Monday, December 24, 2007

The Assistant, Bernard Malamud

Bernard Malamud The AssistantMalamud has been in the book pages a bit this year. The release of the "last" Zuckerman novel brought critics back around to examining Malamud's influence on Roth, particularly through the character E.I. Lonoff, supposedly based on Malamud. And then there was Lee Siegel's front-page review of the new Malamud biography from a week or two ago in the NYTBR.

Siegel's review is vintage Siegel: slightly misleading plot summaries, unmeasured use of adjectives ("he attended Brooklyn’s legendary Erasmus Hall High School, graduated from the equally legendary City College and went on to get a master’s degree in English from Columbia"—is Columbia not legendary, too? Apparently he has to draw the line somewhere),
and a deep sensitivity for readers who think slowly. (One wants to shake the page and get the words to fall out of Siegel more quickly.)

If Malamud is enjoying a small renewal of attention, it is almost certainly not the groundwork for a revival. I doubt Malamud will ever be brought up to the stature of other mid-century writers whose neighborhood he somewhat shares—Bellow, Mailer, Roth. Some may argue this is unjust, incommensurate with his achievement. Perhaps it would be nice to have him standing next to those others for contrast: an Apollonian next to their Dionysiac energies, or something like that.

But what is perhaps more disheartening than his second-tier status is that all analysis of his life or work devolve into considerations of the justness of his position in the second rank. Siegel is fairly indicative, speaking of "Malamud’s faded status among the Jewish writers and critics who made the reputations of Bellow and Roth. Like an embarrasing old uncle, Malamud is barely referred to these days. On those few occasions when he is publicly admired, tribute usually comes in the form of sentimental commentary from younger, self-consciously Jewish writers, whose parochial picture of Malamud ironically confirms the denigrating comments Roth made a generation ago. Far more frequently, however, you find critics celebrating Bellow and Roth, above all, for their intelligence, and never mentioning Malamud." A large part of the new Zuckerman novel's plot centers on Zuckerman keeping the (now deceased) Malamud character's secrets out of the hands of a snooping young biographer. This upstart is looking to dig up a few sordid biographical details, revelations which can restart critical interest in Lonoff and jump-start the biographer's career. Zuckerman hopes to keep Lonoff's secondary status intact and unbesmirched, although like any Roth character, the ulterior motives are the real story—Zuckerman's status is threateningly bound up with Lonoff's legacy.

Siegel and most other critics can't stop debating the justice of Malamud's JV pantheon position. Roth writes a novel ostensibly returning to his relationship with Malamud, this time acting like a protector of an awkwardly meager and threateningly dear inheritance from the man. What is it, then, about Malamud that seems to trigger a status anxiety attack almost invariably?

Despite what seems to be a consensus decision that The Assistant is Malamud's best novel, I'm not sure it has an answer to that question. Its shadow would seem to be short, meek, and easy to evade. Its grip on the imagination is felt, but in such a way as to produce little anxiety.

It may produce a little frustration, however. The Assistant provokes its reader into a set of questions which lead well beyond the text, but in a way that does not make this provocation or the consequent withdrawal from the text seem necessary or strictly worthwhile. This goes, I believe, for Jewish readers as well as for non-Jewish readers, though for different (and likely complementary) reasons.

Siegel refers to an essay Roth wrote in 1957 which implied that The Assistant was a lesson in "Malamud’s Christianizing emasculation of Jewish vitality... what some regarded as Malamud’s psychologically dubious fetishizing of victimhood and pain" (the words are Siegel's, not Roth's). Roth, for obvious reasons, objects to this facile association of Jewishness with suffering and Christ-like forebearance. He is frustrated by Malamud's stern and constricted morality; Malamud's provocation seems hollow because he believes it to be untrue or at least terminally incomplete.

I find Malamud's provocation hollow because the text does not create it internally; the novel is pressed unevenly until it yields this bitter taste. The text operates such that the reader has to accept Malamud's equation (Jewishness = suffering) before she can accept that his character's lives are constrained by its terms. Like children of a grim father, the characters seem to have a secret surplus of life or liveliness which must be kept from their parent's notice.

It does not seem unlikely that these characters would suffer so unremittingly; Malamud's characters act in natural ways given their situation and what we know of their character. It is a natural irrationalism that possesses them when they embrace suffering. But Malamud seems to confuse and conflate the meaning of their suffering with the meaning of their lives. That is to say, although their lives may be caught up in a pattern of (often self-abetted) suffering, that pattern is not its own ordering principle, and Malamud seems unwilling to absorb that fact. That unwillingness may be a purposeful obtuseness rather than an inadvertent blindness, but the point remains that Malamud's apparent insists on treating his characters as if they believe something less—less true, less real—than what their actions suggest they believe in. This insistence rankles the reader greatly.

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