A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the name of Bernard Malamud (link). My sister Sally that she has been reading a memoir by M’s daughter (link) and what did I think of M? Turns out I owe Sally for that one. I hadn’t read M for quite a while. But I did lay my hands on a copy of the complete short stories, where I found some happy memories and some interesting (to me) surprises. The Magic Barrel, perhaps his most famous story, is perhaps not quite as wonderful as I remember it. But I still like The Jewbird –not everyone does, I gather; perhaps it takes a long memory. And The Silver Crown, which I had never read before, though a familiar plot, is memorably well accomplished.
The short story is Malamud’s natural métier, the same way the novella belongs to Henry James, or the big, sprawling novel to Dickens. In form, they are almost as stylized as Law & Order on TV. “Manischevitz, a tailor, in his fifty-first year suffered many reverses and indignities” (Angel Levine). “Kessler, formerly an egg candler, lived alone on social security” (The Mourners). “Fidelman pissing in muddy water discovers water over his head” (Picture of an Artist). The locations are often specific, particularly in downtown Manhattan: West Tenth Street, Second Avenue and Sixth Street, First Avenue near the lower East River, those last two, both “top floor”—althouge, oddly enough, Pinye Salzman lives “at the far end of the Bronx,” and Rabbi Lifschitz, “somewhere in the Bronx.” They have trades—at least two tailors, one census taker (Malamud once worked for the Census Bureau) and a baker whose bread sells well because it is salted with his tears.
Comparisons come easily, perhaps too easily. In his own time, the inevitable choices were Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, real enough but beside the point. Isaac Bashevis Singer is closer: Malamud’s
But there is also just a hint of the uncanny about Malamud that carries one back to the great city-novelists of the 19th Century: think of Balzac, particularly in The Wild Ass’s Skin, or Dostoevski’s organ-grinder in
Many have said that Malamud writes about “the schlemiel.” It’s a curious word, a bit dated I suspect, a word that speaks for its time the way “cuckold” or “bounder” each by turns speaks for its time. Answers.com defines “schlemiel” as “A habitual bungler; a dolt” (link), but this is insufficiently nuanced. “Schlemiel” derives (again, per Answers.com) from
Yiddish shlemíl, perhaps from Hebrew šəlūmî’ēl, my well-being is God, Shelumiel (a character in the Bible, Numbers ) : šəlūmî, my well-being (šālôm, well-being + -î, my) + ’ēl, God.
This is helpful. In The Silver Crown, Rabbi Lifschitz explains his damaged daughter:
She’s not perfect, though God, who made her in His image, is Himself perfection. … In her way she is also perfect.
That is better. Ironically the Biblical Shelumiel is not himself a schlemiel: for sacrifice, he has wealth enough to spread over (in the KJV) four verses. Malamud’s schlemiels make do with what they can. One thinks of Victor Hugo’s Jongleur de Notre Dame, or Samuel Johnson, praying to God not to take his mind because it was all he had to worship him with. If Malamud’s creatures are schlemiels, they are God’s schlemiels, incandescent in a particular time and place, and I am grateful to Sally for bringing me back to them.