The Otherworldly Malamud
The master of the short story infused his work with myth and magic, but not fairytale endings.Mark Athitakis
HUMANITIES, March/April 2014, Volume 35, Number 2
“A small miracle has come to pass,” Bernard Malamud said in 1959, accepting the National Book Award for his short story collection The Magic Barrel. The miracle was that the short story was being so honored—the form, in many ways, Malamud was best at, but which, during awards season, tends to be neglected in favor of the novel. It was Malamud’s first moment in the spotlight, but the evening was a clumsy one. He forgot his $1,000 award check at the podium and, arriving late at the dinner in his honor, was told that there was no place for him to sit.
Cheuse, who befriended Malamud in 1970 when they were both at Bennington College in Vermont, recalls him as an unusually focused and fastidious writer. “It was an astonishing method,” Cheuse says in a phone interview. “He would write what he’d call a draft of, say, ‘The Jewbird,’ and he would type it up. He would make corrections and changes to that typescript—that’s what he would call his first draft. He would then copy over the typescript in longhand to make the beginning of the second draft, and then type that up and make changes and so forth. Some stories went four drafts, some stories went twelve drafts, but he did both the longhand and the typescript for everything.”
Malamud’s head-down focus on work didn’t diminish his standing during his lifetime—it did, after all, allow him to produce the books and stories. But it did little to elevate his standing. When Bellow won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976, Malamud scribbled in his notebook: “Bellow gets Nobel Prize, I win $24.25 in poker.” The most likely culprit for Malamud’s relative lack of esteem with readers today, however, is the sui generis nature of his stories, a canny blend of religiosity and realism.
About the author
Mark Athitakis is a Phoenix-based journalist and critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Virginia Quarterly Review, and numerous other publications.