Appraisal — January 24, 2014, 8:00 am

The Burnt, the Abandoned, and the Died-on

Bernard Malamud’s three unfinished novels

“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.

In the February issue of Harper’s, I write about Bernard Malamud’s novels and stories of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, now republished and bundled for winter in the black jackets of the Library of America, in advance of what would’ve been the author’s hundredth birthday this spring. The series of two volumes, with a third volume forthcoming, will feature all of Malamud’s most beloved fiction, though not his most famous sentence: “Every man is a Jew, though he may not know it,” which Malamud said to an interviewer in 1966 (and again in 1983, and again and again until his death in 1986).

Speech betrays what our hands might’ve censured: Malamud meant, of course, that every man — and woman — suffers, and that this suffering makes him — or her — a Jew. But if that was all he meant, then his apothegm would just be a wry inversion of what countless writers before him had attempted, especially in Hebrew and Yiddish: namely, to integrate Jews by relating their martyrdoms to Christ’s. A Jew in Nazareth died for everyone’s sins; but a Jewish grocer in Depression-era Brooklyn starved — surrounded by canned goods, Malamud’s father, a grocer, starved — so that his family might eat. But this religious interpretation has its secular side: Malamud’s America was a country of immigrants — foreigners — who had nothing in common with one another except their hope for America and the doubt that was their foreignness; their religious and ethnic and racial and linguistic divisions were, paradoxically, the ties that bound — more intimately than did the public schools and public libraries; more deterministically than enfranchisement. To Malamud, the wandering Jew had settled in America as the representative immigrant, to symbolize — and so de-Christianize — America.

Malamud, the eldest child of immigrants, was a universalizer in fiction, and a world-historical sufferer in life. The crux of his travail was literature, specifically the trinity of books he tried to write, which, like “Every man is a Jew,” is not, and cannot be, collected in the LOA compendia. The fates of those books, like the themes of those books, are appropriately Biblical: The Light Sleeper he burnt; The Man Nobody Could Lift, he abandoned; and The People he ultimately died on.

According to Philip Davis, Malamud’s biographer and the editor of the LOA series, The Light Sleeper was about “a depressed young man seeking to find himself, whilst waiting to be called into the army.” In Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life (Oxford University Press, 2007), Davis writes: “[Malamud’s] notebooks refer to scenes — ‘chapter 1 in the toilet,’ ‘reflections on death of a child,’ ‘the cat and the kittens,’ ‘the slip — Irene,’ ‘potency.’ ” Davis — everyone — has to rely on the notebooks because deep into the winter of 1951–52, after six publishers had rejected the manuscript, Malamud, teaching freshman comp in Corvallis, Oregon, took a match to it.

The scene of that private Bücherverbrennung, if not the kindling itself, was repurposed in the uncharacteristically extenuated opening sentence of “The Girl of My Dreams,” a story from 1953:

After Mitka had burned the manuscript of his heartbroken novel in the blackened bottom of Mrs. Lutz’s rusty trash can in her back yard, although the emotional landlady tried all sorts of bait and schemes to lure him forth, and he could tell as he lay abed, from the new sounds on the floor and her penetrating perfume, that there was an unattached female loose on the premises (wondrous possibility of yore), he resisted all and with a twist of the key had locked himself a prisoner in his room, only venturing out after midnight for crackers and tea and an occasional can of fruit; and this went on for too many weeks to count.

“Wondrous possibility of yore”: that, to Malamud, as to every novelist, was the promise of every next novel. The Man Nobody Could Lift — alternately titled The Broken Snow — was even heavier than The Light Sleeper. Malamud began it in 1952 and would return to it, during stretches of distress, throughout the 1960s and ’70s. The novel — an adumbration of Malamud’s brother Eugene, who, like their mother, was institutionalized for schizophrenia — concerns the onset of that disease in the mind of its antihero, who either kills, or just fantasizes about killing, his alcoholic father.

As Davis tells it: “Horrified by this desire, the man flees home during a snowstorm, and ends up across a bridge in a remote farmhouse almost buried in the snow. There he has to try to keep alive a young woman, fighting a possible miscarriage, as well as her five-year-old stepson sick with pneumonia — the pair of them abandoned by the husband and father on his discovery of the pregnancy.”

According to Malamud himself, the book never came together “because I allowed the point of view to be the man’s. The focus was blurred.”

That blur — that encloudedness — is evident in the novel’s afterlife, as story. The first chapter was published as “A Confession of Murder,” in Malamud’s posthumous Complete Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983).

Farr, after he might or might not have committed parricide, hazards an escape — both from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and a pathological interiority:

He walked as if he were dragging a burden. The burden was the way he felt. The good feeling had gone and this old one was heavier now than anything he remembered. He would not mind the cold so much if he could only get rid of this dismal heaviness. His brain felt like a rock. Still it grew heavier. That was the unaccountable thing. He wondered how heavy it could get. If it got any heavier, he would keel over in the street and nobody’d be able to lift him. They would all give up and leave him lying with his head in the asphalt.

The People was Malamud’s last excruciation: seventeen chapters Malamud left behind in rough draft (just one chapter shy of eighteen, Judaism’s metonym for “life”). In the version edited by Robert Giroux, the only editor Malamud ever had, and published as The People and Uncollected Stories (FSG, 1989), they read as a gloss on Robert Aldrich’s The Frisco Kid, starring Gene Wilder as a luckless Polish rabbi dispatched to a post in the Pacific, and Harrison Ford as the desperado who saves him, and is, predictably, saved by him; and Blazing Saddles, in which Mel Brooks, camping it up as a Sioux warrior in greasepaint and feathers, spares a wagonload of free black homesteaders in Yiddish: “Has du gezeyn in deyne leben? They’re darker than us!”

Malamud’s Yozip Bloom is a Jew from Zbrish, Russia; a peddler; a carpenter like Christ, and a greenhorn to the bighorn Wild West of 1870, who’s either mistaken for or corralled into being the new marshal of a no-name town. He’s summarily kidnapped by Indians — “The People” — who, recognizing their captive for a fellow-traveling socialist and comi-tragedian, duly appoint him Chief Jozip and dispatch him to petition the federal government, which is seeking to displace the tribe from its lands:

“If you will podden me,” Yozip said [in Washington DC, to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs], “the chief and also my brothers do not like to change our reservation. He likes, and also the tribe likes, our valley, which they wish to stay there. The chief told me to say that our people don’t attack white people. He told me to say, with respect, if you will kindly let us live where our ancestors lived, and do not force us to go to another reservation, for this we will be thankful to you and also to the Great Spirit.”

Yozip had memorized the speech.

“When you refer to the ‘ancestors,’ ” said the Commissioner, “do you refer to American Indians or to Hebrews?”

Yozip considered the question slowly. “I mean any kind ancestors that they lived before us and believed in the Great Spirit Chief in the sky.”

Despite Chief Jozip doing his best, and his best shtick, to protect his adopted nation, The People are massacred (by an army of Civil War vets, led by a German colonel) and forcibly deported in a final scene — the final sentences Malamud ever wrote — oversmoked, overcrammed, with the trauma of another holocaust:

The next day the Indian warriors, the People, were rounded up and given places on freight cars going to a reservation in Missouri that they had all heard of as a miserable place, although the good general had told them he would help to get them settled in a Northwest reservation they had once thought of asking the Great White Father in Washington to give them. Last Days said that he thought he would not live to see it happen. “We are being sent to a place of death and my thought it that I will die there. This is my only thought.”

The moaning of the Indians began as the freight cars were moving along the tracks.

As for Chief Jozip, his future remains undecided. In one jotting, Malamud has him taken away with his tribe. In another, he turns up, inexplicably, in Chicago, where he joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, as a freak, a White Indian — a savage in complexion and dress, but still a mensch at heart. He’s earning just enough to pay for night school, where — like a character out of Bellow or Roth — he’ll study to become a lawyer, and make his people(s) proud, if they survive.

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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

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