Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Bernard Malamud

            I have resisted increasingly importunate invitations to “monetize” this blog—that is, to license Mr. Google to try to sell you Coca Cola while I am ostensibly discussing the metempsychosis of material individuality or whatever—but I allow myself once every other year to make one quasi-commercial pitch.  I refer to my self-appointed role as cheerleader for the Library of America.  Most of us think of American power almost exclusively in economic or military terms.  Certainly our Congress, who regularly spend more on a part of a single weapon than they do on the combined annual budgets of the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, think that way.  But America’s cultural contributions in the fields of serious art and literature continue to be quite extraordinary.  (American dominance in popular culture hardly needs mentioning.)  Every nation should know and honor its own literary tradition, and many do so magnificently.  You are unlikely to encounter a cultivated Frenchman who doesn’t have a volume or two of the beautiful Bibliothèque de la Pléiade on his shelves.  The fairly recent founding of the Library of America, which produces in a beautiful uniform series moderately priced, very high quality editions of important American writers, ended a national embarrassment.

             At this point in my life I ought not to be adding to my “permanent” home library—the scare-quotes intended to cast ironic light on the idea that I could possibly still be thinking that any of my possessions are permanent.  But I find myself making exceptions in certain categories, and above all in the Library of America.  Over the past few weeks I was for a song able to pick up practically untouched copies of two volumes of the LoA edition of Bernard Malamud (1914-1986).

            How did I miss reading Malamud back in the day?  After all, he was winning prizes and getting lots of attention.  Perhaps it was because he was being so vigorously peddled by our intelligentsia as a “Jewish writer”, as though the category required some arcane ethnic expertise unavailable west of the Hudson, where I was at the time.  Well, you pay your money, and you take your choice.  You can’t read everything.  When I was an undergraduate in the late Fifties I bet the metaphorical farm on three American novelists—James Gould Cozzens (1903-1978),  John O’Hara (1905-1970), and William Styron (1935-2006).  I doubt that anybody under fifty has even heard of Cozzens, and I cannot imagine many are still reading O’Hara.  My investment in Styron was closer to being prescient, but I have to judge him finally as a disappointment. 

So the Library of America’s first two volumes of Malamud—covering the decades of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties—are a kind of wonderful literary time capsule that allow me to go back and fill some unsightly gaps.  Late is generally better than never and often a great deal better.

            Malamud is a real master of the short story, and I have read several of his pieces with delight.  But I have spent most of my time on what must be his two most famous novels, The Natural and The Fixer.  My first surprise was that both of them are historical novels, though with very different senses of the “historical”.  The history behind The Fixer is sinister and repellent: an episode of the infamous anti-Semitic blood libel, born in the Middle Ages but still virulent in the last years of Romanov Russia.  If the subject alone is not enough to make you anxious, Malamud’s remorselessly complex characterizations will do the trick.

 The medieval blood libel--still going strong in 1913, and possibly in 2013

            Perhaps paradoxically the essence of historical fiction does not lie in fidelity to generally agreed upon historical “facts” but in the artist’s ability to reimagine them defensibly.  Malamud’s “take” on the episode of the blood libel offended the offspring of the victim/hero of the originating events.  This man (Mendel Beilis) had died only in 1934.  All Malamud could say was the obvious: two different stories, in some ways similar, in others very dissimilar.  As for his brilliant debut novel, The Natural, the story of a baseball player, it does have a definite historical germ in a bizarre instance of what might be called the “John Lennon syndrome”.  From time to time some deranged person seeks fame by shooting some famous person, and before there were rock stars there were baseball stars.  Yet its real “history” is the imagined world of the locker rooms and ballparks of the age of Babe Ruth.  But that is only the beginning of the book’s excellence.  Malamud is a “baseball novelist” in the same way he is a “Jewish novelist”—by getting inside his own minutely observed created world and animating it in a way irresistible for a reader.  Roy Hobbs, the “natural,” is perhaps a strange epic hero, but one perfectly suited to the strange epic world that, somewhere between fact and literary invention, was once our “national pastime”.

          So while it is perhaps a little embarrassing to be "discovering" major writers other people were reading half a century ago, it is comforting, indeed exhilarating to know that I have a copious source of future delight already on my shelves or modestly awaiting me, amazingly undervalued, among the Ebay listings.

Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs in the Hollywood version