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Bernard Malamud was born in New York City in 1914 to a family that exchanged Yiddish for English, and he always regretted the loss. Older than Bellow and, in Roth terms, closer in temperament to Henry than Philip, he spent his life straining to regain both the ancestral language and an absent God with all the discipline of an outer-borough grocer. Malamud’s father was just that: Max, formerly Mendel, who quit a shtetl in the Russian Pale for Flatbush, Brooklyn, and a claustral apartment above a struggling store whose accounts he kept in pencil on spare bags. Malamud, never letting anything go to waste, assumed his father’s habit, and drafted all his dozen books in pen on unlined paper. He also apportioned that scribbling, along with his predilection for wounding revision, to Morris Bober, the hero of his novel The Assistant, who quit a shtetl in the Russian Pale for Flatbush, Brooklyn, and a claustral apartment above a struggling store.

A young girl enters with an order from her mother: a pound of butter, a loaf of rye, and a small bottle of cider vinegar.

[Morris] knew the mother. “No more trust.”

The girl burst into tears.

Morris gave her a quarter-pound of butter, the bread and vinegar. He found a penciled spot on the worn counter, near the cash register, and wrote a sum under “Drunk Woman.” The total now came to $2.03, which he never hoped to see. But Ida would nag if she noticed a new figure, so he reduced the amount to $1.61. His peace — the little he lived with — was worth forty-two cents.

“Third Avenue El,” by Barbara Morgan. Courtesy The Barbara Morgan Archive and Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York City.

“Third Avenue El,” by Barbara Morgan. Courtesy The Barbara Morgan Archive and Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York City.

“Every man is a Jew, though he may not know it”: so goes Malamud’s most quoted and least appreciated pronouncement. He meant that every man, like Morris, suffers. With typically self-abnegating generosity — “though he may not know it” — Malamud entrusted the particularity of Jewish suffering if not to the universe then at least to Depression-era America. To be a Jew in exile had always meant to be divided between religious tradition and secular identity. Now, to be an immigrant was to be the victim of the same conflicting loyalties. The italyener, the irlender, to say nothing of the shvartser — whose passage wasn’t immigration but enslavement, to a Dixie Egypt — all came to America and so became “Jews.” America was a substitute Zion united only by its traumas.

The Assistant and The Natural — the latter concerns baseball, a.k.a. frustration — as well as twenty-five shorter works make up novels and stories of the 1940s and 50s, the first volume of Malamud’s enshrining in the Library of America. A New Life and The Fixer — both tales of confinement, one set at a West Coast college during the Eisenhower era, the other in a tsarist prison before a blood-libel trial — constitute the bulk of the second, novels and stories of the 1960s ($35 each loa.org). The entire edition has been edited and annotated by the Malamud biographer Philip Davis to herald the author’s centennial in April.

“Night Baseball Game, Yankee Stadium, Bronx, New York,” by Marvin Newman. Courtesy the artist and Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York City.

“Night Baseball Game, Yankee Stadium, Bronx, New York,” by Marvin Newman. Courtesy the artist and Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York City.

Malamud’s characters are matchmakers, census takers, bakers, egg candlers — laborers, like Manischevitz, a tailor. He was “certainly not a man of talent. Upon him suffering was largely wasted. It went nowhere, into nothing: into more suffering.” In “The Angel Levine,” Manischevitz’s wife, Fanny, is bedridden and dying, and yet when a heavenly messenger appears to offer help, Manischevitz won’t let him touch her: “ ‘So if God sends to me an angel, why a black?’ ” he asks, “ ‘Why not a white that there are so many of them?’ ” Levine, the black angel with the Jewish name, vanishes. Manischevitz and Levine are unlikely symbionts, segregated by skin and cosmos. The tailor needs the angel’s miracle; the angel needs the tailor to believe in him so that he can earn his wings. Fanny deteriorates; Manischevitz despairs. Malamud’s genius is that his tailor’s leap of faith is nothing but a trip up to Harlem to seek his seraph amid the hostile dance halls of West 116th Street.

This tale, from 1955, exemplifies the Malamudian divide. The style is mythically Old World, but the themes are rigorously, even sanctimoniously, New. That division is starkest in the later novels, forthcoming in a final installment — mark your calendars for Yom Kippur. The Tenants is about black-Jewish relations in a decaying Manhattan, Dubin’s Lives about adultery in a decaying marriage, and God’s Grace about nuclear war and its sole human survivor, Calvin Cohn, a paleologist. To pass the time, or the end-time, Cohn reads the Bible to a group of surviving chimpanzees, until he gets his throat slit by Buz — a chimp redder and hairier than any pagan — in a ritual sacrifice while George, a gorilla, chants a rote and senseless prayer, wearing a muddy yarmulke recovered from the forest.

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