On Bernard Malamud

by Boris Fishman

Boris Fishman moderated a tribute to Bernard Malamud at The Center on May 1st, 2014. Speakers at the event included Alan Cheuse, Philip Davis, Clark Blaise, Liesl Schillinger, Kevin Baker, Téa Obreht, and Bharati Mukherjee. For more details and to see video of the event please visit the event page.


Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) is the wrong writer for our age. Today’s young fiction writers live in an Age of Me: Memoirists in novelist clothing, we understand the world by understanding ourselves. Malamud was the son of a Brooklyn grocer who had fled tsarist Russia. Having come of age during the Depression, the same era that shaped his contemporary Saul Bellow, Malamud wrote about Them: The unadjustable Old World elders who were his milk at home and his giveaway when Malamud was trying to make himself an American out of it; the Christians who seemed as general in America as they had been in the Pale (The Assistant); the inexplicable blacks, who seemed to suffer just as the Jews did but saw in it competition rather than kinship (The Tenants).


Malamud’s concerns were as broad as God’s world would allow: God’s Grace was about thermonuclear war. They were just as grave when he looked in a man’s heart: The Fixer, which, in 1967, won a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize both (one of only seven books in history to have done that), stands with William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner as the great American testament of a sufferer’s discovery of himself.


It is these qualities that give the lie to the usual grouping Malamud receives – as the bronze medalist to Bellow and Philip Roth. Malamud’s concerns sat poorly on Bellow; the latter broke through as a novelist only after he sang the hymn of the American Me in Augie March. Philip Roth, the son of entirely different times, has done his most conscientious work in nonfiction. Their styles are no more alike. As I wrote in Tablet Magazine's celebration of 101 Great Jewish Books last year: “ '[The tea] tasted bitter and he blamed existence.' Is it necessary to write of the Old World’s wry melancholy after this sentence, from The Fixer? ('Who invented my life?' goes another immortal line.) Keep your Rothian heat, your Bellovian prolixity and self-scratching cerebralism, and give me the wilted flesh (and blood), the bone-rattling cold, the granite-like prose of a Malamud novel. Roth and Bellow are mortal; Malamud is the Bible."


Which is why Malamud’s loosening hold on the bronze spot, to say nothing of his downsized position in general literature, is such a heartbreak and sin. Arguably, no age has needed him more, for it is brains we young novelists, and our generation, own in excess; and heart, vision, and conscience where we lack. We must lift our heads from our navels and try to measure the world; we will find Bernard Malamud holding out a ruler to help us.


I owe the publication of my first novel in no small measure to Malamud’s extended hand. In the late fall of 2012, I was at an artist colony in southeastern Wyoming working through the umpteenth draft of the novel, about a failed young journalist in Malamud’s Brooklyn (that is, the unfashionable part) who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for those very same elders with whom the author had tried to reconcile himself. I had read most of the author’s oeuvre by then, leaving only The Tenants and Dubin’s Lives, two books, one about Brooklyn and the other about rural Connecticut, that couldn’t have had less to do with my setting at the time. But Malamud built the bridge. Every morning, I would trudge in the piney, astringent cold to my writing studio, and take an hourlong hit of Malamud before sitting down to my own work. I had to ration: the books had to last the month. The draft that I, an Old World Jew in the New West (which also hosted Malamud when he taught at Oregon State from 1949-61, the basis for his novel A New Life) finished under Malamud’s tutelage was the one that got me a contract with HarperCollins.




Boris Fishman’s debut novel A Replacement Life is out from HarperCollins in June. He owes the draft that prevailed to Bernard Malamud, whom he read every morning before sitting down to write.