time they are moral creatures who must fight to defend a very small space within themselves rather than the large terrain of a tragic figure. Instead of owning kingdoms they might own a corner shop (like Malamud’s own parents), as in the ‘The Grocery Store’, or the liquor store in ‘Black is My Favourite Colour’. If they are professionals they may be relatively successful but their success is usually irrelevant to the tale: as we find ‘The Maid’s Shoes’, ‘Man in the Drawer’ and ‘An Exorcism’. There is often the taste of defeat over the smell of victory, but there is always the touching too, as if Malamud constantly eschews the cynicism of a writer offering the lowest common denominator, finding instead the common value of dignity.

Dignity in this sense is a modern variation of Ancient stoicism as modern man is constantly faced with potential indignities that undermine his humanity. One doesn’t fight for the care of the self as we find in the ancients, but in an attempt to remain dignified in the face of being undermined: hence the schlemiel and the mensch, words with quite different meanings. The schlemiel is a stupid or unlucky person; a mensch a person of integrity and honour. However, they come together in Malamud’s work as we find in all of the stories we have just mentioned. Let us take for example the three stories on writers. In ‘The Maid’s Shoes’, Orlando Krantz is described as “a nervous man of sixty. He had mild gray eyes, a broad mouth, and a pointed cleft chin. He was bald and had a bit of a belly, although the rest of him was quite thin.” He is an American professor in Italy who would write all day and whose wife and daughter were temporarily back in the States. He hires a maid and the story hinges on a pair of shoes that he insists on buying for her as a means by which to ward off the advances of a married man who is trying to seduce her, and who want to buy her a pair in the process of seduction. He buys the shoes but it doesn’t work: instead it makes the husband fear he has a rival and thus the shoes create more problems than they resolve. She then fears she is pregnant by the man, involves a doctor in the situation and, before the end of the story, the lover will turn up at the professor’s door, helping Rosa remove her things after the professor says he must let her go. Acting from more or less the best of motives hasn’t led to the best of results: the professor has done the right thing but no good has come of it, and there might even be a residue of guilt as he fires the maid. He is a schlemiel and a mensch.

In ‘An Exorcism’, the writer has published a couple of novels and, relying chiefly on a small income from his father, he teaches creative writing courses occasionally to make more money. On one of them, our hero Eli Fogel meets an aspiring writer and successful womaniser, Gary, whose first published story is an account of a hopelessly unattractive figure very similar to Fogel himself, and the second about a seductive womaniser rather like Gary himself. The second story that Gary reads aloud to Eli shows the central character seducing three women including an ex-girlfriend, all on the same night and who are living together. The story has no moral point and not much of a conclusion. After reading the first, Fogel manages to forgive, but after the second he decides to enter the story and put some drama into it, going outside and setting the mattress in the back of Gary’s van on fire – no doubt the base for many a conquest. Fogel reckons he needs to enter the story by suggesting that revenge at least offers a clear conclusion. After the deed he goes back upstairs and tells Gary “he had entered his story to give it a more judicious ending.” What is the point of Malamud’s story? It partly rests on the problem of experience proving weak next not just to the imagination but the moral imagination too. Gary can have numerous encounters with women, but he cannot seem to make sense of them, cannot see that he will say or do anything to have a woman and will take no responsibility for the feelings he generates when he lets them go. His stories may be published, and Gary may go on to be successful, but while he isn’t a schlemiel neither is he a mensch. Gary protects himself from looking like an idiot as he uses people for his own ends, but fails in the process to offer much moral character.

When Gary and Fogel speak about the former’s work, they discuss the idea of an anti-hero being an anti-hero. Gary wants to defend his character against Fogel’s claim that the character Gary has created is a shit. But while sometimes indeed an anti-hero will be a problematic character, the writer can find a way within the character’s behaviour or beyond it to give the fiction ethical heft. The writer might justify the behaviour through a closer look at the character’s life – examining experiences that would justify at least in the character’s mind why he does what he does. Or the writer may choose to keep a distance from the character, observing the appalling behaviour but make it clear that the narrator finds it questionable. When Fogel says to himself after hearing Gary’s story “what have I fostered”, we see the story possesses neither justification nor distance. Earlier in the story, Gary writes to Fogel asking, “is morality a necessary part of fiction? I mean, does it have to be?” and adds “another way of putting it is that nothing that is art is merely moral.” Gary concludes “I guess what I meant to ask…is does the artist have to be moral?” Fogel replies “neither the artist nor his work.” Yet after Gary’s second story, he might realise his adamant reply only makes sense when there is some sort of moral compass to start with. It is one thing to reject a moral system that insists on heroes and villains, but another to assume that people can do whatever they like no matter the consequences. George in the story acts as he chooses and the narrator accepts the behaviour without questioning it. However while it might be fine to reject conventional morality central to the art of fiction, one needs it would seem to find the means by which to make that rejection justified from another position. If there is no attempt made, the art itself remains unmade. This is presumably what Malamud means when he regards moralism as vital to his work. He doesn’t have a moral position to take, but a moral world he constantly wants to explore: a world often between the Schlemiel and the mensch.

A great contemporary writer of the moral is the French novelist Emmanuel Carrere, someone who says in a searching New York Times interview, “I’m not a good man, unfortunately. I would like to be a good man. I admire goodness and virtue most. But I am not very good. I am, however, very moral. Which is to say I know where goodness is, and badness. I do not believe that literature gives you the right to immorality.” Carrere is aware that to write morally does not mean creating moral characters, nor does it mean to moralise through narrative technique: a technique that will shape the material to give it a moral arc. It instead takes place in a productive tension between an awareness that few people are capable of consistently good behaviour, but the general failure cannot pass for an accepted standard. We cannot say that other people have acted badly so we might as well too; that others act badly creates a greater obligation instead on us to act well. Carrere and Malamud both might invoke Dostoevsky’s famous claim in The Brothers Karamazov:“There is only one way to salvation and that is to make yourself responsible for all men’s sins. As soon as you make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for everyone, you will see at once that this is really so, and that you are in fact to blame for everyone and for all things.”

Malamud’s specific way of formulating the problem is to ask that we must risk becoming a Schlemiel if we wish to remain a mensch. We must trust in situations where others may suggest we shouldn’t: act against our own best interests to act the best we can. In ‘Man in the Drawer’, the narrator is a writer in the USSR who gets to know a cab driver, someone who is a writer himself. He gives the narrator some stories and our central character can see that Levitansky is a man of talent, someone whose work is contrary to the Soviet state’s expectations but that ought to be published. Levitansky wants the narrator to smuggle the stories out of the country and publish them in America. But what if all of this is a ruse, an opportunity to turn him into a mule or a spy, and what obligations does he have towards this cabbie/writer whom he barely knows? Would he be an idiot to help him, or a man of character by doing so? “Levitansky, the taxi driver rattling around in his Volga-Pegasus, amateur trying to palm off a half-ass ms, had faded in my mind, and I saw him now as a serious Soviet writer with publishing problems, There are many others. What can I do for him? I thought. Why should I?” The story ends in a non-commital way in one sense; categorically in another. Our narrator fades from view with the Soviet writer’s stories taking over as the narrator reads through them, and describes the tales. We never return to the narrator’s perspective as the stories are offered, and the third concludes with the writer putting his work into the fire after an editor says of one of his stories “I can’t recommend it for publication. I must advise you Tolya, if you expect to receive further commissions for translations from us, you must immediately rid yourself of this whole manuscript so as to avoid the possibility of serious consequences both to yourself and your family…” He arrives home and puts one of the stories in the sink and burns it page by page. His nine-year son asks what he is doing. “I’m burning my talent…and my integrity, and my heritage.” Thus the story ends as we wonder what obligations another writer might have to a talent from another part of the world who lacks the good fortunate to publish freely. If the narrator helps Levitansky, he needn’t at all say as Fogel does: “what have I fostered?”

It is a fair question for any writer to ask not only of others they might have helped, but also of their own work and perhaps also their influence. If the narrator in ‘Man in the Drawer’ helps Levitansky, he will be part of the continued humanising of literature; if the central character in ‘An Exorcism’ helps Gary is he not part of its dehumanizing? In ‘Man and People’, the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset says “unlike all the other beings in the universe, is man never surely man; on the contrary, being man signifies precisely being always on the point of not being man…While the tiger cannot stop being a tiger, cannot be de-tigered, man lives in perpetual danger of being dehumanized.” This is the type of morality we believe Malamud is interested in searching out. This is partly why his descriptions while often unflattering are never dehumanizing. He always looks for the humanity in a person within the type of context Gasset suggests. As we have earlier pointed out, Spinoza played an important role in Malamud’s novel The Fixer, and Gasset would seem to be echoing Spinoza and perhaps anticipating Borges: the first section of the book in which the above quote appears was a talk given in 1939 in Argentina. As Borges puts it in his 1960 story, ‘Borges and I’, “Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger.” How does one persist in one’s being, we may wonder? How to remain human since there are options for falling into other states: the dehumanized and the inhuman? If characters in Malamud’s stories are often ground down by life, this doesn’t mean they lose their humanity, just as Malamud in describing them must at all times describe them with that humanity intact. We will all have examples of writers we believe fail in these tasks, or would never consider it is a task in the first place. Mockery, disdain, dismissal and caricature are all potentially part of the writer’s arsenal, but one senses a writer like Malamud would insist they be used judiciously lest the inhuman or the dehumanized be a consequence of them. What matters is that a feeling for reality is retained so that character description does not fall into the caricatural or the hyperbolic.

In ‘The Magic Barrel’, this need to face reality becomes apparent when the central character goes to a wedding fixer looking for a wife. He arranges a meeting with a woman, Lily, central character Leo Finkel sees as “petite and not unpretty, [and] had on something signifying the approach of spring.” Leo is a rabbinical student at the Yeshiva University soon to be ordained, but he notices as he talks with Lily that she was not “talking about Leo Finkle but a total stranger, some mystical figure, perhaps even passionate prophet that [the wedding broker] Salzman had dreamed up for her – no relation to the living or the dead. Leo trembled with rage and weakness.” Man or woman should never be more than they are and less than themselves would seem to be Malamud’s message: that what matters is constantly remaining within the realm of one’s human contours. Hyperbole or caricature would exceed these boundaries, so that even when we have figures in Malamud’s work that might allow for their possibility, he often succeeds in tempering these aspects. In ‘The Maid’s Shows’, Malamud describes the professor thus: “he wore a heavy blue bathrobe over his clothes, sometimes the bathrobe belt was wrapped around a hot-water bottle he had placed against the lower part of his back, under the suit coat” as caricature can seem close. But Malamud is not a writer who wants the easy laugh; often he doesn’t seem to want a laugh at all. It would obviate the moral integrity of the tale and risk replacing it with the humorous superficiality of the entertaining. He is a Jewish writer much closer to Isaac Bashevis Singer than to Philip Roth, and we offer this in neither praise nor criticism of one over the other – but as a distinction. There is in Roth’s work the Jewish faith as literally a nagging presence: the superego as a nuisance frequently in human form – as we find in books like ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ and ‘Indignation’. This is less God’s presence, than a mother or Auntie as a source of moral irritation. In Singer’s work the nagging goes deep, internalised by the characters and deep within the culture too, and it is this aspect that allows for affinities between the great Yiddish writer and Malamud, as we see in a story on which we will conclude, ‘The Silver Crown’. While Roth, when asked about God, can say “I don’t have a religious bone in my body” (, Malamud when asked if he personally believed in God replied “I won’t answer. It is a much too personal question.” (‘Studies in American Jewish Literature’) In ‘The Silver Crown’, Albert Gans’ father lies dying in hospital and Albert passes someone who is probably “fifteen, he’d say, though she looks thirty and probably has a mental age of ten. Her skin flowed, face wet, fleshy, a small mouth open and would be forever: eyes set wide apart on the broad unfocused face, either watery green or brown, or one of each. He wasn’t sure.” It is another of Malamud’s hard appraisals as Albert takes the card she offers him saying that the making of a silver crown by a rabbi could save the dying. Albert is a teacher not easily given to superstition and wants to find out more as the story doesn’t go so far as to say that the Lord’s mercy can heal the living and bring down God’s wrath on unbelievers, but allows for that possibility to be countenanced by the end of the tale.

Like Singer, Malamud is someone who does not disbelieve in God, and allows a number of his narratives to work through a position that entertains superstition, faith and mysteries beyond our rational ken. By the end of the story, we don’t know whether Albert’s outburst at the rabbi shortly before the end of the tale has a Godly impact on his father’s health, but the story concludes that it may very well have. However, like other religious writers we might invoke (Singer, Greene, Endo,  Spark, Mauriac), “faith is not so much a binary pole as a quantum state, which tends to indeterminacy when closely examined.” (‘The Future of Faith’) So says John Updike, like Roth a contemporary of Malamud’s, but less given to deny the existence of a deity; instead offering a kind of Schroedinger’s God that Malamud’s story exemplifies. Near the end of the tale, Albert cannot believe he has given $986 to what he decides is a con-trick. “Miracle…it’s freaking fake magic, with an idiot girl for a come-on and hypnotic mirrors. I was mesmerized, suckered by you.” When the rabbi says he should think of his poor father who loves him, Albert says “he hates me. The son of a bitch I hope he croaks.” The rabbi is mortified, points a finger at God in heaven, and cries Murderer. An hour later the father is dead. A coincidence? Albert will never know, a spiritual equivalent of Heisenberg meeting Schroedinger. Albert will never know if he affected the outcome: if his remark about wishing his dad dead made it happen. In a rational world, anybody would, of course, say this is nonsense, but Malamud finds a way of foregoing the supernatural without ruling out the superstitious.

What is all but unequivocal in his work however is that life is rarely easy and often hard, but out of this hard life we should try and live it humanly, neither falling into the inhuman or the dehumanized, yet neither assuming that there is a God who will help us find a path, nor assume his absence as we can claim no higher responsibility for our actions when we fail to live up to ourselves. We might wonder whether Albert will spend years of his life afterwards feeling that he was responsible for his father’s death and that if he had a little more faith his dad would still be alive. Then again, he might be able to convince himself that such notions are rubbish: that how could a statement he made lead to his father’s demise elsewhere as he lets go of his guilt. Yet we might suppose Malamud is looking for a response in between: a feeling of culpability on the son’s part that he put a price on his father’s head and then cursed it. Whichever angle we choose to take, he acted badly, and we needn’t believe necessarily in God to acknowledge this. We only need to believe in man, the man who remains human; the human that remains.

Tony McKibben

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