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Bernard Malamud

MALAMUD, BERNARD (1914–1986), U.S. novelist. Born in New York City, Malamud began to teach in 1939, went west to Oregon State College (an experience used in his third novel, A New Life, 1961), and later taught at Harvard. Malamud was elected president of the American PEN Club for 1980. One of the most significant of the younger generation of mid-20th century American writers, Malamud was profoundly influenced by realistic novelists such as Dostoievski. His first novel, The Natural (1952), about the rise and fall of a baseball hero, was a brilliant tour de force, displaying a characteristic mixture of realistic detail, vernacular language, and free-ranging symbolism and fantasy. Malamud found his true voice, however, with his second novel, The Assistant (1957), and a collection of short stories, The Magic Barrel (1958). With magnificent virtuosity and integrity, he (like Saul *Bellow) used a dialect of American English mixed with Yiddish, and succeeded in transferring to the American scene the intense moral concern, the comic yet pathetic irony, and the traditional situations of East European Jewish culture. Within the narrower Jewish world, he wrote with special love about the idealistic shlimmazel, the obscure and the lonely and the suffering, as in the title story of Idiots First (1963); this is also the case with Morris Bober, the grocer protagonist of The Assistant. Another recurring theme is the relations between Jews and gentiles: the New York Italian assistant falls in love with Bober's daughter and finally becomes a Jew; stories set in Italy deal with love between Jewish men and gentile women; and "Angel Levine" and "Black is My Favorite Color" are concerned with Jews and blacks. Malamud was deeply conscious of the role of the Jew as a symbol of the human tragedy. All his concerns were fused, and grew in scope and significance, in The Fixer (1966), which won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and was made into a motion picture. Yakov Bok, a Russian-Jewish handyman falsely accused of ritual murder, is based on Mendel *Beilis, victim of the notorious Kiev Blood Libel of 1913. An obscure little man in flight from his heritage, Bok is thrust into a situation requiring unusual courage. The stages by which he comes to a full understanding of his responsibility, and develops the strength of will to face his ordeal, are powerfully described. Malamud said of this novel: "The drama is as applicable to the American people as it is to the Russian." Pictures of Fidelman (1969), subtitled "An Exhibition," uses three previously collected stories, and adds three more, about the picaresque misadventures of an American-Jewish artist in Italy. In Rome, Milan, Florence, and Venice, Arthur Fidelman seeks both "perfection of the life" and "of the work"; in each city, he works at a different art or problem, and lives with a different woman. At the end, "Prometheus Fidelman" has learned his limitations: back in the U.S., "he worked as a craftsman in glass and loved men and women." In "Pictures of the Artist," a "Jewish refugee from Israel" named Susskind is imagined preaching a sort of parody of the Sermon on the Mount. The Tenants (1971), a novel of clashing aspirations and dislikes dramatized by a Jewish and an African-American writer, also represents the struggle of writers appropriating subjects and histories that exhaust their sense of the human. In Dubin's Lives (1979), arguably one of Malamud's finest works, Dubin, a biographer whose life is lived largely in books, is forced to confront the disruptive yet life-giving nature of passion. In God's Grace (1982), Malamud dramatizes the Jewish dialogue with a God of awe and the understanding we have of our own finitude. Allegorical, as well as dystopian, it deals with resignation to, as well as acceptance of, freedom within limitation. Its humor is that of the pathos of human existence, driven by power and its vanities. The People and Uncollected Stories, composed in the main of an unfinished novel about a Jew living with an Indian tribe, was published in 1989. Conversations with Bernard Malamud, edited by Lawrence Lasher appeared in 1991. Malamud's The Complete Stories edited by Robert Giroux was published in 1997.

Malamud's contribution to American-Jewish literature remains large. (He appears as the novelist E.L. Lonoff in Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer, 1979). Yet his achievement also seals an epoch in which the Jew was portrayed as helpless, and forced to justify his existence. Suffering, in much of Malamud's work, marked American-Jewish life. It also was the human condition. Malamud's Jewish characters are often victimized by their sense of self. They are also often diminished by their environment, by capitalism, and by political and social malevolence. His protagonists escape a constricting life at the cost of a deeper remorse: the abandonment of their authentic selves.

A new American-Jewish literary type, one willfully accepting conditions of success and ease in America, gains its strength against the background and achievement of Malamud's art.


E. Abramson, Bernard Malamud Revisited (1993); E. Avery, Rebels and Victims: The Fiction of Richard Wright and Bernard Malamud (1979); H. Bloom (ed.), Bernard Malamud (1986.)

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.