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.

Share
Single Page

More from Joshua Cohen:

From the July 2018 issue

Hat Tips

From the December 2015 issue

New Books

From the October 2015 issue

New Books

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2019

Machine Politics

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Polar Light

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump Is a Good President

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Resistances

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Long Shot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Machine Politics·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Long Shot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ihave had many names, but as a sniper I went by Azad, which means “free” or “freedom” in Kurdish. I had been fighting for sixteen months in Kurdish territory in northern Syria when in April 2015 I was asked to leave my position on the eastern front, close to the Turkish border, and join an advance on our southwestern one. Eight months earlier, we had been down to our last few hundred yards, and, outnumbered five to one, had made a last stand in Kobanî. In January, after more than four months of fighting street-to-street and room-by-room, we recaptured the town and reversed what was, until then, an unstoppable jihadi tide. In the battles since, we had pushed ­ISIS far enough in every direction that crossing our territory was no longer a short dash through the streets but a five-hour drive across open country. As we set out to the north, I could make out the snowy peaks in southern Turkey where they say Noah once beached his ark. Below them, rolling toward us, were the wide, grassy valleys and pine forests of Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris where our people have lived for twelve thousand years.

The story of my people is filled with bitter ironies. The Kurds are one of the world’s oldest peoples and, as pioneers of agriculture, were once among its most advanced. Though the rest of the world now largely overlooks that it was Kurds who were among the first to create a civilization, the evidence is there. In 1995, German archaeologists began excavating a temple at Göbekli Tepe in northern Kurdistan. They found a structure flanked by stone pillars carved with bulls, foxes, and cranes, which they dated to around 10,000 bce. At the end of the last Ice Age, and seven thousand years before the erection of Stonehenge or the pyramids at Giza, my ancestors were living together as shamans, artists, farmers, and engineers.

Fighters of the YJA-STAR, the women’s force in the PKK, Sinjar, Iraq, November 2015 (detail)
Article
Polar Light·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To get oriented here is difficult. The light is flat because the sky is overcast. The sun’s weak rays create only a few anemic shadows by which to judge scale and distance. Far-off objects like mountain peaks have crisp edges because the atmosphere itself is as transparent as first-water diamonds, but the mountains are not nearly as close as they seem. It’s about negative-twelve degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind is relatively calm, moving over the snow distractedly, like an animal scampering.

[caption id="attachment_271890" align="aligncenter" width="690"]True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images. True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.[/caption]

Four of the six people living here are in their tents now, next to their cookstoves, two by two, warming up and preparing their suppers. I’m the fifth of the group, almost motionless at the moment, a hundred yards south of the tent cluster, kneeling on a patch of bluish ice in the midst of a great expanse of white. I’m trying to discern a small object entombed there a few inches below the surface. Against the porcelain whites of this gently sloping landscape, I must appear starkly apparent in my cobalt blue parka and wind pants. I shift slowly right and left, lean slightly forward, then settle back, trying to get the fluxless sunlight to reveal more of the shape and texture of the object.

A multiple-exposure photograph (detail) taken every hour from 1:30 pm on December 8, 1965, to 10:10 am on December 9, 1965, showing the sun in its orbit above the South Pole, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station © Georg Gerster/Panos Pictures
Article
Donald Trump Is a Good President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In all sincerity, I like Americans a lot; I’ve met many lovely people in the United States, and I empathize with the shame many Americans (and not only “New York intellectuals”) feel at having such an appalling clown for a leader.

However, I have to ask—and I know what I’m requesting isn’t easy for you—that you consider things for a moment from a non-American point of view. I don’t mean “from a French point of view,” which would be asking too much; let’s say, “from the point of view of the rest of the world.”On the numerous occasions when I’ve been questioned about Donald Trump’s election, I’ve replied that I don’t give a shit. France isn’t Wyoming or Arkansas. France is an independent country, more or less, and will become totally independent once again when the European Union is dissolved (the sooner, the better).

Illustration (detail) by Ricardo Martínez
Article
Resistances·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The prepositions you’re most likely to encounter after the title of a poem are “for” or “to” and sometimes “after”—“for my daughter”; “to Bobby”; “after Pound”; etc. They signify dedication, address, homage, imitation. In the recent poems of Fred Moten, we encounter “with,” a preposition that denotes accompaniment. The little difference makes a big difference, emphasizing collaboration over the economy of the gift, suggesting that the poet and his company are fellow travelers, in the same time zone, alongside each other in the present tense of composition. (Given Moten’s acclaimed critical work on jazz, the “with” is immediately evocative of musical performance, e.g., “Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins.”) Not all “withs” are the same—there is a different intimacy in the poem “fifty little springs,” which is “with aviva,” Moten’s wife’s Hebrew name (which means springtime), than there is in “resistances,” which is “with” a critic and an artist, interlocutors of Moten’s. (The poem “13. southern pear trees” has no preposition after the title, but is excerpted from another responding to the work of Zoe Leonard, and so is still a work of fellowship.) The scale of that “with” can be small (“with aviva, as if we were all alone”) or vast (“with everybody we don’t know”), but either way the poem becomes an instance of alongsidedness instead of belatedness; the poems request, with that subtle prepositional shift, that we think of ourselves as participants in the production of meaning and not mere recipients of someone else’s eloquence.

“Untitled,” 1989, by Zoe Leonard © Zoe Leonard (detail)

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:

10

French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today