Personally, I’ve always regarded the author Bernard Malamud as one of the most important writers of the 20th century, even though he is now gone almost 30 years. Even during his lifetime, he was not much celebrated.
Imagine then my surprise to see that two new books have just appeared evaluating his life and his literary output. It is remarkable! Marvelous! They are most welcome.
So why, you will ask, was not Malamud more popular and widely read in his lifetime?
How come a dozen other authors spring to mind from that same period who were jazzier and far sexier and who captured the public’s attention, meanwhile selling thousands more books?
Philip Roth springs to mind, as do Saul Bellow, John Updike, J.D. Salinger, and a dozen others who you would probably name first if you would ever come to Bernard Malamud at all.
The reason Malamud first made such an indomitable impression upon me is the outstanding sensitivity and moral compass that permeate his novels. Not for him the cool, hip style, the uncaring and apathetic that is so lionized today.
Malamud’s earnestness, his yearning for kindness and compassion in his subjects, are more appealing and inherently memorable than a dozen Portnoys, Herzogs or Rabbits. His heroes are not intellectuals, beset by all manner of paradox and ambiguity, and smothered by ambivalence. They are profoundly everyday trusting, caring, lustful, but always real. Just like us. And engaging besides.
Frank Alpine, Morris Bober, Yakov Bok, Roy Hobbs, and the rest of the Malamud pantheon shine forth like stars on a dark night in their unabashed desire to do good, to be authentic and human — and these are rare qualities in life or in the literature of our time.
Toughness and resiliency and narcissism are often the motifs that we read of.
A personal experience: Sitting recently with a group of friends over a leisurely lunch, someone brought up how the biblical books of Ecclesiastes and Job present difficult and vexing questions, of what we would call today “existential,” the mysteries of life and death, the persistence of evil and the difficulty of knowing exactly what path in life is best to trod.
So I told them an anecdote that my grandson Ben once called me on the phone in the middle of the afternoon to ask me if I had ever heard of the Book of Ecclesiastes. I said to him, “Ben, sit down. I have not only heard of Ecclesiastes, or ‘Koheleth,’ as he is called in Hebrew, I am Koheleth.”
That is to indicate that the questions that the books, that are often called the “Wisdom” books of the Bible are questions that I have personally tried to probe for decades, not always successfully.
Because of that, when Archibald MacLeish, who was then the poet laureate of the United States, wrote a play called J.B., based on the Book of Job, it was a long-running hit show on Broadway. And dramatically, it was excellent. Worthy of a return.
MacLeish was deeply disturbed, as we all were, by the events in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where thousands of people, many innocent, died in a nuclear blast. And so, MacLeish’s summation as to how this could happen and why comes toward the end of his play:
“Cry for the justice and the stars
Will stare until your eyes sting. Weep.
Enormous winds will thrash the water.
Cry in sleep for your lost children
Snow will fall . . .
Snow will fall . . .
You wanted justice and there was none
The idea that there is no justice in the world or that it is very slow in appearing on occasion is not to be denied.
Things very often happen that way. But MacLeish, for all of his eloquence and brilliance, missed the point of the Book of Job, on which he based his play. Job has been disappointed in life, in fact broken by the tragic events that have beset him. But he manages to persist, and when he gets knocked down, he gets up again, dusts himself off and keeps going. And then he comes forth with this most beautiful, incandescent line: “I know my Redeemer lives, even if He rises last upon Earth — from my flesh, I will yet see God.”
That seriousness of intent and of faith is something that we find often missing in modern literature. Malamud has that depth of feeling and that search for ultimate meaning. I don’t know that he would come to the same conclusion as Job, in fact I doubt it; but that is what he is eternally searching for, not a casual haphazard view of the world, but that of moral seriousness and purpose.
I am looking forward to reading these new books on Malamud and seeing if the authors view him in the same way as I do. In the meantime, this could indicate a new direction for our literary people and creative souls to help give some permanent meaning to the transitory nature of life, which seems in our time so dominant.
Rabbi Myron M. Fenster is the rabbi emeritus of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, N.Y. A graduate of Yeshiva of Flatbush, Yeshiva College, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Fenster also studied in the graduate school at Columbia University for a degree in philosophy. He was the first American rabbi sponsored by the Rabbinical Assembly to an Israeli congregation. He has written for several publications, including Newsday and the Jerusalem Postand Hadassah Magazine. Read more of Rabbi Fenster's reports — Go Here Now.
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