The Fixer-UpperBy Lee Siegel
Dec. 9, 2007
In Malamud’s novel, Bober proceeds to convert the sensitive thug, Frank Alpine, into a Jew who eventually becomes Bober’s successor behind the cash register. The store owner leads his victimizer to Judaism so the hoodlum should know and learn from suffering — this despite the fact that the thug had robbed Bober and later raped his daughter, Helen. Roth wasn’t the only Jewish intellectual to recoil from what he considered Malamud’s Christianizing emasculation of Jewish vitality, from what some regarded as Malamud’s psychologically dubious fetishizing of victimhood and pain.
For Davis, one of Malamud’s aphorisms sums up the obsession driving his work: “There’s more than morality in a good man.” The sentiment is, in fact, almost identical to Norman Mailer’s belief that the best lies close to the worst in people. Malamud believed that the stuff of goodness lay in the education roughly administered by life’s warps and woofs: the fatality of character, the irony of good intentions, the realization that right versus wrong is often a matter of hurt versus hurt. Davis knows that there’s nothing narrowly virtuous about that.Of course, some Jewish critics never forgave Malamud for his emphasis on rachmones (Yiddish for “compassion”) rather than ego-driven assertiveness and aggression. Alfred Kazin, one of Malamud’s first champions, once remarked that he always thought of Malamud as being “too good to be true,” and then inanely added, “even though he’s had the normal amount of extramarital sex.” Did Kazin need Malamud’s adultery to prove Malamud’s literary puissance? Oh these bygone Jewish intellectuals. Malamud didn’t need to copulate his way to freedom from Mommy. As a little boy, he had saved his own mother from a suicide attempt; she spent the next two years in an insane asylum, where she died in 1929. Later he watched his schizophrenic brother drift from one mental institution to another. Malamud’s fatal impulse, as Davis poignantly shows, was to try to recover his mother — and perhaps his brother too — through the love of women. According to this sympathetic biographer, Malamud’s Christian wife painfully tolerated his unfaithfulness, though she was not above responding with an occasional despairing infidelity of her own.
At Bennington College, where Malamud taught in the 1960s and ’70s, some of his colleagues referred to him as “the master.” They weren’t only alluding to Malamud’s painstaking craftsmanship, to the way he measured every economical word and stripped-down phrase. They were also acknowledging his status as a sage (as well as ironically referring to Malamud’s sometimes sanctimonious consciousness of himself as a sage). If writing was a tortuous process for Malamud — 500 words on a good day — it was because he was writing life, not words. Rather than creating a vision, his words had to fit a pre-existing condition, as if they were the visible pieces of an invisible puzzle inscribed on Malamud’s heart when he was a child.
Lee Siegel’s “Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob” will be published next month.